Do vitamin supplements really work?

Asked by: Carole Cooper, Southampton. Answered by: Dr Jeya Henry, Professor of Human Nutrition and Director of Functional Food Centre, Oxford Brookes University

In the beginning

From the regulation of the metabolism, the conversion of fats to energy, the formation of bones and teeth, through to the production of sperm, vitamins play an essential role in most cellular processes.

It comes as a surprise to many then, that the term "vitamin" was unknown until the beginning of the 20th century. A Polish scientist by the name of Casimir Funk was the first person to give the nutrient he had isolated from rice husks a name. Combining the Latin term for life, vita, and a compound called an anime, he coined the name vitamin.



The great leap forward

Twenty years after this discovery in the mid-1930s, the first vitamin supplements came on to the market. However, it wasn't until the 1970s and the advocacy of Linus Pauling, double Nobel laureate and eminent chemist, that they leapt to popularity.

Pauling contended that "auto-molecular vitamin C dosing", as he called it, was a panacea that reduced not only the incidence of cancer but also heart disease. The suggestion is that at a certain dose it acts as an anti-oxidant which protects cells from oxidative damage bought about by the bombardment of the body by free radicals. However, while there have been observational studies to support such a notion, there has been little definitive proof.



The usefulness of supplements

What is not in doubt, though, is that supplements are, in some instances, extremely useful. While eating a varied and balanced diet is the best way to get the micronutrients the body requires, some essential vitamins are difficult to come into contact with naturally. Vitamin D, for example, is acquired through exposure to sunlight, which is sometimes hard to come by in northern European countries; having a supplement available which contains your daily allowance is extremely useful in such circumstances. Likewise, taking folic acid supplements is recommended for pregnant women, as it helps prevent neural-tube defect in babies. In such circumstances there is clear evidence that demonstrates the utility of vitamin supplements.

We need to bear in mind, though, that supplements were originally conceived as a means to appease a deficiency rather than act as a cure-all. The recommended daily allowance [RDA] – the mean quantity needed for a healthy person +2 standard deviations – is the product of this need. Often, vitamin tablets contain many times a person's RDA and it is unclear, from a scientific perspective, if there is any value in taking such quantities. That said, if intake falls within the zone of safety it may be worth it. After all, if there is a chance that taking a relatively cheap vitamin C tablet helps ward off atherosclerosis, then its is surely worth the gamble. It is, in most cases, best to see hyper-dosing of vitamins as an insurance policy.



Health concerns

It is possible, however, to overdose on vitamins. While a surfeit of a water-soluble vitamin, such as C, is seldom dangerous as it can be expelled via the urine, it is much harder to expel excess quantities of fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin A is a case in point. In large doses it has the potential to accumulate in body fat, especially in the fatty tissue around the liver. The toxic effects of this can be severe, causing headaches and dizziness and in pregnant women adversely affecting the foetus.

But, again, that is not to say one shouldn't take supplements; merely that one should take care to confine oneself to the recommended daily allowance.



Proving their worth

An increasing quantity of research is being commissioned which explores the incidence of certain diseases and diet – and some of the most interesting of this centres on vitamin consumption. The new research on vitamin B and its effect in slowing the onset of Alzheimer's is extremely encouraging from a public health point of view. After all, the cost of supplying the supplement is minuscule in relation to the benefits accrued.

Equally exciting is the new research linking vitamin D consumption and a reduction in the symptoms of diabetes. With supplements readily available the potential to change the lives of sufferers is immense and relatively inexpensive. Supplements have often proved their worth over the last century, and it is to be hoped that with new research these inexpensive pills can change even more lives.

Interview by Samuel Muston

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
ebookAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    (Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

    Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

    £60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Principle Geotechnical Engineer

    £55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

    Day In a Page

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup