There’s been a lot of buzz over the past several months over whether taking vitamins and dietary supplements is actually helpful. In December 2013, the Annals of Internal Medicine published an editorial asserting that the effectiveness of vitamins and supplements is not backed by evidence. And in February, a study published in the Journal of National Cancer Institute linked selenium and vitamin D supplementation to an increased risk of prostate cancer in men – something those supplements were previously thought to prevent.
These stories sparked a flurry of headlines proclaiming “Supplements tied to increased cancer risk” and “Stop Wasting Money on Vitamins.”
The concerns are valid, given that half the population takes supplements or vitamins, and we spend over $25 billion a year on them. But are supplements really totally ineffective, particularly when taken for conditions such as anxiety?
The authors of the Annals of Internal Medicine editorial evaluated numerous studies on the effect of multivitamins on healthy individuals and concluded that those taking the supplements fared no better than those who took a placebo, at least in terms of risks like stroke, heart attack and joint problems.
“There really is not a compelling database for people to take these supplements, many of which can be expensive and divert people from doing what they really should do … being physical active. Take the money they use on supplements and spend it on a pair of sneakers, or gym club, or eating better foods,” said Dr. Lawrence Appel, one of the report’s authors.
While I agree with Appel that people should not forgo exercise and healthy habits in favor of a pill, I don’t think that “healthy person taking a multivitamin to be even healthier” is a good description for many individuals who turn to herbal and vitamin supplements.
My interest in supplements began after I couldn’t take the side effects of prescription anxiety meds anymore, but I still wanted something to help me cope. I began drinking calming teas and taking a multivitamin and magnesium supplement at the recommendation of my doctor, after tests showed I was deficient in several key nutrients. (I think it’s worth noting that I’ve always had what would be considered a healthier-than-average diet, and I still had deficiencies.) Eventually I found my way to Tranquilene, which combines herbs, vitamins and minerals that have actually been shown to decrease stress and anxiety in peer-reviewed studies.
I think this is similar to how a lot of anxiety sufferers come to explore supplements. Prescription medications can have harsh side effects (including the risk of addiction, which can be life-altering), and for this reason, therapy and lifestyle changes are the most-recommended treatments for anxiety disorders. But the fact is that even those who have healthy lifestyles and who are working hard in therapy often still need something extra, at least while they are learning to manage their symptoms. And as holistic and alternative medicine gains popularity, more and more people are willing to give natural remedies a shot.
Why Take Supplements Seriously?
Those turning to a more natural approach are in good company, considering that natural anxiety remedies have historically played a role in cultures around the world. It was on this basis on that a 2010 study published in Nutrition Journal was conducted. In the study, researchers examined past published studies on the use of herbal and nutritional supplements for anxiety and related disorders.
“The universality of herbal remedies in many cultures makes them an appropriate treatment to explore,” the authors wrote. “Herbal medicines hold an important place in the history of medicine, as most of our current remedies, and the majority of those to be discovered in the future, will contain phytochemicals derived from plants.”
The researchers focused on a number of herbs and nutrients that have been explored for potential anxiety-relieving benefits, including passionflower, magnesium and B vitamins.
The study concludes:
“Based on the available evidence, it appears that nutritional and herbal supplementation is an effective method for treating anxiety and anxiety-related conditions without the risk of serious side effects. There is the possibility that any positive effects seen could be due to a placebo effect, which may have a significant psychological impact on participants with mental disorders. However, based on this systematic review, strong evidence exists for the use of herbal supplements … as treatments for anxiety symptoms and disorders.”
Even the U.S. government suggests supplementation for members of the population who may not be properly nourished. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA, explain that many people consume extra calories without getting the nutrients they need. This runs counter to Appel’s claims that nutritional deficiencies are not an issue among the U.S. population.
“The Guidelines warn that there are numerous nutrients — including vitamins — for which low dietary intake may be a cause of concern,” according to the FDA.
These nutrients include calcium, magnesium, vitamins A, C, and E, as well as B-compound vitamins.
Of course, as with anything, it’s important to take some basic precautions when supplementing with vitamins and herbs. The FDA has found that many supplements are contaminated, which is why it recommends that consumers look for the NSF’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) seal.
A few more guidelines:
- Consult your doctor before starting a supplement regimen.
- Disclose the supplements you’re taking before surgical procedures.
- Do your research in terms of benefits, safety risks, and proper dosage.
- Discontinue and consult your doctor if you experience concerning side effects.