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Jury still out on vitamin supplements

Sat., June 21, 2014

DEAR DOCTOR K: I’m a healthy 50-year-old woman. Do I need to take a multivitamin/ mineral supplement?

DEAR READER: Following the news on supplements is like watching a pingpong match. One study finds supplements improve health, then another study questions their benefit. Back and forth they go.

One recommendation about vitamin supplements is not in dispute: Women of childbearing age should take folic acid supplements. Folic acid (often classified with the B vitamins) reduces the risk of a woman giving birth to a baby with neural tube defects. Neural tube defects can cause permanent neurological damage: difficulty swallowing, breathing and moving.

Another recommendation that is not in dispute: If you have osteoporosis (thin bones) or osteopenia (borderline thin bones), you should talk to your doctor about taking vitamin D, along with calcium. They protect your bones.

Individual vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin D, also warrant further study. A number of observational studies suggest vitamin D may help prevent chronic diseases, besides its beneficial effect on thin bones. Dr. Howard Sesso, an epidemiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is working on a large, long-term trial that will study the effects of vitamin D on cancer, heart disease and stroke risks.

While the research continues, ask your doctor for an individualized recommendation.

You can also consider a daily multivitamin if your diet is less than perfect. It doesn’t replace a balanced diet, but it can help fill nutritional gaps. And we don’t know of health risks from taking a multivitamin. (I’ve put tables listing recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals on my website,

Avoid specialized multivitamin formulations – for immunity support, heart health, energy, etc. – unless your doctor recommends otherwise. One exception: If you are over age 50, choose a vitamin designed for seniors. It will contain the right vitamin and mineral levels for you.


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