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Science
13 Dec 2016

Could vitamin supplements harm you?

Should you really be taking vitamin supplements?

Vitamin supplements have over the decades become synonymous with keeping illnesses at bay and prolonged use of antioxidants may even slow-down ageing in humans.

Despite their universal popularity, over the last decade and a half there's growing suspicion of their usefulness.

There is a school of thought, according to which supplements could even harm you.

Let's take a closer look if this is true.

In context

Should you really be taking vitamin supplements?
Linus Pauling and Vitamin C

1950-1965

Linus Pauling and Vitamin C

Linus Pauling is believed to have laid the "foundations of modern chemistry."

His work on structure of proteins helped scientists decode the DNA structure in 1953.

A year later, Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 for his revelations into how molecules are held together.

By 1964, his belief in power of Vitamin C had begun to gain strength.

1970s-1980s

The exponential rise of Vitamin C's popularity

Linus Pauling's book 'How To Live Longer and Feel Better' was released in 1970 and was a bestseller.

He argued that Vitamin C could cure cold and had personally began to consume 18,000 milligrams per day, 50 times of what was the recommended daily allowance.

In his book's 2nd edition, he claimed Vitamin C could cure the flu and even the fast-spreading HIV.

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Power of Vitamin C begins to be questioned

Why

Power of Vitamin C begins to be questioned

Vitamin C was believed to be an antioxidant; antioxidants were reportedly capable of neutralizing reactive molecules called 'free-radicals'.

'Free radicals' lead to deterioration, disease and ultimately, ageing and scientists believed they could be purged from the body.

In the 1970s and 80s, experiments were conducted on mice that were prescribed a variety of supplementary-antioxidants.

Results didn't provide any proof of extending or improving lifespan.

What transpired

How did humans fare in trials?

A 1994 trial of 29,000 Finish people, age above 50 and smokers, were given beta-carotene supplements; this group's incidence of lung cancer increased by 16%.

A trial required postmenopausal American women to take folic-acid: 10 years hence breast-cancer risk had increased by 20%.

1996 study of 1,000 heavy smokers was terminated when supplementation of beta-carotene and vitamin A increased lung cancer risk by 28%.

The dark side of antioxidants

2012

The dark side of antioxidants

People who don't have a healthy diet have marginally benefited from consumption of antioxidants.

In 2012, a review of 27 clinical trials on efficacy of antioxidants indicated - 7 studies reported reduced risk in coronary diseases and 10 studies reported no benefits.

The remaining 10 studies found patients were significantly worse after antioxidants were administered; risks included increased incidence of lung and breast cancer.

Yes and No

So, are antioxidants healthy or not?

Vitamin-C is crucial to a healthy lifestyle like all antioxidants: however unless prescribed by a doctor, these supplements are rarely the answer for a longer life especially when a healthier diet is an available option.

Nick Lane, a biochemist from University College London says, "The best option is to get antioxidants is from food because it contains a mixture of antioxidants that work together."

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