Vitamins: when you don't want purity

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

December 2007

Our Stone Age ancestors got all the vitamins that their bodies required because of the rich diversity of their diet. Moreover, every vitamin in their primitive cuisine was mixed with dozens, even hundreds, of other nutrients. How different from today, when your local vitamin vendor will give you a choice of vitamin A, C or individual B vitamins in a bottle.

Vitamins are nutrient substances that we need only in small amounts but that our bodies cannot manufacture. (Vitamin D is an exception. In a series of chemical reactions, sunlight converts cholesterol in our skin to a form of vitamin D that we need for strong bones and a vigorous immune system.) Almost all the vitamins that we need for good health come from plants. An exception is vitamin B12, which is present only in animal products such as meat, eggs or dairy products.

There is overwhelming evidence that several forms of cancer as well as heart disease and stroke are much less common in people whose diet is rich in fruits and vegetables. Single vitamins, given as a physician would dispense a prescription medication, just don't work as well.

For example, in 2004 vitamin E became the poster child for the vitamin controversy. An analysis that pooled the results of dozens of individual studies seemed to show that persons taking vitamin E had a higher death rate than persons who did not. However, the study did not compare similar groups and the dosage of the vitamin varied widely. Some better studies with vitamin E supplements weren't very impressive.

The vitamin E supplements that are used in most studies are synthetic and they almost always consist of two forms, only one of which is biologically active. That means that only half of what you see on the label is actually going to work in your body. What's more, vitamin E that comes from natural plant sources actually consists of eight different substances and they don't all function the same way. That could explain why studies in which vitamin E comes from the diet come up with better results than studies that use only the synthetic form of the vitamin. Purer doesn't always mean better.

Your best bet is to get your vitamins from natural foods. After all, there are thousands of nutrients that scientists haven't even gotten around to studying yet and some of them may eventually prove to be as important as the household-name vitamins that we've known for years. As easy as that sounds, it won't work for the 80 percent of Americans that don't bother to get the recommended 10 servings a day of fruits and vegetables, or for the many whose only vegetables consist of french fries and iceberg lettuce. Our awful dietary habits finally convinced the American Medical Association to recommend that we should take a quality multivitamin/multimineral supplement every day.

There is another kind of purity that you do want: free from contamination. Look for established brands that use natural sources and pharmaceutical standards in their manufacturing process. Avoid high doses of any vitamin. Finally, check them out at www.consumerlab.com.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.