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I worked in the nutritional supplements and herbal medicines industry for 20 years. I am in favor of vitamins. Vitamins are, after all, vital. That doesn't mean that every vitamin in every dosage is beneficial or even safe.

One of the surprising problem vitamins (and one that I get the most push back about) is vitamin D. When I was working in Germany about twenty years ago, there was a famous case in which people who ate steak tartare broke out in horrible skin rashes when they went out into the sun. It turned out that somebody had accidentally put an entire bottle of vitamin D powder (it's added to raw beef to make it redder) into a few kilos of hamburger-style meat. The victims got over the overdose when the vitamin D eventually broke down in the systems.

The institute where I worked also got reports of people in Sweden developing scurvy. As you probably know, scurvy is a disease that occurs when people don't get enough vitamin C. These people were getting lots of vitamin C, so their doctors were stumped. Eventually the doctors figured out that the common denominator of the cases was that everyone had been vacationing in Florida a few weeks earlier. They had been drinking lots of freshly squeezed orange juice, several liters a day. Their bodies had gotten used to the high intake of vitamin C, and since vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, their kidneys had started producing hormones to get rid of the excess C. When they got back to Sweden, their kidneys continued producing the same hormones in the same amounts, and they developed symptoms of vitamin C deficiency.

Minerals are more problematic. Most trace minerals are toxic in overdose, especially selenium, chromium, and manganese. Taking too much zinc can deplete the body of copper. About 1 to 2 percent of people in North American have a hereditary disease called hemochromatosis, which causes the body to absorb too much iron. It can cause diabetes, brain damage, and liver cancer. Calcium without magnesium can acclerate atherosclerosis, and calcium won't help bone health without vitamins K2 (not K1) and D. Fish oil lowers trigycerides, but the way cholesterol tests are done, it can appear to raise LDL cholesterol (although it doesn't actually, it's just a fluke in the way the tests are run). Folic acid supplements can, ironically, make folic acid deficiencies worse when the body can't make an enzyme to use them. (In this case, what is needed is methylfolate, not folic acid.)

None of this means that vitamins aren't really vital or minerals aren't a must. It just means that more is not necessarily better. Take what your body needs, but don't take vitamins to treat disease unless you know exactly how much, how long, and why, and you have a way of measuring whether or not taking vitamins worked for you.

If you are taking potassium for blood pressure, for instance, take your blood pressure so you will know whether or not your blood pressure went down. If you are taking iron for anemia, first make sure you actually have anemia. That requires a blood test. If you are taking chromium or vanadium for diabetes (they don't usually work, by the way), then test your blood sugar levels so you will know they are normalizing.

There are certain supplements that just don't work by themselves.

  • Vitamin C needs vitamin E.
  • Vitamin C also won't work if you don't get some plant foods in your diet. Fruit, peppers, and berries are best.
  • Calcium won't work without magnesium, zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin K.
  • Zinc in excess causes the body to remove copper. Don't take more than 50 mg a day even if you know you need zinc, and take supplemental copper (1 to 3 mg a day) anytime you take zinc.

Vitamins don't cure everything. They're just a few of the many substances the body needs to run efficiently. Make vitamin supplementation a part of your regular health routine, but only a part, and take advantage of everything else good food and healthy lifestyle can do for you.

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