A bitter pill?

In Community and Relationship, Diet, Nutrition and Recipes by Tracey HoganLeave a Comment


There was a furor in nutrition and complementary medicine circles during the month of October, when it was reported that women had an increased mortality (death) rate when taking dietary vitamin and mineral supplements. With Americans spending approximately $27 billion per year on supplements, it’s big business.

Dr. J Murso and associates analysed data from the Iowa Women’s Health Study of 38 772 older women with a mean age of 61.6 years. The women reported the supplement use in 1986, 1997, and 2004. Through December 31, 2008, a total of 15,594 deaths (40.2%) were identified through the State Health Registry of Iowa and the National Death Index.

It was reported that multivitamins had an absolute risk increase of death by 2.4%, vitamin B6 4.1% increase, folic acid 5.9%, iron 3.9%, magnesium 3.6%, zinc 3.0%, and copper 18.0% increase, when compared to nonuse of these supplements. Using calcium supplements was found to reduce mortality by 3.8%.

From this it was concluded that in older women commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk; with a strongest association with supplemental iron. In contrast to the findings of many studies, calcium is associated with decreased risk.

It neglected to relate these findings to the overall health of the women, what they were taking the supplements for, and whether they were taking other medications concurrently. There was no dietary analysis undertaken to see whether these women had a healthy diet.

If the recent Iowa State Fair delicacies like deep fried butter in batter is any indication of the type of food enjoyed by the people of Iowa, maybe there should have been. Deep fried butter consists of frozen butter dipped into a sticky cinnamon-honey batter, placed in oil until brown, then drizzled with a confectioner’s sugar glaze. (See ABC News website and search “Tasty Trumps Nutritious: Deep-Fried Butter”.)

It could be pertinent and interesting to see whether there were increased mortality risks for the women in the Iowa women’s study using particular medications.

According to a media release by the Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia’s director, Dr. Wendy Morrow, “As the peak industry body in Australia for Complementary Medicines, we feel that the study and its coverage has raised concern about the safety of multivitamins and individual nutrients for older women. However, leading nutrition experts have noted that it appears to be seriously flawed research – making any recommendations from the findings dubious.”

Dr. Morrow went on to say, “There was no way of differentiating between the impact of individual nutrients, when multiple supplements were taken and nutrient measures were unreliable. It also did not take into account the number of these women who were taking specific supplements because they were unwell. It would be unsurprising that a higher proportion of deaths were in that group, and it is quite possible the deaths were not related to the multivitamins.”

Due to the extremely rigorous regulatory protection offered to consumers here in Australia, Dr. Morrow had this to add: “It’s really difficult to draw comparisons between Australia and other countries such as the US, where this study took place. Importantly, we also reiterate and encourage consumers to consult with their health care professionals when thinking about their supplementation needs. We also stress that nutrition, lifestyle and supplementation need to be viewed overall, not in isolation of each other.”

There are many studies on the benefits of particular vitamin and mineral supplements – so before you throw out your supplements, do some further reading and speak to your health care professional for further information.

To read the details go to: Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(18):1625-1633. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.445

Tracey Hogan is a Sydney naturopath, nutritionist, herbalist and homoeopath with 18 years’ experience in the industry. She regularly writes on complementary health topics.



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