Dietary supplements can help keep us healthy in the face of our less than perfect diets, as well as nutrient depletion in the soil that produces many of the fruits and vegetables that we do eat.
The latest research points to one type of supplement in particular that can offer significant support for better health by strengthening your body’s immune system.
What is it? A multivitamin.But not just any multivitamin.
Researchers at Oregon State University performed a three-month study on the effects of taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement with zinc and high amounts of vitamin C. The results in the participants overall health were profound.
“Striking” Ability to Fight Illness
The people taking supplements were sick for shorter periods of time, and if they did get sick, their symptoms were less troublesome. Plus, they got better faster than non-supplement takers.1
The research involved 42 people aged 55 to 75 who underwent blood tests to measure how the supplements affected the immune system. Researchers also analyzed serum levels of zinc and vitamin C and D – micronutrients that are central to keeping the immune system functioning properly.
Interestingly, in the people taking the supplements, the blood tests showed that immune markers which signaled how well white blood cells killed disease-causing microbes didn’t appear to change. However, their bodies were still better able to fight off sickness during the study, with less discomfort than occurred in the people who didn’t take the supplements. What’s more, their blood levels of vitamin C and zinc were also higher, as you might expect.
“The observed illness differences were striking,” says researcher Adrian Gombart, who teaches biochemistry and biophysics at Oregon State.
Dr. Gombart points out that as we age, we’re more likely to develop vitamin and mineral deficiencies that make our immune system less able to cope with illness. And in the U.S., Canada and Europe, studies indicate that one in three older adults are deficient in at least one micronutrient. Often, they’re low in more than one.
“That likely contributes to a decline in the immune system, most often characterized by increased levels of inflammation, reduced innate immune function and reduced T-cell function,” Dr. Gombart warns. “Since multiple nutrients support immune function, older adults often benefit from multivitamin and mineral supplements. These are readily available, inexpensive and generally regarded as safe.”
An editorial comment here: I strongly recommend taking each vitamin and mineral in a separate dose as opposed to taking a multi. But I recognize that this is expensive and more work, to boot. Also, most people are simply not into taking supplements, and most likely a multi is all they can be persuaded to take, so I’m good with taking a multi.
The advantage to buying and taking each nutrient in its own capsule is that you can adjust the dose – and the optimal dose is almost always much higher than you will get in a multi. Plus you can choose the best form of each particular nutrient, and that is important. Vitamin E, for example, is difficult to get right – and most multivitamins don’t. Iron? Most people should not supplement with it at all. Vitamin K?you won’t find it in most multis. But I do NOT want to criticize taking a multi if that is all a person is willing to do, or can afford.
Using Vitamins and Nutrients to Improve Your Health
Dr. Gombart’s study is only one of many that point to the remarkable health benefits of proper nutritional supplementation using multivitamins. Other research shows multivitamins may:
Reduce your risk of cancer: A study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School that followed more than 14,000 male physicians over ten years found that, in middle-aged men age 50 and older, taking a multivitamin was linked to a reduced chance of all cancers combined, except for prostate cancer.
The analysis of the health and cancer incidence during the study led the researchers to conclude, “Although the main reason to take multivitamins is to prevent nutritional deficiency, these data provide support for the potential use of multivitamin supplements in the prevention of cancer in middle-aged and older men.”2
In women, at least when it comes to breast cancer, studies on the effect of multivitamins and mineral supplements have shown mixed results in preventing and helping battle cancer. However, one study performed last year is among those with the largest number of breast cancer patients, making its results more reliable, said Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, professor emerita of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.
Prof. Wassertheil-Smoller led the study and found evidence that postmenopausal breast cancer patients who take multivitamins with minerals on a regular basis have a 30 percent lower rate of death when compared with those who don’t take the supplement. Prof. Wassertheil-Smoller performed the investigation in collaboration with the Women’s Health Initiative Clinical Trials and the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study.3
Decrease the risk of cataracts: A study at Harvard shows that multivitamins can reduce your risk of cataracts, although this study was also just in men.
The data in this investigation found that taking multivitamins is linked to a 13 percent reduced chance of nuclear cataracts – cataracts that form at the center of the eye’s lens. These are the most frequent kind of cataract associated with the aging process.4
Similar results have been found in women. In a review of 12 studies, researchers found that multivitamin use could decrease the risk of cataracts in both genders leading researchers to write, “Commonly used multivitamin/mineral supplements in this systematic review demonstrated a significantly beneficial effect in decreasing the risk of age-related cataract in well-nourished Western populations. These results seem to be clinically relevant in terms of public health.”5
Improve heart health, protect your memory, and more: Numerous studies suggest the importance of taking a multivitamin in preventing heart disease. In one study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that using a multivitamin for twenty years or more was associated with a lower risk of major cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke.6
There’s also evidence that a multivitamin can help you prevent dementia. However, as with breast cancer risk, the results are mixed, and some studies found no benefit at all.
Pick Your Nutrients Wisely
I encourage everyone to take a multivitamin to combat nutrient deficiencies that are running rampant throughout much of Western society.
The Oregon State scientists noted that more than 90 percent of Americans don’t get enough vitamin D or E in their food. And more than 60 percent are missing out on magnesium, while 50 percent get too little vitamin A.
When choosing your multivitamin, select a formula that you trust. Many of the good ones provide more than the U.S. recommended daily amount (RDA) of nutrients.
For example, the immune health researchers at Oregon State used the following nutrients and dosages: 700 micrograms of vitamin A; 400 international units of vitamin D; 45 milligrams of vitamin E (make sure you take natural vitamin E); 6.6 milligrams of vitamin B6; 400 micrograms of folate (avoid folic acid) ; 9.6 micrograms of vitamin B12; 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C; 5 milligrams of iron; 0.9 milligrams of copper; 10 milligrams of zinc; and 110 micrograms of selenium.
Most of these dosages are bare minimums, based on my many years of research and experience in this subject, but they’re infinitely better than nothing.