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posted: 8/8/2011 12:01 AM

Research on vitamin benefits continues

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Do vitamins actually decrease the risk of illness? This is a question that has been asked for decades. On one end of the spectrum there are those who say that if you have a healthy diet, you don't need any vitamins. On the other end, are those who megadose vitamins on a daily basis. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

Vitamins are defined as essential nutrients that are required in minute amounts. Vitamins play very important roles in almost all metabolic processes and without vitamins life as we know it would not exist. The consumption of vitamin-rich foods to treat medical conditions dates back to the ancient Egyptians. Interest in vitamins and other essential nutrients really took off in the late 1800s up to the early 1900s. The first vitamin isolated was vitamin C. Paradoxically, vitamin C is not really a vitamin because the body requires vitamin C in large amounts. After that a number of the B vitamins were identified because they reversed and prevented specific illnesses.

Vitamins are divided into water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins. Each vitamin is associated with a specific, index medical condition.

For many years, the FDA has suggested a daily recommended amount of vitamins. Most people, including many physicians, feel that all you need is to achieve this daily recommended amount in order to reach optimal health. The FDA bases its recommendations on the amount of vitamins required to prevent the index disease, not optimal health. Chances are you need more.

Can vitamins prevent disease? Research in this area is confusing. One study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2006 stated that there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the use of vitamins for reducing the risk of cancer and heart attack. However, they showed that antioxidant vitamins reduced the mortality rate from cancer and stroke by 21 percent and 29 percent respectively.

Current vitamin research is far from conclusive and it will be many decades before we can make solid recommendations. However, at this point time, the potential benefits from taking vitamins seem to outweigh any of the risks.

If you have a medical condition, I strongly recommend getting vitamin recommendations from health care practitioners who are experts in both medicine and vitamins, like integrative medicine physicians. For certain medical conditions and medications, vitamin supplementation may be contraindicated.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.