Confessions of a pill-popper

A study published last week showed that taking vitamins is a waste of time. So what is a health supplement junkie like Louisa Saunders to do?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When you edit the health pages of a newspaper, an awful lot of guff crosses your desk: ancient Japanese healing techniques, weird theories about weight loss, utterly implausible anti-ageing "breakthroughs" – and stacks of stuff about the wonders of vitamins and minerals. I like to think that part of my job is to spare you, readers, from speculation, blind faith, wishful thinking, brazen profiteering and pure baloney and bring to these pages only unbiased information that is backed up by huge studies conducted by famous institutions over a great number of years.

When you edit the health pages of a newspaper, an awful lot of guff crosses your desk: ancient Japanese healing techniques, weird theories about weight loss, utterly implausible anti-ageing "breakthroughs" – and stacks of stuff about the wonders of vitamins and minerals. I like to think that part of my job is to spare you, readers, from speculation, blind faith, wishful thinking, brazen profiteering and pure baloney and bring to these pages only unbiased information that is backed up by huge studies conducted by famous institutions over a great number of years.

When I began working on these pages, I would have placed much of the information on vitamins and supplements firmly in the "wishful thinking" and "brazen profiteering" categories: surely people could obtain adequate vitamins and minerals from a balanced diet, without lining the pockets of green-sounding but basically run-of-the-mill-capitalist manufacturers.

Two and a half years later, though, it shames me to confess that I now take 10 supplement pills every day: three multivitamins and minerals, three calcium and magnesium, one selenium, two flax seed oil, one acidophilus – oh, and 40 drops of the herb agnus castus.

So when a report appeared on front pages last week stating that vitamins were a waste of money, I confess that I felt a little sheepish. The report, from Oxford University (quite a famous institution), studied more than 20,000 people at high risk of heart disease and strokes, who were given antioxidant vitamins, (vitamins C and E and beta carotene) over a period of five years. The vitamins, while harmless, did nothing to reduce their risk of heart attacks, strokes or cancer. For a supplement junkie like me, this is disappointing.

So how did I end up taking so many supplements in the first place? It all began two years ago, when a major study appeared in The Lancet summarising evidence from 80 studies involving selenium. Selenium is a remarkable mineral essential to the proper functioning of the immune system, and the study showed that it can boost male fertility and help to prevent miscarriage, depression and even cancer. In one trial, deaths from all forms of cancer were halved among those taking selenium. Perhaps most significantly for supplement junkies, the study also showed that, due to depleted levels in Europe's knackered soil, it is well nigh impossible to obtain adequate levels of selenium in a normal, balanced diet.

Cancer rates halved? That was good enough for me. I'd never taken a supplement in my life, but I was having this one. I lost both my parents to cancer within a year of each other. Could this, and my consequent unhealthy fixation with death, be connected to my escalating supplement habit? Well, draw your own conclusions.

Next up were essential fatty acids (EFAs). On this, the huge studies from famous institutions are too numerous to mention here, but EFAs appear to help prevent cancer, heart disease and depression and may also benefit ageing skin, reduce violent behaviour among prisoners and improve the school performance of children. How could I resist that one? Especially when EFAs have also been shown to help regulate the menstrual cycle and ease pre-menstrual syndrome. My quest to cure premenstrual syndrome is also the reason why I take agnus castus, magnesium and calcium. The first two have very promising evidence to back them up, but I confess that I take the calcium just because I once read that it might help, and when you have PMS you'll try anything. In fact, I think that's why I take acidophilus (friendly bacteria), too.

EFAs are best obtained from eating oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and the Department of Health recommends that we all eat two or three portions a week. But numerous scary studies also suggest that oily fish are a big draw for toxins. The evidence is inconclusive, but I still prefer to take my EFAs as flax seed oil, another excellent source.

So that leaves the multivitamin and minerals, a recent addition to my mountainous daily dose. This I plumped for after we published an article showing that the levels of minerals in fruit and vegetables (of which I consume at least five portions per day) has plummeted in the last 50 years, probably due to intensive farming methods. Most vitamins cannot be assimilated without the aid of minerals. And there are now more than 18,000 clinical papers showing that deficiencies in vitamins, mineral and fatty acids are linked to heart disease, depression, mental disorders – and cancer. That's why I've become an organic convert – and why I'll keep on taking the tablets.

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