Billions of dollars are spent every year on multivitamins. Almost half of Americans take multivitamins and that number increases as they get older. In this article, I explore the pros and cons of taking a multivitamin for women during menopause.
What are multivitamins?
A multivitamin is a supplement that contains a mix of several vitamins, sometimes with minerals added, that is meant to make sure you are getting enough of these essential nutrients. In this article, I explained the role of supplements in general in your diet.
The one key is that supplements are intended to supplement your diet of healthy whole foods, not replace it.
I’m going to start by reviewing the many reasons I don’t feel including multivitamins are necessary or desirable for most people.
You can get too much of some vitamins
If you are taking a multivitamin, especially a high dose multivitamin, along with other supplements, or fortified foods and drinks then it is possible to get too much of certain vitamins and minerals. Fortified foods include cereals, bread, milk, meal replacements, and energy bars. Fat soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K can build up in your system if you get too much of these.
For example, if you are taking a multivitamin, eating fortified breakfast cereal, and drinking vitamin water you could be at risk of consuming too much of some vitamins.
You might not get what you need for other vitamins, minerals and other nutrients
On the other hand, if you are deficient in some vitamins, the amount contained in a multivitamin might not be enough. Many women going through perimenopause are low in iron. The amount in a multivitamin may help, but you might need more to replenish your iron stores. Vitamin D is another example. People who live in a northern climate or who spend a lot of time indoors can’t get enough from sunlight and may need more than the amount included in a multivitamin.
Nutrition science if always evolving and multivitamins are an attempt to package the best parts of food in an easy to consume package. This doesn’t mean that they contain all the benefits of food. You might be missing fibre, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and some vitamins and minerals that are not included in the multivitamin.
They won’t help you live longer
Studies have shown that multivitamins don’t decrease the risk of heart disease, cancer, or dementia. Men may see a reduced risk of cancer with multivitamin use, but women don’t see the same benefits.
When death rates are studied in multivitamin users they appear to be similar. High dose supplements may actually increase death rates.
It can provide a false sense of security
Multivitamins are not a substitute for a healthy diet of whole foods. But many people take multivitamins and believe that it means they don’t have to eat healthy, that the vitamin will protect them.
Even if you know you need to eat healthy, subconsciously you may be lured into a false sense of security by taking a multivitamin.
Dietary supplements regulations may not be enough
Dietary supplements including multivitamins are regulated as food, not as drugs in the United States. This means that they may not contain exactly what they say. They can potentially include other ingredients which could be harmful. They also don’t need undergo studies showing they are safe and effective,
Vitamins may come from natural or food sources, natural identical synthetics and synthetic sources. Synthetic vitamins are different from those found in nature and may not have the effect desired. And you might be surprised at the source of some synthetic vitamins – coal tar for example.
As a side note fortified foods often contain synthetic versions of these vitamins. You are better off taking a good quality multivitamin.
They may not be worth the cost
Multivitamins taken daily add up to a large expense. This is likely why most multivitamin consumers are of higher socio-economic standing. You are likely better off spending the money on fresh fruits and vegetables.
I admit to being biased against multivitamins, but I did investigate the positive aspects of taking a multivitamin.
Benefits for some people
Some people are unable to get the nutrients they need through diet alone. This includes pregnant women, people who have diseases that prevent absorption of some nutrients like celiac or Crohn’s disease.
Older adults may be deficient in vitamin B12 and other vitamins and minerals, but these needs might not be best addressed by a multivitamin. If you do choose a multivitamin look carefully at the source and amounts of vitamins to make sure it contains what you need. But many older adults take supplements they don’t need.
Women on very restrictive diets may be lacking some nutrients so a multivitamin might be beneficial in the short term.
Improves mood and brain function
Some studies have shown that multivitamins help to improve mood, especially if the dose of B vitamins is high. Unfortunately the placebo effect may be at work here. There is some evidence that the vitamins and minerals found in a multivitamin can improve brain function, but some studies don’t show this benefit.
People who take a multivitamin have fewer cases of macular degeneration than those who don’t. There may also be a lower risk of developing cataracts with multivitamin use.
Many people take multivitamins for added nutritional insurance and they may provide some benefit, for some people. They are unlikely to cause harm so if you want that insurance you can keep taking them.
On the other hand, you will likely get more benefits from making changes to your diet – adding more fruits and vegetables, eating less processed foods, and supplementing with the vitamins and minerals you need. For help improving your diet during and after menopause, join the Healthy Changes Program.