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Do Multivitamins Work? The Surprising Truth

Health + Wellness
andreusK / iStock / Getty Images

By Hrefna Palsdottir, MS

Multivitamins are the most commonly used supplements in the world.


Their popularity has increased rapidly in the past few decades (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source).

Some people believe that multivitamins can improve health, compensate for poor eating habits, and even reduce your risk of chronic diseases.

However, you may wonder if these supposed benefits are true.

This article examines the scientific evidence behind multivitamins.

What Are Multivitamins?

Multivitamins are supplements that contain many different vitamins and minerals, sometimes alongside other ingredients (3).

As there's no standard for what constitutes a multivitamin, their nutrient composition varies by brand and product.

Multivitamins are also called multiminerals, multis, multiples, or simply vitamins.

They're available in many forms, including tablets, capsules, chewable gummies, powders, and liquids.

Most multivitamins should be taken once or twice a day. Make sure to read the label and follow the recommended dosage instructions.

Multivitamins are available in pharmacies, large discount stores, and supermarkets, as well as online.

Summary

Multivitamins are supplements that contain many different vitamins and minerals. They're available in various forms.

What Do Multivitamins Contain?

Thirteen vitamins and at least 16 minerals are essential to your health.

Many of them aid enzyme reactions in your body or function as signaling molecules or structural elements.

Your body also needs these nutrients for reproduction, maintenance, growth, and regulation of bodily processes.

Multivitamins may offer many of these vitamins and minerals — but in varying forms and amounts. They may also contain other ingredients like herbs, amino acids, and fatty acids.

Because dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), multivitamins may contain higher or lower levels of some nutrients than the label states (4Trusted Source).

In some cases, they may not even provide all of the listed nutrients. The supplement industry is notorious for fraud, so it's important to purchase your vitamins from a reputable manufacturer.

Keep in mind that the nutrients in multivitamins may be derived from real foods or created synthetically in laboratories.

Summary

Multivitamins may contain herbs, amino acids, and fatty acids in addition to vitamins and minerals — though the amount and number of nutrients can vary. It's important to note that label fraud is common.

Multivitamins and Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide (5Trusted Source).

Many people believe that taking multivitamins can help prevent heart disease, but the evidence is mixed.

Some studies suggest that multivitamins are correlated to a reduced risk of heart attacks and death, while others show no effects (6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).

For more than a decade, the Physicians' Health Study II investigated the effects of daily multivitamin use in over 14,000 middle-aged, male doctors.

It found no reductions in heart attacks, strokes, or mortality (10Trusted Source).

A more recent study revealed that among women — but not men — taking a multivitamin for at least 3 years was linked to a 35% lower risk of dying from heart disease (11Trusted Source).

Summary

Several observational studies indicate that people who take multivitamins have a lower risk of heart disease. However, several others have found no connection. Overall, the evidence is mixed.

Multivitamins and Cancer

The evidence regarding multivitamin use and cancer risk is also mixed.

Some studies suggest no effect on cancer risk, while others link multivitamin use to increased cancer risk (6Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).

One review examined 5 randomized, controlled trials in 47,289 people. It found a 31% lower risk of cancer in men who took multivitamins but no effect in women (14Trusted Source).

Two observational studies, one including women and the other including men, tied long-term multivitamin use to a reduced risk of colon cancer (15Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source).

The Physicians' Health Study II noted that long-term, daily multivitamin use reduced the risk of cancer in men with no cancer history. Still, it had no effect on the risk of death during the study period (17Trusted Source).

Summary

Some studies link multivitamin use to a reduced risk of cancer, while others find no benefit — and some even assert an increased risk.

Do Multivitamins Have Any Other Health Benefits?

Multivitamins have been studied for several other purposes, including brain function and eye health.

Brain Function

Several studies have found that multivitamins can improve memory in older adults (18Trusted Source, 19Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source).

These supplements may also improve mood. Research reveals links not only between poor mood and nutrient deficiencies but also between multivitamins and better mood or reduced depression symptoms (21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source, 25Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source).

However, other studies reveal no changes in mood (27).

Eye Health

Age-related macular degeneration is a leading cause of blindness worldwide (28Trusted Source).

One study found that taking antioxidant vitamins and minerals may slow its progression. However, no evidence suggests that these compounds prevent the disease in the first place (29Trusted Source, 30Trusted Source).

All the same, some evidence indicates that multivitamins may reduce your risk of cataracts, another very common eye disease (31Trusted Source).

Summary

Multivitamins may improve memory and mood. What's more, antioxidant vitamins and minerals may help slow the progression of diseases that cause blindness.

Multivitamins May Be Harmful in Some Cases

Dosage is an important factor to consider when taking multivitamins.

Although high doses of some vitamins and minerals are fine, high amounts of others can be seriously harmful.

The appropriate dosage often depends on solubility, for which vitamins are categorized into two groups:

  • Water-soluble. Your body expels excess amounts of these vitamins.
  • Fat-soluble. As your body has no easy way to get rid of these, excess amounts may accumulate over long periods of time.

Fat-soluble vitamins include A, D, E, and K. While vitamins E and K are relatively nontoxic, vitamins A and D can have toxic effects if overconsumed.

Pregnant women need to be especially careful with their vitamin A intake, as excess amounts have been linked to birth defects (32Trusted Source).

Vitamin D toxicity is extremely rare and unlikely to develop from multivitamin use. However, vitamin A toxicity is more common (33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source, 35Trusted Source).

If you take multivitamins and eat a lot of nutrient-dense foods, you can easily exceed the recommended daily intake of many nutrients.

Smokers should avoid multivitamins with large amounts of beta carotene or vitamin A, as these nutrients may increase your risk of lung cancer (36Trusted Source).

Minerals may also be harmful in high doses. For example, too much iron can be dangerous for people who don't need it (37Trusted Source, 38Trusted Source).

Another risk is faulty production, which may cause multivitamins to harbor much larger amounts of nutrients than intended (39Trusted Source).

Summary

Supplementing with large doses of certain nutrients can have harmful effects. This is more likely to occur if you take a high-potency multivitamin on top of a nutrient-dense diet.

Who Should Take a Multivitamin?

Multivitamins aren't right for everyone and may even harm some individuals.

However, certain populations may benefit from multivitamins, including:

  • Vegans and vegetarians. As vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods, you're at a higher risk if you follow a plant-based diet. You may also be lacking in calcium, zinc, iron, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids (42Trusted Source, 43Trusted Source).
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women. These women should consult their healthcare provider, as some nutrients are good and others harmful. For example, excess vitamin A can cause birth defects (32Trusted Source).

Other people who may benefit from multivitamins include those who've undergone weight loss surgery, are on low-calorie diets, have a poor appetite, or don't get enough nutrients from food alone.

Summary

Some individuals, including older adults, vegetarians and vegans, and pregnant or breastfeeding women, may need higher amounts of certain vitamins or minerals.

The Bottom Line

Multivitamins are not a ticket to optimal health.

In fact, the evidence that they improve health for most people is weak and inconsistent. In some cases, they may even cause harm.

If you have a nutrient deficiency, it's best to supplement with that specific nutrient. Multivitamins pack many nutrients, most of which you don't need.

Additionally, you shouldn't take a multivitamin to fix a poor diet. Eating a balanced diet of fresh, whole foods is much more likely to ensure good health over the long term.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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