Do Supplements Work?

Q. Reader’s Digest recently had an article on the front cover that said that supplements don’t work. Is that accurate?


Supplements do work if you have a deficiency, because we know it, clinically. The problem is, and what they were probably addressing there, is just empirically taking supplements that you think will help your health. There’s actually some danger. We know that certain nutrients like beta carotene, in the research, actually taking more probably interferes with the absorption of other related compounds we call the retinoids. And there is evidence of danger in just supplementing willy-nilly with everything that you hear might be good for what ails you. But if there’s a specific problem you know you have, or you’re in a population group that you know is at risk for a problem, that’s a different issue. I didn’t read the article, so I can’t tell you if that’s what they’re talking about. But that’s the kind of thing that most people in the medical research literature are talking about.

Don’t just take a whole bunch of vitamins. In fact, it’s my main objection to taking a multi-vitamin, because one of the things in almost every multi-vitamin is beta carotene, or vitamin A, and this actually seems to be deleterious in some of the research. So only take supplements if you have a known deficiency in your diet, or if you have a problem either based on your individual evaluation from a physician or other health practitioner, or if you’re in a population group that is at particularly high risk, like being at a northern latitude in the winter months when we can’t make vitamin D. You could measure your vitamin D level and have it checked, but I can tell you, having lived in northern New England, you check anyone’s level living in Northern New England, I was living in Maine for a number of years, everyone’s vitamin D deficient unless they’re taking a supplement. And all the old Mainers knew this, and so they made their kids take cod liver oil, which is a rich source of vitamin D.

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