Multivitamins—Necessary or Not?

Supplements for Disease Prevention and Quality of Life?

According to data from The National Institute of Health (NIH), the vitamin and supplement industry has annual revenues of about 23 billion dollars. That’s a lot of pills, and most of those sales are generated from the “healthy” population; about half of us take multivitamins. Do we really need them or have we bought into a very savvy marketing campaign?

The multivitamin has been around since the 1930s, but the past few decades have brought about an influx of over-the-counter vitamins and supplements touting all kinds of benefits, from preventing bone loss, chronic disease and even cancer. But what evidence supports these claims, and are certain brands better than others?

The answer is there is no clear-cut answer. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the manufacturers of these products do not have to report adverse side effects and/or what does or does not have to be listed on their products’ labels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no authority over these independent manufacturers.


Beta carotene, a natural chemical found in many vegetables, is a supplement found in many brands of multivitamins and associated with preventing heart disease, boosting immunity, easing depression, preventing Parkinson’s disease, and slowing the progression of macular degeneration.

In direct conflict to those findings, the NIH found “found no evidence to recommend β-carotene supplements for the general population and strong evidence to recommend that smokers avoid β-carotene supplementation.” In addition, their studies suggest that calcium and Vitamin D may have some benefits to postmenopausal women in terms of building stronger bones and reducing fractures.

Niacin, folate and B vitamins proved to have no positive effect on chronic disease, but there is a suggestion that selenium may reduce risk for prostate, lung, and colorectal cancer, and that vitamin E may decrease cardiovascular deaths in women and prostate cancer incidence in male smokers.

An article on The Medical News website gleaned information from a study in the April issue of Mayo Clinic Women’s HealthSource.  This study suggests the same, with the exception of recommending that those with unhealthy lifestyle choices and certain health conditions may benefit from the use of multivitamins. Their studies also concluded that supplemental B vitamins may help those in their 50s and beyond because aging bodies don’t absorb these nutrients as readily.


What doesn’t seem to matter is one brand over another. More expensive brands seem to have no more advantage than their lesser-known competitors. Any brand that contains more than the recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals, or those containing herbs, enzymes, and amino acids, should be avoided since these can have adverse affects to those with specific health conditions.

So, should you take a multivitamin?

Dr. Andrew Weil, respected author and well-know health guru believes that multivitamins can “fill in the gaps” of a healthy diet. His integrative medicine approach is one that addresses the mind-body-spirit connection. His beliefs are that each of us are unique, and as such, may need or may not need multivitamins.

Perhaps the best answer to the question of whether multivitamins are necessary or not is one that seems prevalent in numerous studies: Maybe, maybe not.

The bottom line is that being and staying healthy requires a healthy diet, positive lifestyle behaviors, and annual exams to ensure good health and counsel from a trusted physician. Want more information? The “NIH State-of-the-Science Conference Statement on Multivitamin/Mineral Supplements and Chronic Disease Prevention” (2006, Ann Intern Med. 2006; 145:364–371) is a good resource.

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