Are the Elderly Really Taking Too Many Vitamins?

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to The New York Times, studies have linked high-dose vitamin E with a higher risk of prostate cancer. In reality, a single study found a very small increase in prostate cancer among those using synthetic vitamin E
  • Studies looking at natural vitamin E show tocotrienols — specifically gamma tocotrienol — prevent prostate cancer and even kill prostate cancer stem cells. Gamma-tocotrienol may also be effective against existing prostate tumors
  • Your body’s ability to absorb B12 diminishes significantly with age, and Alzheimer’s symptoms are extremely similar to the symptoms of B12 deficiency
  • The New York Times also claims beta-carotene causes cancer. This myth is based on research showing smokers given a low dose of synthetic beta-carotene had a slightly increased risk of cancer. However, the treatment group had been smoking a year longer than the controls
  • When properly prescribed, and taken as directed, the death toll from drugs is between 85,000 to 135,000 Americans per year. There’s no evidence of dietary supplements having caused a single death in over 30 years

By Dr. Mercola

The conventional view of dietary supplements is, for the most part, predictably negative. The New York Times recently offered a perfect demonstration of this view in its April 3 article, “Older Americans Are ‘Hooked’ on Vitamins.”1 In this interview, Dr. Andrew Saul, editor-in-chief of the Orthomolecular Medicine News Service and author of “Doctor Yourself: Natural Healing That Works” and “Fire Your Doctor: How To Be Independently Healthy,” breaks down the myths and inaccuracies presented in that article.

While drug overdoses are currently killing 63,000 Americans each year — with opioids being responsible for nearly 50,000 of them and being a leading cause of death for Americans under 50 — the media is still pretending that people getting “hooked” on vitamins is a dangerous trend.

“The funny thing is that for those who are hooked on opioids, high doses of vitamin C had been shown — in two really good studies — to enable people to get off opioids without withdrawal symptoms, or greatly reduced withdrawal symptoms. Being hooked on vitamin C would actually help you get unhooked from heroin,” Saul notes.

Vitamin C — A Powerful Healer

Vitamin C is actually a very important and powerful detoxifier. In addition to helping you detox from drugs, this is also something to remember when you’re seeing a dentist. If you’re taking large doses of vitamin C, you may need a larger dose of anesthetic, as your body will break the drug down faster. On the other hand, loading up on vitamin C prior to a dental appointment will also quicken healing, sealing the gums faster, and reduce both bleeding and pain.

“If you have a tooth extraction or a root canal or anything that’s really invasive, vitamin C is the dentist’s best friend, because nothing makes gums stronger and quicker than vitamin C. Not only oral vitamin C; you can even take nonacidic vitamin C, such as calcium ascorbate, magnesium ascorbate or sodium ascorbate and put that right on the gums.

You can even put it right on the socket. People who have dry sockets or extended bleeding, when they use vitamin C topically — not ascorbic acid, mind you, but nonacidic C topically — they get immediate relief. It was Dr. Hugh Riordan at the now-famous Riordan Clinic who brought some of this forward decades ago. It’s good advice,” Saul says.

Do Seniors Need Vitamin Supplements?

Getting back to that New York Times article, “The Times has laid-off or fired a very large number of copyeditors … They wanted to save money, so they eliminated the copydesk. They got rid of about 100 copyeditors … In my opinion, this article is a good example of a piece that should have been properly copyedited and fact-checked, and wasn't,” Saul says.

For example, it mentions that studies have linked high-dose vitamin E with a higher risk of prostate cancer. In reality, a single study found a very small, and possibly questionable, increase in prostate cancer among people in that particular study. Importantly, the study in question used synthetic vitamin E, not the natural E. They also used fairly low dosages.

The salient point here is that there are studies looking at natural vitamin E, using all four tocopherols and four tocotrienols. These studies were not quoted, even though two such studies show tocotrienols — specifically gamma tocotrienol — actually prevent prostate cancer2 and even kill prostate cancer stem cells.3

These are the cells from which prostate cancer actually develops. They are, or quickly become, chemotherapy-resistant. Yet, natural vitamin E complex is able to kill these stem cells. Mice given oral gamma-tocotrienol had an astonishing 75 percent decrease in tumor formation.

A third study4 found gamma-tocotrienol was also effective against existing prostate tumors by modulating cell growth and the apoptosis (cell death) response. “Now, that has got to be newsworthy. The New York Times decided that's news not fit to print,” Saul says.

Are Seniors Really Getting All the Nutrients They Need From Their Diet?

The New York Times article also states that older Americans get plenty of essential nutrients in their diet, and that the Western diet is not short on vitamins. “This is demonstrably nonsense,” Saul says, adding “The elderly tend to have poor diets in general, especially those who live alone or are institutionalized.” There are a number of reasons for this, including:

  • The elderly tend to have poor appetite due to higher rates of depression
  • As people get older, their sense of smell and, therefore, their sense of taste, diminishes
  • The elderly rarely drink enough water, as the sense of thirst diminishes with age

As noted by Saul, “If they're not eating proper meals because they're sad, depressed or lonely, or they're just getting mediocre care, then they can't possibly get enough nutrients — because even the paltry amount of nutrients in an American diet is not there if you don't even eat the American diet.”

Most Seniors Are Deficient in B12, Magnesium and Vitamin D

Your body’s ability to absorb B12 also diminishes significantly with age, and Alzheimer’s symptoms are in fact extremely similar to the symptoms of severe B12 deficiency. Many clinicians would likely have a hard time distinguishing between the two.

“If B12 absorption is poor, and if the elderly are not eating proper meals, the amount of B12 in an older person is going to be low. For the article to say that it’s an abundant nutrient for the elderly is absolutely not true,” Saul says. There’s also ample evidence showing most soils are depleted of nutrients, which has led to lower nutrient values in whole foods. So, while Americans are not deficient in calories, many are indeed deficient in crucial nutrients.

“Dr. Abram Hoffer asked me years ago to write a paper on, ‘Can supplements take the place of a good diet?’ My comment was, ‘Well, they’re going to have to.’ Because people eat such lousy diets. If they're going to eat lousy diets, it's better to have a lousy diet and take supplements than to have a lousy diet without supplements. The solution, really, is to have a really good diet.

But I don’t have to tell you what a hospital diet looks like, or what a nursing home diet looks like. You don’t have to tell me what a school lunch diet looks like. These are really poor meals. You have exactly the wrong nutrients in abundance — the calorie nutrients. And then you have a dearth of the micronutrients.

One more thing:  the article talks about how there’s an abundance of nutrients and everybody gets enough. With the mineral magnesium, if you look over decades of studies, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey studies and all kinds of very large-scale studies of what people eat, magnesium deficiency is probably the most common mineral deficiency in the United States. Almost no Americans get the U.S. recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of magnesium …

The other one is vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is so prevalent in the elderly that half of the people hospitalized for hip fractures are demonstrably and measurably vitamin D-deficient. What’s really interesting is that the article says taking extra calcium did not help fractures. That’s not the point. It’s extra vitamin D and vitamin K that help put the calcium where it needs to be. They didn’t mention that.”

The Importance of Magnesium

Saul cites a Blue Cross Blue Shield study showing that seniors who took vitamin D supplements not only had fewer fractures, but they didn’t fall as often. “Vitamin D actually helps prevent the fracture by preventing falling,” Saul says. Magnesium deficiency is also problematic as it plays an important role in heart health and muscle function.

Magnesium may also help protect your body against the ravages of electrical pollution. Electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which are pervasive everywhere these days, cause oxidative damage similar to that of smoking. Magnesium acts as a calcium-channel blocker, which appears to be one of the primary mechanisms through which EMFs cause oxidative stress. Hence, having enough magnesium in your body may be protective.

Types of Magnesium and Advice on Dosage

When it comes to oral magnesium supplementation, there’s the issue of it having a laxative effect, which can upset your microbiome. One simple solution to this is to take regular Epsom salts baths. It’s a good way to relax sore muscles, and your body will absorb the magnesium transdermally, meaning through your skin, bypassing your gastrointestinal tract altogether.

The worst form of magnesium, in terms of absorbability, is magnesium oxide, which incidentally is also the most common form available to consumers. Better alternatives include magnesium gluconate, magnesium citrate or magnesium chloride, the latter of which has the greatest absorbability of the three.

Two of my personal favorites are magnesium malate (malic acid) and magnesium threonate. Magnesium malate is a Krebs cycle intermediate and may help increase adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production, while magnesium threonate has been shown to effectively penetrate the blood-brain barrier. So, for brain benefits, threonate appears to be preferable.

“If you take magnesium in small divided doses, you’re less likely to disturb your belly,” Saul says. “Some people don’t need to take a lot of extra magnesium; others do. It’s really a matter of [doing] a therapeutic trial. I would start small. Take your magnesium between meals and see when you feel better. It’s simply a matter of trial and error …

It was Dr. Richard Passwater who first brought that idea to me in the late ‘70s, in his wonderful book ‘Super-Nutrition: Megavitamin Revolution.’ He said, ‘To determine your dose of nutrients as you want to supplement with, start taking them and see if you feel better. If you do, take a little more. If you’re feeling still better, then use the higher dose. If you don’t feel any better, go to the lower dose that gets the most results.

I just love that. It’s so simple. We can all do this, and should. That doesn’t mean you’re hooked on vitamins, folks. It means that you’re an intelligent human being. How intelligent? Well, at least half of all Americans are taking vitamins every day. With the elderly, it may be as high as two-thirds. I have heard, unofficially, that among physicians, 3 out of 4 doctors take supplements regularly. They just don’t talk about it.”

When I was still practicing, intravenous magnesium was one of the minerals I regularly used for acute migraines, infections and asthma attacks. In high doses, magnesium has a very potent vasodilatory effect. In fact, if administered too quickly, it’s almost like a niacin flush. But it was profoundly effective for aborting migraines and asthma attacks, and rapidly resolved coughs and colds. Magnesium will also help prevent and/or ease menstrual cramps.

Does Beta-Carotene Cause Cancer?

The New York Times also revisited the age-old myth that beta-carotene causes cancer. This fallacy is based on research from the 1990s that found a certain population of men in Finland, when given 20 milligrams of beta-carotene a day — the equivalent found in two or three carrots — had a very small but widely touted increase in cancer.

What is regularly not mentioned is the fact that they were heavy smokers, and the treatment group had been smoking a year longer than the controls. The patients also were not prescreened to see if they had any precancerous conditions.

“People say to me, ‘Beta-carotene can cause cancer.’ No. Smoking causes cancer. ‘Beta-carotene can be harmful.’ No. Cigarettes are harmful. SMOKING is what’s harmful to smokers. The problem, folks, is not the carrots,” Saul says. Another significant variable that may have played a role is the fact that they used synthetic beta-carotene.

“The study is a bad study. Therefore, The New York Times should know better than to quote it. They not only quote it, they kind of misquote it because they don't use the word ‘smoker,’” Saul says. “If you're hooked on cigarettes, you're going to have problems. If you're hooked on vitamins, you're not.

This brings us to the fundamental question of what kills and what wastes money. Consumer Reports estimates that $200 billion a year is spent on incorrect harmful medication. The entire food supplement industry worldwide is one-fifth of that, at most. We are wasting huge amounts on giving drugs that are harmful and complaining about the people who are doing good preventive care and taking their vitamins.”

Supplements Versus Drugs — What’s More Dangerous?

Saul also notes that Harvard School of Public Health has assessed the role of drugs in deaths at great depth. When properly prescribed and taken as directed, the lowest estimated death toll from pharmaceutical drugs is still around 85,000 people a year. The high estimate is around 135,000 people annually, while the generally accepted estimate is about 106,000 people a year.

That’s 106,000 dead Americans every year from properly prescribed drugs, not medical errors; drugs taken as directed, not overdose. That means that each decade, “normal” side effects of drugs are killing about 1 million people in the U.S.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), which has been tracking this information for over three decades, there have been 13 alleged deaths from vitamins in 31 years. However, Saul notes, “My team looked into this and we could not find substantiation, documentation, proof or convincing evidence of one single death … from vitamins in the last 31 years.” In most cases, the individual was taking both drugs and vitamins.

This year, the AAPCC actually removed the vitamin category, because it’s always been zero. “Personally, I think they got tired of the Orthomolecular Medicine News Service saying, ‘No deaths from vitamins. No deaths from minerals. No deaths from amino acids. No deaths from herbals. No deaths from homeopathic substances,’” Saul says.5,6

“These alternative treatments are effective. They’re safe, and they’re cheap. I want to emphasize they are safe. People are dying in our land and in our world because we’re giving them dangerous drugs. Dr. Hoffer once said, ‘Drugs make a well person sick. Why would they make a sick person well?’ …

Vitamins are not the problem. They're the solution. If we had better-nourished Americans, we'd save a pile on our $3 trillion-plus disease care bill. It's good that older Americans take supplements. I don't mean to do it foolishly. If you take a look, most people are actually smarter than we give them credit for. Taking a multivitamin for instance, especially if it's a good-quality natural multivitamin, is just a really good idea.”

Growing Your Own Food Is Part of the Solution

As a general rule, most Americans are not getting enough vitamins, minerals and micronutrients from their foods, in large part thanks to the prevalence of processed foods. Dietary supplements, especially if your diet is largely processed, is generally advisable. In the long term, growing more nutrient-dense food is a big part of the answer.

Garden-grown organic vegetables and fruits are nutrient-rich and represent the freshest produce available. Growing your own crops not only improves your diet, but it also:

  • Enhances and protects precious topsoil
  • Encourages composting, which can be used to feed and nourish your plants
  • Minimizes your exposure to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other toxins
  • Promotes biodiversity by creating a natural habitat for animals, birds, insects and other living organisms
  • Improves your fitness level, mood and sense of well-being, making gardening a form of exercise

While gardens have many benefits, the most important reason you should plant a garden (especially given the many issues associated with industrial agriculture) is because gardening helps create a more sustainable global food system, giving you and others access to fresh, healthy, nutrient-dense food. If you are new to gardening and unsure about where to start, consider sprouts.

Sprouts are an easy-to-grow, but often overlooked, superfood with a superior nutritional profile. You can grow sprouts even if you don’t have an outdoor garden, and you should consider them if you live in an apartment or condo where space is limited.

“No matter where you are, there’s a way that we can [grow our own food]. We’ve been taught to be consumers of medical care instead of self-reliant people. We’ve been taught to be patients and not persons. To change this around, we have to give ourselves permission to take the power, to do what our body should have been doing all along. We’ve been misled.

I think maybe profit has a little bit to do with this. The pharmaceutical industry is making an awful lot of dough these days. I know people who take pills that cost $1,000 apiece. Don’t tell me I’m hooked on vitamins and I’m wasting my money and having expensive urine. I don’t need to hear that. I find that taking vitamins is very helpful to me, my children and my grandchildren …

For people who think they can’t, you’re wrong. You can. You can do this right away. You can eat better. One of the few free decisions we make every day is whether we will or will not exercise, whether we will or not eat this or that, whether we will or not say no to pharmaceutical drugs or over-the-counter drugs. Every single incremental advancement that you make is going to make your body happy. You’re going to see the difference. All you’ve got to do is try it.”

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