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Why You Should Not Stop Taking Your Vitamins

Why You Should Not Stop Taking Your Vitamins

Do vitamins kill people? How many people have died from taking vitamins? Should you stop your vitamins?

It depends. To be exact, it depends on the quality of the science, and the very nature of scientific research.  It is very hard to know things exactly through science. The waste bin of science is full of fallen heroes like Premarin, Vioxx and Avandia (which alone was responsible for 47,000 excess cardiac deaths since it was introduced in 1999).

That brings us to the latest apparent casualty, vitamins.  The recent media hype around vitamins is a classic case of drawing the wrong conclusions from good science.

Remember how doctors thought that hormone replacement therapy was the best thing since sliced bread and recommended it to every single post-menopausal woman? These recommendations were predicated on studies that found a correlation between using hormones and reduced risk of heart attacks.  But correlation does not prove cause and effect. It wasn’t until we had controlled experiments like the Women’s Health Initiative that we learned Premarin (hormone replacement therapy) was killing women, not saving them.

A new study “proving” that vitamins kill people is hitting front pages and news broadcasts across the country.  This study does not prove anything.

This latest study from the Archives of Internal Medicine of 38,772 women found that “several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality”.  The greatest risk was from taking iron after menopause (which no doctor would ever recommend in a non-menstruating human without anemia).

The word “may” is critical here, because science is squirrelly. You only get the answers to the questions you ask.  And in this case, they asked if there was an association between taking vitamins and death in older woman.  This type of study is called an observational study or epidemiological study.  It is designed to look for or “observe” correlations. Studies like these look for clues that should then lead to further research. They are not designed to be used to guide clinical medicine or public health recommendations. All doctors and scientists know that this type of study does not prove cause and effect.

Why Scientists are Confused

At a recent medical conference, one of most respected scientists of this generation, Bruce Ames, made a joke.  He said that epidemiologists (people who do population-based observational studies) have a difficult time with their job and are easily confused. Dr. Ames joked that in Miami epidemiologists found everybody seems to be born Hispanic but dies Jewish. Why? Because if you looked at population data in the absence of the total history and culture of Florida during a given time, this would be the conclusion you would draw. This joke brings home the point that correlation does not equal causation.

Aside from the fact that it flies in the face of an overwhelming body of research that proves Americans are nutrient deficient as a whole, and that nutritional supplements can have significant impact in disease prevention and health promotion, the recent study on vitamins is flawed in similar ways.

How Vitamins Save Money and Save Lives

Overwhelming basic science and experimental data support the use of nutritional supplements for the prevention of disease and the support of optimal health.  The Lewin Group estimated a $24 billion savings over 5 years if a few basic nutritional supplements were used in the elderly.  Extensive literature reviews in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine also support this view.  Interventional trials have proven benefit over and over again.

The concept that nutritional supplements “could be harmful” to women flies in the face of all reasonable facts from both intervention trials and outcome studies published over the past 40 years. Recent trials published within the last two years indicate that modest nutritional supplementation in middle age women found their telomeres didn’t shorten. Keeping your teleomeres (the little end caps on your DNA) long is the hallmark of longevity and reduced risk of disease.

A plethora of experimental controlled studies — which are the gold standard for proving cause and effect — over the last few years found positive outcomes in many diseases. These include the use of calcium and vitamin D in women with bone loss; folic acid in people with cervical dysplasia (pre-cancerous lesions); iron for anemics, B-complex vitamins to improve cognitive function, zinc; vitamin C, E, and carotenoids to lower the risk of macular degeneration, and folate and vitamin B12 to treat depression. This is but a handful of examples. There are many more.

Why Most Vitamin Studies are Flawed

There is another important thing to understand about clinical trials that review the utility of vitamins in the treatment of disease. The studies that show harm are often designed like drugs studies. For example, a study may use a high dose of vitamin E and see what happens.  This is actually a prescient example also explored in recent media. Studies recently found that high doses of vitamin E and selenium didn’t prevent prostate cancer and may increase risk. What this study didn’t explore properly was the true biochemical nature of vitamin E and selenium. These nutrients work as antioxidants by donating an electron to protect or repair a damaged molecule or DNA. Once this has happened the molecules  become oxidants that can cause more damage if not supported by the complex family of antioxidants used in the human body. It’s sort of like passing a hot potato.  If you don’t keep passing it you will get burned. This study simply failed to take this into account.

Nature doesn’t work by giving you only one thing.  We all agree that broccoli is good for you, but if that were all you ate you would die in short order. The same is true of vitamins. Nutrients are not drugs and they can’t be studied as drugs. They are part of a biological system where all nutrients work as a team to support your biochemical processes.

Michael Jordon may have been the best basketball player in history, but he couldn’t have won six NBA titles without a team.

Obesity is Linked to Malnutrition

The tragedy of media attention on poor studies like these is that they undermine possible solutions to some of the modern health epidemics we are facing today, and they point attention away from the real drivers of disease.

Take the case of obesity for example. Paradoxically Americans are becoming both more obese and more nutrient deficient at the same time. Obese children eating processed foods are nutrient depleted and increasingly get scurvy and rickets, diseases we thought were left behind in the 19th and 20th centuries.

After treating over 15,000 patients and performing extensive nutritional testing on them, it is clear Americans suffer from widespread nutrient deficiencies including vitamin D, zinc, magnesium, folate, and omega 3 fats.  This is supported by the government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data on our population. In fact 13% of our population is vitamin C deficient.

Scurvy in Americans in 2011? Really? But if all you eat is processed food – and many Americans do— then you will be like the British sailors of the 17th century and get scurvy.

Unfortunately negative studies on vitamins get huge media attention, while the fact that over 100,000 Americans die and 2.2 million suffer serious adverse reactions from medication use in hospitals when used as prescribed is quietly ignored.  Did you know that anti-inflammatories like aspirin and ibuprofen kill more people every year than AIDS or asthma or leukemia?

Flaws with the “Vitamins Kill You” Study

So what’s the bottom line on this study on vitamins in older white women in Iowa?

After a careful reading of this new study a number of major flaws were identified.

  1. Hormone replacement was not taken into consideration. Overall the women who took vitamins were a little healthier and probably more proactive about their health, which led them to use hormone replacement more often (based on recommendations in place when this study was done). 13.5% of vitamin users also used hormones, while 7.2% of non-vitamin users took hormones.   Remember the Women’s Health Initiative Study I mentioned above? It was a randomized controlled trial that found hormone therapy dramatically increases risk of heart attack, stroke, breast cancer, and death.  In this Iowa women’s study on vitamins, the degree of the effect of harm noted from the vitamins was mostly insignificant for all vitamins except iron (see below) and calcium (which showed benefit contradicting many other studies).  In fact, the rates of death in this study were lower than predicted for women using hormone therapy, so in fact the vitamins may have been protective but the benefit of vitamins was drowned out because of the harmful effects of hormones in the vitamin users.
  2. Iron should not be given to older women. Older women should never take iron unless they have anemia. Iron is a known oxidant and excess iron causes oxidative stress and can lead to cardiovascular disease and more. This is no surprise, and should not make you stop taking a multivitamin. If you are an older woman, you simply need to look for one without iron. Most women’s vitamins do not contain it anyway.
  3. Patient background was ignored. In this observational study it was not known why people started supplements. Perhaps it was because of a decline in their health and thus they may have had a higher risk of death or disease that wasn’t associated with the vitamins they were taking at all. If you had a heart attack or cancer and then started taking vitamins, of course you are more likely to die than people without heart attacks or cancer.
  4. The population was not representative. The study looked only at older white women – clearly not representative of the whole population. This makes it impossible to generalize the conclusions.  Especially if you are an obese young African American male eating the average American diet.
  5. Forms and quality of vitamins were not identified. There was no accounting for the quality or forms or dosages of the vitamins used.  Taking vitamins that have biologically inactive or potentially toxic forms of nutrients may limit any benefit observed.  For example synthetic folic acid can cause cancer, while natural folate is protective.
  6. A realistic comparison between vitamins and other medications as cause of death was not made. 0ver 100,000 people die every year from properly prescribed medication in hospitals. These are not mistakes, but drugs taken as recommended.  And that doesn’t include out of hospital deaths.  The CDC recently released a report that showed in 2009, the annual number of deaths (37,485) caused by improper/overprescribing and poor to non-existent monitoring of the use of tranquilizers, painkillers and stimulant drugs by American physicians now exceeds both the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents (36,284) and firearms (31,228).

In short, this recent study confuses not clarifies, and it has only served up a dose of media frenzy and superficial analysis. It has left the consumer afraid, dazed, bewildered and reaching for their next prescription drug.

Please, be smart, don’t stop taking your vitamins.  Every American needs a good quality multivitamin, vitamin D and omega-3 fat supplement. It is part of getting a metabolic tune up and keeping your telomeres long!

For more information on getting a metabolic tune up see

Now I’d like to hear from you …

What do you think about the recent media hype regarding vitamins?

Why do you think vitamins get this kind of media while pharmaceuticals, which have a much larger impact, are often ignored?

Why do you think the decades of research showing positive effects of vitamins is hidden?

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD



Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (24)

  • Vitamins is very important to our body it will give us defence through sickness.

  • At the risk of being called Cynical, I do have a feeling that money is behind the push to rid the world of vitamins and supplements. The pharmaceutical drug pushers would love nothing better than to achieve this aim so that they can peddle their own poisons without any competition from the natural therapies.
    If they were to look seriously at the mortality statistics of pharmaceutical drugs compared to vitamins etc, the drugs would be taken off the shelf. Oh for the love of money!!

    • I agree. Look at the mainstream media. You can’t turn on the television or open a magazine, even online, without seeing an ad for some prescription drug. The corporations who own these media outlets receive millions and millions of dollars from the drug companies. That’s why they’re more than happy to run stories that’ll keep Big Pharma happy. In this case, convince consumers that vitamins are dangerous so they’ll switch to prescription drugs. The true bias in the media isn’t liberal or conservative. It’s corporate.

    • you are right on with that. Search codex alemantaris. this is a sinister piece of anti-nutrition anti-vitamins that is trying to be legislated into law. Another powerful anti aging therapy is Telomere Lengthening. Dr. Bill Andrews is the leading researcher in this field. Find out what “stunning announcement” he has made that may fully crack the code on anti-aging.

  • Great article Dr. Hyman, my clients have been asking me about this study. Most people take a news bite like this and make it a doctrine. I work hard to get my clients to slow down, read an entire article, think about what’s being reviewed, investigate, then decide what’s best for them. I’ll be sure my clients read this.

  • I have never bought in to media hype about diet and nutrition. And the hype has been shown to be wrong so many times – after the fact. Take fats. I knew from Ayurvedic typology and from observing my own body that I need a lot of fat in my diet – good fats. So I never buy products labelled ‘lite’ or ‘low fat’ and at 72 years of age, I am on NO prescription medications and am very healthy. Ditto hormone replacement therapy, and thank heaven for my scepticism, as there is cardiovascular disease on both sides of my family. People need to learn to trust their own body’s needs and not get spooked by, or give their power away to, media that are owned by the very large corporations who profit from pharmaceuticals and processed food, which as Dr. Hyman’s article shows, have killed many, many more people than healthy fats and vitamins.

  • Very well said…I would ADD that it is BEST to take WHOLE FOOD supplements, that is: Veggies and Fruit in highly concentrated forms,
    then ADDED you your daily intake!

  • I honestly am paranoid about Omega 3, but I can just say I am paranoid in general, but I will still try. I put my Omega XL autoshipment on hold. It’s supposed to be a really good Omega 3. So far, the last tea I drank had an omega 3 after taste, which obviously contained no omega 3. I find this interesting in observing my body without it regularly. I also experienced something weird internally. I just figure: As long as I can maintain my ability to speak, my one life could be doing just damn fine. Yep, I am kind of worried, though I am young.

    My brother recommended for vitamins. I hope trying that would help, if I decide to.

    To end, it really does seemlike the “next worse thing” in societies on Earth: Informaton both supporting and attacking things supposed to be good for us, and while people don’t know medications kill more people than firearms, there are TV commercials advertising them with crazy amounts of side-effects, almost as if they were inviting people with a pain they want gone, even though they have a death wish. “Life sucks, but you don’t have to die or live in pain. Knock your worst pain out and die cordially with our medication!” After reading the above, it seems like not all people wanted to die taking it, but the signs from the effects/side-effects answer: Swallow here to die cordially!

    Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, do they WANT scientists/engineers anymore, or do they already have enough? “They,” as in government, or some CONFUSING BRANCH/TYPE OF SYSTEM OF PEOPLE WHO WORK TO SLOWLY KILL PEOPLE, if it has to be SO DAMN COMPLICATE TO Pinpoint their profession.

  • I wonder if soy protein is actually good for you. It made my sore legs feel good after downing a full 32 oz of a Vanilla Chai Bolthouse smoothie with soy protein. It has great vitamins: 100% B12, 20% zinc and other stuff. It looks nice, but is there any … under/overmining governemtn trying to lie to poeple?

    To what extent does the FDA/government have restricting power over ANY merchant who wishes to sell something good for people? If you can get away from putting non-pasteurized/very healthy milk in a beverage without saying it, can you really, or are ALL products tested? OH OF COURSE

    OF COURSE, and this one is thanks to Dr. Mark Hyman’s intelligence: Sometimes eating something healthy makes you feel bad, but that’s sometimes because your body is finally getting rid of toxins. So if someone gets “oh my god; i’m so sick,” from something UTTERLY healthy in ALL ways/dosages from one fucking bottle, the FDA can go check it out. Is that true? I mean what is true? I want to get on with happy things in my life, like when I was a kid throwing a frisbee or hoping to get picked on the basketball team, not have my AGE, THUS AVERAGE HEALTH getting wrapped up by junk food and estimated vices against my body. I want to be healthy and I want to know that black-marketed TRUTH! I want THOSE BLUE PRINTS on WHAT food to pick and HOW MUCH TO EAT. The CHEAPEST/safest/healthiest snacks OR the healthiest of all healthy foods regardless of price!

  • Thanks so much for this article… well said! There is so much misleading information out there about health and wellness, it is no surprise that everyone is confused. Additionally, so many scientists make broad conclusions about one specific vitamin or mineral without taking into account that it doesn’t mirror real life. These nutrients are powerful mostly as part of a larger orchestra… and that is where research dollars should be spent!

    Thanks again for the work that you do… we will take back America one home, one family, one kitchen at a time!!

  • I listened to a doctor on Dr. Oz’s show the other day who claims we are getting way too many trace metals in our system through vitamins which over time cause Alzheimer’s in many people. He also claims that omega 3 cause Alzheimer’s as well. What is your input on this issue? He has been personally studding this for years because his parents and grandparents have died from this horrible disease. Thank you for your comments.

  • I saw reports on television suggesting that multivitamins are useless and can actually be
    harmful. I am 74, very healthy-go to a gym regularly and have been taking multivitamins
    (including omega 3) for years. I was taken aback by the information and seriously considered stopping the multivitamins altogether. Your article seems to indicate that in fact,
    multivitamins are beneficial. Are some multivitamins better than others?

  • Vitamins are very important. I have been taking vit. c, b complex, calcium with vit d for a long time and I know they have helped slow down bleeding gums, weak bones and have helped immune system and my nerves, skin and hair too. Those who say that vitamins don’t help , don’t know what they’re talking about.

  • You may have a unique limiting factor that may be
    limiting your success. Researchers have prolonged studied the effects of fish oil on a variety of populations and several
    diverse circumstances even so, they had not attempted to decide how it impacts an infant’s immune process until eventually not
    long ago. Some individuals, however hesitate at the thought of taking supplements
    of fish oil because they are anxious that the fishy smell may linger on.

  • I truly agree with you doctor on “malnutrition causes obesity”. It is actually quite evident lack of good nutrients from your diet can take you either to being fat or miserably thin.

    Vitamins and minerals are the part and parcel of our metabolic activities. What we need to realize is that we need to take in good amounts of these essential nutrients in order to stay healthy and fit.

    Not only taking nutrient supplementation is crucial there are many other products which can be used in parallel to help minimize the effects of skin wrinkling and aging.

  • Within the last year or so I stopped taking my multivitamin because of negative reports in the press, and more recently stopped my fish oil supplements, because of links to diabetes. Sounds like I do need my vitamins and may need to rethink my fish oil.

  • Just like how there are varying qualities of vitamins, not all fish oils are created equal. There have been lots of research done on the health implications of farmed and contaminated fish, and these principles can be carried over to fish oil purity. Don’t fall for marketing tactics, but do your research to ensure the fish oil you are consuming is safe. After searching for a long time Ive been able to find a fish oil sourced from pristine marine waters, and the manufacturer guarantees the fish oil is free of harmful toxins, contaminants, and heavy metals.

    Opting for the biggest and cheapest vitamin or fish oil, or any dietary supplement for that matter, is not always the best choice. Aside from scientific studies that don’t look holistically at the complement of nutrients working together in the system, other broad claims on efficacy are frequently made based on poor quality products that not only have no benefit to the body but may sometimes even do more harm than good.

  • My thoughts are that the evidence lies in getting nutrients through whole foods, where all the supporting molecules are present unlike in multivitamins. See my nutrition and eye health articles at for greater detail.

  • Yup. THEY want to keep us sick so we will continue to buy into the “need” for western medicine and treatments! What a greedy sinful world we live in…what saddens me most is how oblivious so many are…and what really GREAT doctors out there who really care and truly want to help people have no idea. They’re taught how to “help” people and they believe they are helping….

  • I really cannot understand why Dr. Mark Hyman insisting on synthetic vitamins even though its not functional approach.

    As Dr. Ben Kim clarifies in his Post named (Synthetic vs. Natural Vitamins) he said:

    Here are some facts that you won’t find advertised on most of the vitamin supplements at your local vitamin store:

    – The majority of commercial vitamin supplements are made up of synthetic vitamins
    – Synthetic vitamins do not perform the same functions in your body as vitamins found naturally in whole food
    – Many synthetic vitamins deplete your body of other nutrients and tax your kidneys before being excreted through your urine

    If you want a comprehensive understanding of what vitamins are and what they do in your body, it would be best to take a full course in biochemistry. Do you remember all of those molecular formulas and chemical reactions that you studied in your high school chemistry class? Biochemistry is really just an extension of chemistry, with an emphasis on the thousands of chemical reactions that occur in your body on a moment-to-moment basis.

    Anyone who studies biochemistry learns that vitamins do not exist as single components that act on their own. Vitamins are made up of several different components – enzymes, co-enzymes, and co-factors– that must work together to produce their intended biologic effects.

    Vitamins that are found naturally in whole foods come with all of their necessary components. The majority of vitamins that are sold in pharmacies, grocery stores, and vitamin shops are synthetic vitamins, which are only isolated portions of the vitamins that occur naturally in food.

    A good example is vitamin C. If you take a look at a variety of vitamin C supplements, you will find that the majority of them contain only ascorbic acid or a compound called ascorbate, which is a less acidic form of acorbic acid. Ascorbic acid is NOT vitamin C. It represents the outer ring that serves as a protective shell for the entire vitamin C complex, much like an orange peel that serves as a protective shell for an orange. Real vitamin C found in whole foods like fruits and vegetables contain the following components:

    Bioflavonoids (vitamin P)
    Factor K
    Factor J
    Factor P
    Ascorbic Acid
    When you take only ascorbic acid found in your synthetic vitamin C tablet or powder, your body must gather all of the other components of the full vitamin C complex from your body’s tissues in order to make use of it. In the event that your body does not have adequate reserves of the other components, ascorbic acid itself does not provide any of the health benefits that the full vitamin C complex does. After circulating through your system, the unused ascorbic acid is eliminated through your urine.

    Just like vitamin C, almost all other vitamins that we know of offer their full health benefits when they are in the presence of a number of enzymes, co-enzymes, co-factors, and even minerals. For example, Vitamin D may have as many as twelve different active components, while vitamin P has at least five different components. The mineral copper is needed for full vitamin C activity, while vitamin E works closely with the mineral selenium to provide its health promoting, anti-oxidative effect.

    Clearly, it is best to get your vitamins from whole foods because whole foods provide complete vitamins rather than fractions of them. In many cases, whole foods also provide the minerals that are necessary for optimal vitamin activity. For example, sunflower seeds are an excellent whole food source of vitamin E and the mineral selenium, both of which need each other to offer their full health benefits.

    How do you know if the vitamins on your kitchen counter are from whole foods or if they are synthetic?

    If the list of ingredients includes an actual vitamin like Vitamin C” rather than an actual food that contains natural vitamin C like “acerola cherry powder”, you can bet that it is a synthetic vitamin.

    If you choose to use nutritional supplements, it is in your best interest to use only those products that list actual foods as their ingredients rather than synthetic and isolated vitamins. While some synthetic and isolated vitamins have been shown to provide minimal health benefits, on the whole, most of them cause more harm than good and you are far better off spending your money on whole foods.

    It is important to note that the principles in this article are just as relevant and applicable to minerals and mineral supplements.

  • What do you think about the recent media hype regarding vitamins?
    Gee, do we think maybe, just possibility, the fact of the millions (probably billions) of pharmaceutical advertising could have anything to do with vitamin bashing. I mean, after all, if vitamins keep me healthy, how can Big Pharma sell me anything??? I am in my 68th year, young, healthy and vibrant, and take a slew of healthy vitamins. I actually research before taking them. The synthetic vitamins often cause side effects while the natural vitamins improve health and prevent illness.

    Why do you think vitamins get this kind of media while pharmaceuticals, which have a much larger impact, are often ignored?
    Vitamin companies don’t do as much advertising. Therefore Big Pharma, with and average of many, many ads per hour, is what supports the advertising media. “Never bite the hand that feeds you” even if it is feeding you poison.

    Why do you think the decades of research showing positive effects of vitamins is hidden?
    If people took healthy vitamins and remained or became healthy, then who would Big Pharma sell to? We sometimes forget that dollars rule. A cure for cancer (I think prevention is easier) is available now. I the pharmacy companies sold that then they would lose you as a life long customer. Same with blood pressure medications. A doctor will tell you that you need to take these for the rest of your life. But I say, when you improve your diet and get an adequate amount of exercise, your health will normalize (that means healthy in my book).
    I’ll stop my tantrum now.

    Pat Farrell, Energy Healing Therapies.

  • Yes, you are absolutely right. Vitamins are must for every women specially calcium and magnesium is highly recommended.