Multivitamin Benefits for Health: Consider These Alternatives Instead

One of the claims of multivitamin benefits is the ease of getting all your vitamins and minerals in one daily pill. But do they really work?

Popular multivitamin brands stocked on shelf in

For years, there have been countless advertisements listing multivitamin benefits. We’re spoilt for choice with multivitamins for every age group and need, from women and men to even children. Believing in its benefits and convenience, Malaysians purchased over US$43 million of multivitamins and minerals in 2020. That’s a lot of trusts placed in a category of health products where direct efficacy is still up for debate and the subject of continued research.  

The use of multivitamins began in the early 1940s in the United States. With an even larger market, sales of multivitamins and sports/fitness dietary supplements in the US totalled US$8 billion in 2019. Is there truth behind multivitamin benefits, or are they just a marketing strategy? 

Multivitamin Benefits: What are the Myths and Facts?

Multivitamins are dietary supplements containing isolated compounds of essential vitamins and minerals. They are usually marketed as one-a-day tablets or capsules to help maintain health and correct deficiencies in individuals. Some also have specific claims of suitability for use by gender, and different age groups, as well as for specific health issues such as heart disease or to promote anti-ageing.  

Vitamin deficiencies can be first remedied by improving nutrient intake through whole foods, before considering multivitamins. 
Vitamin deficiencies can be first remedied by improving nutrient intake through whole foods, before considering multivitamins. 

Myth: Multivitamins improve health 

A study of men and women over the age of 45 in Los Angeles and Hawaii revealed that over 74% of men and 72% of women were already getting an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals from food alone.  

Other studies, including one conducted by the Women’s Health Initiative on post-menopausal women in the US, revealed there was no association between multivitamin intake and improved health.

Meanwhile, other studies confirmed that only those with specific conditions such as pregnant women are more likely to benefit from multivitamins.

Perhaps the most revealing study was a Physicians Health Study II that observed male physicians over the age of 50 for a period of 11 years and 2 months. They observed if a particular multivitamin could prevent chronic cardiovascular-related disease. It concluded those who took the multivitamin didn’t have fewer incidence of cardiovascular disease than non-users. 

Fact: There is a risk of excessive vitamin intake with multivitamins

With the intake of multivitamins, there’s a risk of excessive intake of certain vitamins, such as vitamin A, zinc, iron, and niacin.

An overdose of vitamin A can lead to vision disturbances, joint pain, nausea and vomiting, for example. Excessive iron amounts can cause stomach upset, constipation and fainting while excessive zinc intake can result in a loss of appetite, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, and headaches.

In Canada and the US, the amount of folic acid in prenatal multivitamins tend to exceed the recommended amount.  

Beta-carotene is another potentially risky supplement, especially for smokers and former smokers. Two studies have linked the intake of this supplement to an increased risk of lung cancer. 

Many studies that look at multivitamin use also show that users who report better health also tend to be health-conscious and practice a healthier lifestyle in the first place. In that situation, the effectiveness of multivitamins is unclear. There’s also a danger of consumers developing a false sense of security because they think that popping a pill can counter poor nutrition and lack of exercise.

TCM Alternatives to Multivitamins

Lingzhi mushrooms and slices put on an old wooden background.
Lingzhi, also known as reishi mushrooms, are one of the many TCM superfoods that have been shown to help overall health.

The concept of multivitamin benefits in boosting health and vitality is absent from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Instead, TCM focuses on maintaining a healthy body, with modalities that enhance the body’s ability to maintain its health and heal itself. 

“TCM can help boost energy through acupuncture, herbal medication, cupping, tui na (Chinese manual therapy), moxibustion and gua sha (scraping), all of which are formulated carefully by a TCM physician to specifically address the unique body constitution of every individual patient,” explains Real Health Senior TCM Physician Brandon Yew. 

If you experience some imbalances, deficiencies, or excesses that result in compromised health and an increased risk of chronic disease, TCM offers herbs and other natural products with health-promoting compounds. Physician Yew shares the following examples: 

  • Ginseng (ren shen, 人参), including American ginseng (xi yang shen, 西洋参) and panax notoginseng (tian qi, 田七) 
  • Cordyceps (dong cong xia cao, 冬虫夏草) 
  • Astragalus (huang qi, 黄芪) 
  • Dendrobium (shi hu, 石斛) 
  • White fungus (yin er, 银耳) 

Panax Notoginseng

Studies on panax notoginseng, for example, have been able to demonstrate its lipid-lowering activity. It resulted in a significant reduction of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) in the serum levels of rats.

“Ginseng improves vitality and immunity, is anti-ageing, and helps improve blood circulation,” explains Physician Yew. 

Lingzhi mushroom

Lingzhi, also known as reishi mushrooms, are also great antioxidants. Studies show an increase in the plasma total antioxidant activity in human subjects when they consume the mushrooms. The polysaccharides in lingzhi have protective effects against cancerous activity in cells.

“In addition, lingzhi controls blood sugar, improves vitality and immunity, can help calm nerves and improve sleep, as well as strengthens lung function to manage chronic cough,” Physician Yew says.

Like many of these superfoods, lingzhi helps boost energy levels to combat fatigue, so you won’t have to resort to energy drinks. It’s important to note that incorrect herb intake can be harmful, so it’s best to work with a TCM physician before consuming these superfoods.

Perhaps there is no harm in believing in multivitamin benefits, especially in specific cases of deficiencies or for special needs like during pregnancy. But with studies failing to show definitive health improvement by taking multivitamins, we must be cautious not to fall prey to marketing. Instead, you can turn to healthy and balanced nutrition through food, exercise, and lifestyle as your best chance of longevity and well-being. 

References

  1. Statista.com, 2021. Revenue of vitamins & minerals in Malaysia from 2012 to 2025.  [Accessed 20 July 2022]. 
  2. National Institutes of Health, US. 2022. Multivitamin/mineral Supplements.  [Accessed 20 July 2022]. 
  3. British Heart Foundation, UK. Are multivitamins good for you?  [Accessed 20 July 2022]. 
  4. Aging and Disease. 2017. Therapeutic Potential and Cellular Mechanisms of Panax Notoginseng on Prevention of Aging and Cell Senescence-Associated Diseases. [Accessed 20 July 2022]. 
  5. National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI), US. 2011. Ganoderma lucidum (Lingzhi or Reishi) (Chapter 9 of Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition).  [Accessed 20 July 2022]. 

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