Popping Vitamins Doesn’t Do Much, So Why Do We Keep Taking Them?

Living / Health & Fitness

Popping Vitamins Doesn’t Do Much, So Why Do We Keep Taking Them?

By: Nicole Capo

It's estimated that more than half of all Americans take vitamins or vitamin supplements. In fact, between 1988 and 2006, the number of people in the United States taking vitamins jumped by over 10% and the industry makes nearly $30 billion a year. The most popular supplement being, of course, the daily multivitamin, which around 40% of all Americans pop into their mouths on a regular basis. But does taking all of those vitamin supplements really keep people healthy and living longer? According to a whole slew of studies since 1942, the answer is: probably not.

The source of the modern vitamin supplement industry can be traced back to one man: Linus Pauling.

Pauling was a two-time Nobel Prize winner (chemistry and peace) who made huge advancements in the fields of quantum physics, chemistry, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, and paleontology, as well as spearheading the movement against nuclear weapons which would eventually led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. One day, a man wrote to Pauling suggesting he start taking dosages of vitamin C to help him live longer, and the scientist became obsessed with the idea that taking supplements really was making him entirely healthy. Not only that — Pauling eventually believed that taking dosages of several vitamin supplements could treat cancer, dysentery, typhoid fever, tetanus, tuberculosis, snakebites, and even AIDS, among many, many others.

While Pauling continued publishing works elaborating on the benefits of daily vitamins, other scientists were busy refuting all of the flawed studies Pauling based his writings on. But other scientists weren’t two-time Nobel Prize winners, and Pauling’s street cred gave the fledgling vitamin industry the push it needed to thrive.

In 1994, a group of long-term smokers over the age of fifty were given vitamin E, beta-carotene, both, or neither, as part of a study on the effects of the supplements. The results were clear: The subjects who took the supplements were actually more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease. Another study in 1996 found similar results — and had to be halted once researchers realized that those subjects taking supplements were dying from cancer and heart disease rates 28 and 17% higher than those who didn’t. Similar studies throughout the years have continued finding similar results -- And yet, sales of vitamin supplements have not been affected. It would seem that Pauling’s allegedly erroneous legacy is here to stay.

As for the man himself, Linus Pauling died from prostate cancer in 1994 — ironic, considering a recent NIH study which found that men who take vitamin E supplements have an increased risk of developing that disease. Oscar Wilde once said we all kill the things we love but, it would appear that the things we love aren’t really to be trusted, either.

[Pic via Flickr - Shannon Kringen]

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