Are vitamins natural drugs?

Are vitamins more than just nutrients?  Are they also natural cure-alls?   It’s a popular myth, dating back to the mid-20th Century, when vitamin C was touted as a miracle cure for the flu, the common cold, cancer, heart disease and assorted other maladies.  Despite the absence of any proof for these claims, the myth persisted.  The premise is that if a small amount of a vitamin is good, a giant dose will cure all kinds of diseases naturally.

would your car run better with more of these?

A nutrient is officially a substance your body needs to function, but cannot make by itself.  The nutrient must be obtained from the environment.  Vitamins are nutrients.  We have to consume them.  And we need a certain amount to function optimally.   Think about it in terms of your car.  Your car needs 4 tires and maybe 4 quarts of oil.  Does it run better if you pour 100 gallons of oil over the engine?  Or pile 50 extra tires on the roof?

Meanwhile some nutrition researchers are trying to find proof for the myths, and a recent study is one example.  Heart disease patients were given whopping doses of folic acid and B-12 for 7 years to see if their heart disease was fixed.  While blood levels of a certain risk marker (homocysteine) went down, the subjects didn’t have any improvement in actual heart disease.  The vitamin-as-natural-drug theory didn’t work.  Dr. Duffy McKay, of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, made the very astute observation that

We may need to re-evaluate expectations when designing studies on nutrients used to treat serious chronic disease because it is unrealistic to expect a vitamin to undo a lifetime of unhealthy behaviors.

Amen.  The best way to deal with heart disease, or any other chronic disease, is to make healthy lifestyle choices that prevent it in the first place, not expect some mega-dose vitamin to fix it after the fact.

In another recent study, researchers stumbled on a situation when high dose B-vitamins are definitely a bad idea: diabetic kidney disease, which reduces the kidneys’ ability to filter the blood and excrete toxins.  For healthy people, high dose B-vitamins simply lead to increased excretion of B’s in urine.  These researchers assumed that, since diabetics also have elevated homocysteine, they might benefit from taking high-dose B-vitamins.  Wrong.  They discovered that the diabetic subjects actually had worsening kidney function and more heart attack and stroke.  Conclusion: giving high dose B-vitamins to diabetics with kidney disease was a bad idea.  The problem is, if someone has undetected low-grade kidney problems without symptoms yet, high dose vitamins could make it worse.  And it’s extremely easy to buy high dose products like that at your local grocery store or vitamin shop.

Your best bet: don’t treat vitamins like drugs.  They are nutrients.  And if you’re still doubtful, think about your car.  Will an extra 100 quarts of oil make it run better?

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