Popping a vitamin pill or supplement is often seen as the simple preventative solution to illness. It's also pitched as the perfect pick-me-up for when we feel a little flat, stressed or fluey. While we take vitamins and supplements to improve our health, new research confirms they can be more of a hindrance than a help.
A longitudinal study of more than 60,000 elderly Swedish women found those who take calcium supplements in high doses may have a higher risk of heart disease and death. This is contrary to the popular belief that calcium supplementation is beneficial to the health of the elderly.
The study, published online in the British Medical Journal in February, found women who consume 1400 milligrams or more of calcium a day in tablet form, have more than double the risk of death from heart disease. In Australia the recommended daily intake for adults aged 51 years and over is 1300 mg a day in total.
"If you have a normal diet, you don't need to take calcium supplements," lead author, Dr. Karl Michaëlsson, a professor and orthopedic surgeon at Uppsala University in Sweden, told the New York Times. "Calcium supplements are useful if you have a very low intake of calcium, but few women have such a low intake."
Michaelsson's message may extend to other forms of supplementation with the spotlight being turned on our purchase of vitamins and supplements.
More than a third of the Australian population buy vitamins regularly while around three quarters of us purchased them in the past year. It is a growth industry worth over $1.5 billion in Australia annually and $68 billion globally according to research from Euromonitor.
Yet, increasingly questions are being asked about how healthful and necessary vitamins are.
The figures in Australia are unclear, but between 2007 and mid-April 2012, the Food and Drug Administration in America received more than 6300 reports of serious adverse events linked to dietary supplements, including vitamins and herbs. The reports include 115 deaths and more than 2100 hospitalisations.
Generally, the effects are far more mundane.
Last year, TIMES' reporter, John Cloud turned himself into a human guinea pig. Over five months he popped more than 3000 vitamin pills to see whether they worked.
He had doctors compare his blood results before and after the experiment and found little changed.
The only two levels that had improved and "changed significantly" were his cholesterol and his vitamin D. That said, neither of the two doctors he consulted on his bloods were confident these changes were solely down to his supplementation.
Otherwise, "two measures of my kidney health (values for blood-urea nitrogen and creatinine) were identical. Calcium, protein, sodium — none had varied much."
Most health industry experts agree that, in an ideal world, we wouldn't need supplements except in specific instances such as deficiencies when pregnant (folic acid) and in absorbing certain nutrients. This can be ascertained through blood tests.
It is well known certain nutrients and minerals can have a positive impact on our health.
But, even then, it is worth remembering many supplements aren't as 'natural' as we might like to imagine. Synthetically-created vitamins are often necessary as therapeutic doses of the nutrient are unable to be extracted naturally. In some cases, they are extracted from petrochemicals.
Supplements can seem like an attractive option for the worried well but before bulk-buying pills, it is worth consulting your doctor or dietitian and bulk-buying at the fruit and vegetable shop instead.
As Cloud concluded: "You can take vitamins on the faith that they will make you better - and if you have a real vitamin deficiency, they will. But there's more science behind another way of getting your vitamins: eating right."