Jeremy Laurance: What you should know before you pop a vitamin pill

Medical Life

Absolute and total health excellence, every day, forever," it says on the front of the pack of vitamin pills sitting on my desk – the latest of the free gifties from the world of PR that always brighten my day. Actually, I preferred the real thing – a fresh lemon, newly waxed and polished, that arrived beautifully packaged in a square, red cardboard box last week advertising some cold remedy. I took it home and put it in my tea – delicious.

Back to the ersatz vitamins. Scary, isn't it, that claim? Like something you might read in a Scientology leaflet – join our life course and experience total consciousness and absolute awareness of the universe for ever. It's the understatement that sets my teeth on edge.

Vitamins matter – we know that much. Go without eating fruit and vegetables for six weeks and you will develop scurvy – as sailors did until the 18th century when they learnt to suck lemons on long voyages. Supplements can be a good idea for the chronically ill or elderly, whose capacity to eat or absorb nutrients may be limited.

But for the rest of us? There is precious little evidence that vitamin supplements do anything for people eating a healthy diet – except create expensive urine (excess vitamins cannot be stored and must be excreted).

Can they be harmful? Apparently they can. Scientists from Monash University have examined the development of insulin resistance, the first stage in the development of diabetes, and found that vitamins mop up molecules known as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS), which actually enhance insulin action, though they are harmful in other ways. It seems that the ROS molecules, which include free radicals, are beneficial in the early stages of Type 2 diabetes and shift to be being harmful in the later stages. The researchers are now trying to find out when they shift from good to bad.

The little-reported study, published in 'Cell Metabolism', has only been done in mice so far. But Professor Tony Tiganis was moved to say: "The widespread use of anti-oxidants [vitamins] by the general public as a preventative measure is something that should be discouraged, particularly if you are otherwise healthy." Type 2 diabetes is rising so rapidly across the western world it poses a severe challenge for the future. It would be remarkable if our modern obsession with popping vitamin pills was, in however limited a way, fuelling that rise.

***

I spent a couple of hours in A&E at the weekend, accompanying an elderly relative who had an infected foot. The medical care was fine, the way the doctor spoke to me was not. She was curt, abrupt and abrasive. A couple of weeks ago I saw a nurse specialist for a problem of my own. Her manner was so aggressive that at one point I called a halt to the consultation to ask if there was something wrong. She said there wasn't. A niece who has recently moved to London from the country and who has a problem that needs regular monitoring by the GP, complains that she is frightened to phone for appointments because the reception staff are "so rude". Do we need an etiquette guide for the NHS?

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
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

    Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

    £32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

    £25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?