Health benefits of supplements

The Multi-Tasker

Even if you’re never ordered Exercise-in-a-Bottle from an infomercial at 3 a.m. or stopped by the Metabolife kiosk at your local mall, you may already be taking a supplement that can help you lose weight.

Earlier this month, researchers for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle announced the results of study, involving nearly 15,000 subjects with an average age of 55. After
following the subjects’ medical histories, diets and supplement intakes for about ten years, the Hutchinson team found four supplements that were associated with weight reduction among
subjects who were overweight or obese at the outset of the study.

The diet-friendly supplements: multivitamins, chromium, and vitamins B-6 and B-12.

When I read this list, I couldn’t help but notice that the latter three items are often found in high quality multivitamins. So, many people who already take a good multivitamin may be getting an unexpected assist in their efforts to lose weight.

But that’s certainly not all they’re getting. In recent months, research has produced evidence that multivitamins enhance general good health while providing protection from a common type of cancer.

Going long

Multivitamin use over long periods has been associated with decreased risk of colorectal cancer in previous research. So researchers at the American Cancer Society (ACS) designed a study to further investigate this relationship.

In 1992, ACS researchers enrolled more than 145,000 men and women to participate in a five-year multivitamin study. All of these subjects had also participated in the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort (begun a decade earlier) in which their multivitamin usage was recorded.

As reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, 797 cases of colorectal cancer were reported among the study group between 1992 and 1997. After adjusting for risk factors, researchers found that multivitamin use that began just prior to the 1992 enrollment was not associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer. But the participants who had reported regular multivitamin use (4 or more times per week) in the early 80s, fared much better: their group had a 30 percent reduced risk of the cancer.

The researchers say that further studies are necessary to establish clear evidence that long-term multivitamin use is associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer. Also unknown is just how the nutrients in multivitamins combine to offer protection. I’m sure we’ll see more research in this area in the future, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for those results.

Multiplying the savings

Meanwhile, another 2003 study found a strong association between general good health and multivitamin use.

The study was conducted by the Lewin Group (a healthcare consulting firm), and funded by a subsidiary of the Wyeth pharmaceutical company; Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, which manufactures about 10 percent of the vitamin supplements made in the U.S. Researchers analyzed more than 125 clinical studies and additional scientific literature to determine the health benefits of multivitamins, and the subsequent savings in healthcare bills for people 65 and older.

The Lewin report was presented at a Washington, D.C. meeting titled “Multivitamins and Public Health: Exploring the Evidence.” Researchers said that based on demonstrated multivitamin
protection from the risk of coronary artery disease, as well as benefits to the immune system, they projected a five-year Medicare savings of more than $1.6 billion if all U.S. citizens over the age of 65 took a daily multi.

But the actual savings could be much higher. In their calculations, researchers didn’t include expenditures associated with diabetes, osteoporosis, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer, because, based on the sources they used, they couldn’t conclude that multivitamins
have a direct preventive effect on those health problems. (The Lewin team didn’t have access to the ACS colorectal cancer study, which was released the same week.)

These results were put into perspective by the director of Healthcare Finance for the Lewin Group, Allen Dobson, Ph.D., who told meeting attendees that in his experience, “finding any cost savings for preventive measures is unusual and finding cost savings of this magnitude is very rare.”

Supplement checklist

Clearly, it makes sense to take a good multivitamin every day. It’s inexpensive, it can’t do any harm, and as we’ve seen above, the evidence is mounting that long-term multivitamin use may provide a host of positive health benefits.

This isn’t news to HSI members, of course. But for those of you who may have missed some of the many vitamin tips from HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., I’ve collected a few of the most important ones to help you choose the most effective multi.

  • Avoid a multivitamin that’s a hard pill. Dr. Spreen says, “There
    are a few (read that a FEW) pill forms that break down quickly, but
    they are rare. I always use capsule, powder or liquid forms
    whenever possible, as they at least guarantee that the individual
    gets what he swallows.”
  • Avoid time-release vitamins. Dr. Spreen: “I don’t use time-
    release forms, as you’re then using a preparation deliberately
    designed not to give its contents to you. I prefer to have the
    individual be his own ‘time-releaser’ by multiple dosing throughout
    the day.”
  • Vitamins are absorbed more efficiently when taken with meals.
    Dr. Spreen: “They are better digested that way (they’re food
  • Avoid getting too much iron. Dr. Spreen: “Concerning multi-
    vitamin/mineral preparations there can be one problem, and that’s
    iron. It’s too high, in my opinion, for most everyone as it is a
    known generator of free radicals in biological systems (if it’s
    inorganic iron as most are in supplements).”

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

“Chromium, B Vitamins Could Reduce Middle-Aged Spread”, 9/14/04,
“Multivitamin Use and Colorectal Cancer Incidence in a US
Cohort: Does Timing Matter?” American Journal of Epidemiology
2003; 158:621-628,
“Timing Key to Multivitamin Benefits”,
“A Study of the Cost Effects of Daily Multivitamins for Older
Adults” The Lewin Group, 10/2/03,
“Analysis: Multivitamins Good but Who Pays?” Ellen Beck,
United Press International, 10/2/03,
“New Study Finds Increased Multivitamin Use by the Elderly
Could Save Medicare $1.6 Billion” PR Newswire, 10/2/03,