Vitamins & Supplements: Are They Really Bad for Us?

Next to skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in the United States.
One in six men will develop the disease at some point during their lives, translating into a 16 percent lifetime risk of prostate cancer.

With the advent and widespread implementation of PSA screening, the number of prostate cancer related deaths has reached an all time low since the 1930s. However, approximately 30,000 men still die every year secondary to the disease. To that end, dedicated research has sought to examine possible ways to prevent this cancer.

Over the past few decades, there has been a prevailing belief that vitamin supplementation will improve our health by increasing vitality, decreasing cancer risk and helping to fend off other common health problems.

In the U.S. alone, vitamins and minerals represent a multibillion dollar industry. Marketing has supported these ideas, however research has been sparse.

A recent study sought to further explore the relationship between the effects of vitamin E and selenium on prostate cancer. The results of this study represent the culmination of a 10-year randomized trial, in which participants were given either a placebo or fixed doses of selenium or vitamin E.

In 2008, the group first published a statistically non-significant increase in prostate cancer risk associated with vitamin E alone. Now after further follow-up, this trend has become significant, representing a 17 percent increase in prostate cancer risk among men who were healthy at the onset of the trial and were given vitamin E supplements.

Vitamin E is a naturally found compound that protects our cells and has known anti-inflammatory properties. It is currently recommended that adults consume 22 units a day, and is found in many of the foods we normally eat.

However, the study found that the majority of men taking vitamin E supplements consumed over 400 units of vitamin E a day. This means that the experimental dose given to participants of the study reflected the elevated consumption associated with supplementation.

Two things must be mentioned with regard to these results. First, men should not begin cutting this vitamin out of their diets; there is a role for the vitamin at the proper dose. And second, as is often the case, more is not always better.

Historically, although not all believed in the power of vitamins, among skeptics it was thought that these compounds were at the worse benign, now there are reports that beg to differ.

Recently, another study came out which disputed the health benefits of vitamins. The study followed 20,000 post-menopausal women over 19 years and found that multivitamins, copper and iron were associated with an increased risk of death.

Of the many vitamins and minerals examined, only calcium was found to provide any health benefit. In this current era, where medical costs are being scrutinized, it appears that diet supplements represent not only a potential waste but also is increasing health care spending through their deleterious effects.

When I meet with patients, I make sure to tell them that vitamins can impact health. When there is a deficiency, they have a real role in a patient’s treatment plan. However, blind consumption without a clear purpose can be harmful, which these recent reports clearly demonstrate.

The bottom line: A balanced diet remains key, and no supplement will remedy an unhealthy lifestyle.

In my opinion, patients should consult their physician prior to starting a supplement regimen. Vitamins and supplements are not inert substances, nor are they magic pills – but they a purpose just like any medicine and should be treated that way.

As we move forward, continued research is needed to find effective ways to prevent, detect and cure prostate cancer, and the billions spent on supplements might be better directed towards such efforts.

David B. Samadi, MD is the Vice Chairman of the Department of Urology and Chief of Robotics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. As a board-certified urologist and an oncologist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of urologic diseases, kidney cancer, bladder cancer, and prostate cancer, he also specializes in many advanced minimally invasive treatments for prostate cancer, including laparoscopic radical prostatectomy and laparoscopic robotic radical prostatectomy. His Web site, Robotic Oncology, has been translated into six different languages and is one of the most popular urology sites on the Internet. Find Dr. Samadi on Facebook. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter @drdavidsamadi