Millions of us pop a vitamin pill before going to bed in the hope of defending ourselves from the damaging effects of stressful lifestyles and poor diets.
But a study by researchers at Copenhagen University last week suggested we may be wasting our money and even increasing the risk of premature death. A review of 67 different clinical trials, released by the Cochrane Library, an international non-profit organisation specialising in healthcare issues, found no evidence that taking antioxidant supplements including vitamins A, E, C, beta-carotene and selenium prevented disease, while "vitamin A, beta-carotene and vitamin E may increase mortality."
The clinical trials looked at healthy volunteers as well as those suffering from disease, some who took no supplements and some who were given placebos. The authors' conclusion stated: "We found no evidence to support the use of antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary disease prevention... Antioxidant supplements need to be considered medicinal products and should undergo sufficient evaluation before marketing." The report did not state why vitamin supplements may be detrimental to health, but called for more research. It was, however, suggested that supplements taken by healthy people in the hope of preventing diseases such as cancer may actually interfere with the body's natural defences.
Antioxidants and beta-carotene, found naturally in most fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, are thought to "mop up" free radicals, chemical compounds in the body which can cause disease. It is this action which researchers believe may cause problems with the body's defence system. Other studies in recent years have raised fears about the potentially damaging effects of high-dose synthetic vitamin supplements, some of which contain up to 3,000 per cent of the recommended daily amount (RDA) of a particular vitamin or mineral.
Shoppers in Abu Dhabi this week expressed concern at the report's findings. Venetia, a British mother of three who was buying multivitamins at the Al Wadi Pharmacy at Spinney's in Khaladiya, admitted she was losing faith in the ability of supplements to safeguard her family's health. "I don't take them myself but I buy these multivitamins for the children because they were recommended by a doctor," she said. "They are seen as innocuous but now I'm not so sure. I am increasingly concerned that vitamins might be handed out and recommended by doctors under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry. There are so many studies these days that I'm at the point where I want to investigate this more myself." Dietary supplements are a multi-billion dirham business, but little research has been done into the long-term health implications of the use of such products, particularly when vitamins and minerals are combined in high doses. Dr Fiji Antony, a nutritionist at the NMC Speciality Hospital in Dubai, said supplements should never be seen as a substitute for healthy eating.
"I would never prescribe supplements unless it is necessary, if a patient has been vomiting, is pregnant or lactating, if their eyesight is failing or if kids are allergic to green leafy vegetables," she said. "The problem today is that there is a general acceptance that these supplements are good for you. People believe that what they are taking is a pure form of the vitamin, but in fact it may be mixed with something else." Dr Fiji said she would only prescribe a particular vitamin when a patient showed signs of a severe deficiency, which was very rare in the developed world. "People with too much money take them for everything, for their skin, hair and nails, but they only need to eat a balanced diet."