At some point as we evolved, well after the Neolithic period, we started thinking that there must be a better way to get nutrients, something faster and more efficient, than through the food we have eaten for tens of thousands of years. Our fantasy of the future was encapsulated with TV shows like The Jetsons and Star Trek, where roast chickens and earl grey tea were produced by the touch of a button. Nowadays, grocery stores offer fruit smoothies, breakfast bars, energy drinks and microwave pizzas, so we can fuel up quickly and efficiently. Why sit down when you can eat while running? We take vitamins with the idea that we can rectify any potential deficiencies and even prevent illness, with the swallow of a pill. How simple, how easy, how efficient.
As a society, we are in love with “nutriceutical” supplements. About half of all adults take a multivitamin everyday and it is estimated that $75 billion worldwide is spent annually on nutriceuticals. And nonvitamin and nonmineral natural product use is so prevalent in the U.S. (40% of Americans) that the National Institutes of Health has even commissioned a new branch devoted entirely to the pursuit of complementary and alternative medicine research. This effort will undoubtedly unleash the true potential of alternative medicine. But let’s drill down on vitamins for a minute. What does the evidence really show? Well, it appears that taking vitamin supplements may not as beneficial as previously thought. Several major studies have now shown that vitamin supplements do little to prevent cancer and heart disease, while other studies report that vitamins and antioxidant supplements may actually increase cancer rates. One study concluded that folic acid supplements actually increased rates of precancerous colon polyps, and another study linked beta-carotene to higher lung cancer rates. Are vitamins then, failing us as supplements?
No one discounts the necessity of vitamins for our body’s function. Indeed, many diseases are associated with a deficiency in one or another vitamin. But we do place rather high expectations on vitamins. It’s rather narrow-minded of us to tout only a few particular nutrients in food and assign them letters of the alphabet, when many others may be just as essential to our primitive bodies, yet are unfamiliar to us intellectually. Vitamins do not exist in a void, but are part of a complex mixture of substances called food that is the real stuff of life. If anything, the fact that vitamins are getting an F in cancer prevention suggests that the way that they are absorbed in a pill is not the same as the way we extract them from whole foods that we eat.
My patients frequently ask me what supplements they should take to enhance their sexual health or fertility. The truth is that because sexual health is so thoroughly intertwined with overall health, I emphasize a whole-body approach. I don’t recommend a specific course of supplements, but antioxidants may have some value. If they wish to take a supplement, they may, but the important thing is that they get all nutrients necessary for their bodies to function optimally. The real solution to this is a well-balanced diet low in fat and sugar, emphasizing whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. That said, I do realize how resistant many people can be to changing their diet. If a patient feels they must take a supplement to compensate for poor eating habits, I steer them towards whole food supplements that contain a larger and more complex spectrum of nutrients than that found in traditional multivitamins. In all honesty however, I firmly believe in carrots from the earth and apples from trees, just like our Neolithic ancestors did.