Multivitamins- do we really need them?
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
It can't just be me that's overwhelmed by the towering shelves of vitamins and supplements in every supermarket I go into. Around 70% of us take some sort of vitamin each day ( or try to at least! ). But how effective are they, and are they really worth the money?
These are pretty good questions for anyone who wants to live healthier and avoid long-term diseases like heart disease. But before you start buying every vitamin from A - Zinc, you should remember that the best way to make sure you're getting the vitamins and minerals your body needs is directly from our food.
There's just no way, in my eyes, that a multivitamin can take the place of eating a variety of healthy foods and food groups. And some experts even say it's time to give up multivitamins to make sure we stay healthy...but with that being said, multivitamins aren't completely cut and dry and some people can benefit from them.
So what is a multivitamin?
Most multivitamins are made from synthetic materials, but some can be made from food products, it's just cheaper and easier for most big companies to use synthetic materials than natural food. There's no difference in the actual chemical structure between them either.
They'll usually contain additives that help how the vitamins are used in the body, or help in the manufacturing process. Sometimes the additives can be fillers to give the multivitamin a bit of BULK, and other times they can be "disintegration agents" which basically help the pill to break up once you've swallowed it.
What happens after you swallow a multivitamin?
After you swallow it, your body will treat it the same way as any other food or drink. It'll travel through your body and mostly it'll be absorbed in your small intestine where it'll get into your blood and ultimately end up where it's needed most in the body. But this varies quite a lot since you take each vitamin and mineral for a different function in your body.
Anything that your body says it doesn't need right now will just be wee'd out, which is why sometimes your pee can change color after you take some multivitamins.
Scientifically, what do we know about multivitamins?
Despite all the research on vitamins and health, we've really only got a handful of in-depth studies on the true benefits of having multivitamins.
There was a big health study done called 'The Physicians' Health Study II' and it's pretty much the best study that's been done so far. It was the first and only large-scale randomized clinical trial to test the multivitamins you'll find on the shelf in places like Tescos.
A huge group of men (I'm not entirely sure why it was just men???) but they took either a multivitamin or a placebo pill for more than 10 years to study their effects. The results were mixed, with good reductions in cancer and cataracts in those taking the multivitamins, but there wasn't any protection against heart disease or any evidence it helps with keeping your brain healthy either - if you're interested I've added a section in at the end of this page on The Physicians' Health Study II that goes through the results.
We do know that there are multivitamin advocates which point to the lack of any strong proof that taking multivitamins for many years is dangerous, and while I agree the likelihood of harm is small I do think the likelihood of a clear health benefit is also pretty small. Although I'm part of the 70% of people who do take them every day... just in case.
What can a multivitamin do and who can benefit most from them?
So according to Holland & Barrett - (who could be biased as they're actually selling the things) you need 13 vitamins to maintain our health and wellbeing, these are A,C,D,E,K and eight types of vitamin B. I think they're right on that one, but they also go onto say we should be able to get all of these from a healthy diet ( they're right ), and also say that only 25% of adults actually eat healthily(?!).
So they say that a multivitamin may be helpful if you've recently been ill or have had a medical condition that needs a "top-up". I've gotta say I'd much prefer that you cleared this with your DR first.
They also say if you're stressed, going through times of upheaval, or training for a sporting event you might also benefit from taking a multivitamin.
Can you have too much?
Multivitamins can seem pretty harmless, but it's actually 100% possible to overdose on them. The fat-soluble vitamins like A,D, E, and K can all be stored in your body and can be toxic at high enough levels. You'll usually just wee out any water-soluble vitamins like folic acid, vitamin C, and B12 if you have too many of them.
But my advice is that if you forget you've already taken a multivitamin and accidentally take it a second time, you'll more than likely be fine, but just don't make a habit out of it.
So do we really need them?
I've done some pretty extensive research into this, and I'm ultimately writing this so that you can make up your own mind on the subject.
In general, I believe you should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals you need from your diet, unless your DR has specifically told you otherwise. But the NHS does recommend some supplements if you're based in the UK, these are:
Vitamin D - especially during the autumn and winter
Folic Acid - when you're pregnant
Vitamin A,C and D - for children aged between 6 months and 5years old.
Extra information on the Physicians' Health Study II
Researchers looked at the effect of long-term multivitamin use in healthy men on various aspects of health. Here is what they found:
Cancer: Men were 8% less likely to be diagnosed with cancer. The protective effect was greatest in men with a history of cancer.
Vision: Lower risk of developing cataracts.
Cardiovascular disease: No protection against heart attacks, strokes, or death from cardiovascular disease.
Brain: No protection against declining memory or mental skills.
Caveat: Because of PHSII's design, the findings on memory loss and vision are somewhat more likely to be chance findings than cancer and cardiovascular disease results.