Vitamins: Helpful or Placebo?

Vitamins Helpful or PlaceboShawn Hempel / Shutterstock

“Multi-vitamins are a waste of money.”


“Mega-doses of vitamin A and E do not reduce risk of cancer and heart disease”.


“Vitamin E found to be more effective than prescription medication for patients with Alzheimer’s.”

With all of the conflicting headlines surrounding vitamin supplements this past year, it’s no wonder average consumers like us have been left feeling skeptical, confused or disillusioned about vitamin supplements. Whether your regimen consists of popping the occasional vitamin C when you feel a cold coming on or you have a cabinet bursting with bottles of the latest in natural supplements, there is no arguing the fact that we have yet to discover a magic pill for maintaining health or even preventing the common cold.

However, with the hectic pace and chronic stress that most people have to deal with today, it’s easy to see how our urban diet can lack a balance of important nutrients and minerals. And over time, burning the candle at both ends can leave the body chronically depleted of the fuel it needs to stay running at optimum levels.

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Prescribed prescription drugs can inhibit the absorption of essential nutrients

Additionally, a number of commonly prescribed prescription drugs can inhibit the absorption of essential nutrients. To find out if your body is deficient, it may be worth having blood work done as part of a regular checkups. Most Americans who are tested find that their diet fall short in magnesium, vitamin D and iodine. For some people, even the most balanced and healthy meals may not provide adequate levels of these nutrients, so physicians may suggest supplements to help bring the body into balance.

When choosing a certain brand of vitamin, take the time to read labels and do your research. A product like vitamin C that is synthesized in a lab may act very differently in the body than a vitamin C supplement that is derived from whole foods or minerals that the body is already accustomed to. Two more important factors to look out for are whether the vitamin can be absorbed easily (called bioavailability) and finding a supplement with the correct dosage for your needs.

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But What About the Placebo Effect?

The debate about vitamins has become heated in recent years and there is no end in sight. In terms of profitability, since pharmaceutical companies are not permitted to trademark vitamins, they will never be as profitable to market as prescription medications, and the vitamin industry reported more than $20 billion dollar in sales in the U.S. in 2010. So a savvy consumer should look beyond the marketing strategies on either side and consider the source of studies that support or discourage the use of vitamins.

As with any health decision, a common sense approach is the best one. If you’d like to test out a certain supplement, follow the advice of your healthcare practitioner and with their go ahead, try it for yourself. A trial period of 4 to 6 weeks is usually long enough to determine if a supplement is helpful or not.

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Placebo effect may actually involve real changes in brain chemistry.

Interestingly, while researchers have questioned whether vitamins are a placebo for decades, there is growing recognition in scientific fields that what we call the placebo effect may actually involve real, observable changes in a person’s brain chemistry. What does this mean? That the placebo effect in and of itself could play a valuable part in good medical care.

In the recent article “Putting the Placebo Effect to Work” published by Harvard Medical School, researchers comment that any vitamin or supplement changes a person’s physiology in a positive way and does not put them at risk of harmful side-effects should be welcomed by advocates of conventional and alternative health care alike. More evidence in support of the powerful mind-body connection and some food for thought!

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Do What’s Best for You

Ultimately, taking vitamins or supplements is a personal decision. But no matter where you stand on the issue, we all have the same desire to look and feel our best. So here is the fastest, easiest way to boost your health, have more energy and best of all, it’s free! It’s simple: drink more water. Making sure you’re adequately hydrated will regulate your body temperature, metabolism and:

  • Transport nutrients to your cells.

  • Whisk away waste products.

  • Help your body use water soluble vitamins like B and C.

So drink up! There is no replacement for eating fresh, nutritious food, curbing unhealthy habits and making time for regular checkups with a trusted healthcare provider.

Taking these steps, along with adequate rest, regular exercise and a nutrient-rich diet are the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle and the best way to ward off illnesses like heart-disease and cancer.

Jan 12, 2015