Should You Take a Multivitamin?

In 2011, Consumer Reports reported that Americans were spending about $5 billion per year on multivitamins. This means that roughly one third of the country’s population regularly takes multivitamins (which also generally contain minerals), making them the most commonly taken supplement in the U.S.A.

That level of popularity isn’t necessarily proof of a supplement’s safety or effectiveness, however — after all, at one point,many people were purposely ingesting tapeworm eggs. So, should you take a multivitamin? Although multivitamins are usually thought of as harmless, are there any potential side effects?

The Idea Behind Multivitamins

Your body needs a wide variety of nutrients to maintain the complex array of functions that keep you active and healthy. Generally speaking, these nutrients can be separated into two groups: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are fats, proteins and carbohydrates. For the most part, they make up the fuel mixture for your body.

Micronutrients are a broad category, encompassing vitamins and minerals, among other things. These substances are vital to just about everything your body does, including maintaining bone health, nerve function, heart health, muscle contractions and hormone production.

A healthy, balanced diet will give most people all of the vitamins and minerals they need. However, eating a healthy and balanced diet is an increasingly difficult accomplishment, which means you may require supplementation to fill the gaps in your diet. It is important to note that true deficiencies in these vitamins and minerals are very rare in the United States. Certain diseases and conditions can create these deficiencies, though, with symptoms varying from nutrient to nutrient.

Some sources contend that athletes and people who live an active lifestyle will have an increased need for these micronutrients. There isn’t enough research yet to definitively state the vitamin and mineral needs of athletes, but it is apparent that vigorous activity causes your body to burn through these nutrients faster than it would otherwise.

Do They Work?

Whether or not you feel a multivitamin works will likely depend largely on your expectations. Unless you have a condition that increases your need for certain nutrients, you won’t see immediate or drastic changes in your physical or mental well-being; multivitamins are more about maintenance than dramatic change.

The role that these micronutrients play can be compared to the various fluids in your car. Oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid, transmission fluid and coolant all need to be kept at proper levels for your car to run smoothly. If one of these gets low, you’ll probably notice a change in your car’s gas mileage, maybe accompanied by a new smell or noise. If you top off these fluid levels, you most likely won’t notice any major changes — but the benefits are still there, and your car will probably last longer.

In the same way, it seems that multivitamins encourage healthy aging. One Australian study found that taking multivitamins for eight weeks improved memory and slowed cognitive decline in men aged 50 to 69. Another study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that women using multivitamins increased the length of their telomeres, which are nucleotide sequences that protect chromosomes from deterioration — essentially increasing the lifespan of cells and potentially slowing the aging process.

Potential Side Effects

It is possible to overdose on some of the nutrients found in multivitamins, such as iron, so they should always be taken in the recommended doses and according to directions. As with all supplements, multivitamins should only be taken after discussion with your doctor, especially if you have a condition and are taking medication. Allergies to multivitamins are also possible.

There are also some concerns that multivitamins may increase the risk of breast cancer in women, but this is highly contested, and many studies contradict each other.

Have you taken multivitamins? Did you feel they worked for you? Please share your experience in the comments.