While meandering through the vitamins section at a large supermarket not too long ago a man approached me to see if I could help him find something. He was looking for "lipoflavonoid," which he said was supposed to help with his "ringing in the ears" problem.
Before I volunteered to help him find it, I politely asked who had suggested the stuff to him. He surprised me by telling me his doctor had suggested it.
"Your doctor had suggested lipoflavonoid for tinnitus?" I addressed his blank stare by defining the term for him: tinnitus is a defect of the ear which leads to people hearing sounds not being produced by anything nearby; as such, it's more of a symptom than an actual disease. "If anything," I explained to him, "I find that doctors aren't big believers in nutritional supplements. It's not surprising when you consider that they don't receive much training in nutrition . . . "
But I could see that I was losing the man's attention. To my credit, I did help him find the stuff.
That would have been the end of my contact with this person but, before parting, the man volunteered that his doctor had told him to not take multivitamins. They damaged the liver, his doctor had said.
Why Do Many Doctors Criticize Nutritional Supplements?
It's been my personal experience that many (if not most) doctors not only don't recommend vitamins but they in fact discourage their use. This isn't to say that doctors don't ever recommend vitamins or that they don't recognize their importance, when prescribed by a doctor. But, as has been pointed out to me by the hundreds of articles I have read on this subject, doctors only focus on a very few of all the vitamins and minerals (about 90 by some accounts) we have thus identified (for there may be some we haven't!).
It's one thing to not push vitamins and minerals--it's quite a different animal, though, to put things down without the 100% scientific certainty that just isn't there, either for those who are "pro" or against vitamins.
One of the most common negative things that some doctors say about vitamin and mineral supplements is that they most probably just pass through the digestive tract either without being absorbed or by only being partially absorbed. Sadly, physicians who say this may actually be right.
But the point I want to stress here is that, at this point, no one really knows how effectively (if at all) vitamins and minerals are absorbed when taken as supplements (as opposed to being absorbed directly from foods we eat every day).
But What about the Allegation That Multivitamins Can Damage the Liver?
Whenever I am confronted with a serious medical issue like this, my first thought is to do extensive research, after which I generally produce a series of limited-scope articles and, if the subject is important enough and the research warrants it, I will go on to write a more formal article or two for the science journals. I may also go on to write a white paper, an e-book or a full-length book (most probably under one of several pseudonyms I presently utilize).
For this limited-scope article, though, I am going to take a less academic approach--i.e., I am going to approach it from the perspective of simple logic and what I already know (having done extensive research into nutritional sciences) about nutritional supplements.
To start off, if indeed multivitamins damage the liver, then we're all in serious trouble!
"Why is that, Fred--especially since not everyone takes multivitamins?"
You, the reader, needs to look at this from a perspective you won't get from your doctor, big health promotion organizations or the mainstream media--the perspective that most people today aren't getting the proper nutrition they need from the foods they eat on a regular basis, if we all accept the premise that there is such a thing as a "nutritional base" (i.e., a specific list of vitamins and minerals) that the human body needs in order to function at peak capacity.
And if we further accept the premise that without this human-physiology-established nutritional base, disease development sets in--i.e., if we don't get the vitamins and minerals we need on a daily basis, we can become more vulnerable to medical problems, most ostensibly, chronic diseases like cancer, CVD, diabetes, allergies, autoimmune disorders, etc.
Some of you may think that these premises I allude to are a "given" but they really are not. In fact, modern medical medicine doesn't espouse these premises; you might even say they hardly ever consider them, if at all. Nutrition is important, modern medicine says, but only peripherally.
Your doctor may never say that to you but his/her actions say otherwise. When medical schools start changing their curriculum to the extent that nutrition will be, rather than a sideline issue, a key subject matter or, to put it better, an integral, indispensable component of a medical education, then maybe things will change. Until then, though . . .
Here's the problem for you and me and most people today: We are not getting the nutrition we need from most of the food available to the public today. Food today, for a number of reasons, lacks many (if not most) of the nutrients we need in order to stay healthy. This is especially true if the food you consume has been subjected to or has been produced using any of these processes or systems:
- Food irradiation
- Significant, food-altering food processing/packaging (beyond just putting it in a container or holding material . . . )
- Canning (especially if BPA is used as the lining in the cans)
- Most chemical preservatives
- Fluoridation, chlorination, chloramines & other forms of chemical water treatments
- Grown/harvested in mineral-depleted soil (which applies to much of the food today)
- Grown/produced in factory farms (where animals are injected with or subjected to growth hormones, sex hormones, antibiotics, etc.)
- Grown/harvested using excessive amounts of pesticides, herbicides or others types of toxic "ides"
- Fast food
- Fried foods (specifically when fried in so-called "vegetable oils" or cheaply-produced synthetic fats)
Simply put and contrary to what you've been told (or not told) all these listed processes and systems significantly negatively impact the nutritional value of foods and beverages most people in the world (especially, ironically, in developed countries) now consume on a regular basis.
If most of the food that people consume today is already nutritionally compromised, then it follows that the only way the public is going to get the nutrition they need is from supplements.
If you are one of the many people who isn't taking a multivitamin but you consume (as is likely) food subjected to or produced using any of the processes and systems listed above, then where exactly will you get the vitamins and minerals your body needs?
Is it any wonder that the top chronic diseases (the ones killing most people these days) known have reached epidemic (though "pandemic" is more accurate) proportions in most countries? You can gullibly accept the assertion that nutritional deficiency is only partially (if at all) to blame for these developments but, if you fall for that, then you are being as myopic and naive as much of the medical community and the many scientists that have too amicably (without the conclusive scientific evidence to prove their position) gone along are being.
Is It Possible That Multivitamins Can Damage the Liver?
If multivitamins are damaging our livers, then it's most probably because of the ancillary chemicals that are put in vitamins, not the vitamins and minerals themselves. We know that some vitamins and minerals, when taken in excess (or when not taken in spite of being needed, even if in tiny amounts), can indeed be harmful. But, in general, vitamins and minerals are a good thing.
As to whether they can, when taken as supplements, damage any part of our bodies (including the liver), well, that can only be determined through brisk formal experimentation followed with formal clinical studies--in other words, the question can only be answered with formal scientific inquiry. I would have liked to have questioned that doctor that told the man I spoke to what his scientific basis was for claiming that multivitamins (as a "whole") can damage the liver.
If this has indeed been scientifically proven, then why hasn't the FDA moved to outlaw multivitamins? Not that I would trust the FDA when it comes to whether nutritional supplements should be outlawed. If anything, the government is siding with Big Pharma against nutritional supplements and it's no secret that Big Pharma wants to strictly control (if not altogether get rid of) nutritional supplements--more specifically, vitamins and mineral.
"Why?" you might ask.
It's because nutritional supplements, according to many experts, can treat, cure and/or prevent many diseases, without the use of highly-profitable, albeit-probably-unnecessary synthetic medicines. Why prevent and successfully (thus making further treatments unnecessary) treat disease when you can just, by addressing the symptoms instead of the underlying problem, keep patients coming back for more treatments?
Clearly, there is much less profitability in prevention and cures/treatments that actually work!
Do Synthetic Medicines Damage the Liver?
We know that many synthetic medicines (the staple products of modern medicine--ostensibly more because of their profitability than their effectiveness or safety) can damage not only the liver but other vital organs. Tylenol (acetaminophen), for example, can do a nasty job on the liver over time and, yet, you won't hear too many doctors tell you that. Instead, they recommend it like there's nothing wrong with it.
I would have liked to have asked the man at the supermarket if his doctor had ever warned him about the hepatotoxic qualities of Tylenol but I rather doubt it. If doctors don't want to malign the products that have enriched them (and the system which so often puts profits above patient welfare), I have no problem calling that "capitalism."
What I do have a problem with is doctors disparaging vitamin and mineral supplements unnecessarily and, in some cases, unjustifiably. Yes, vitamins and minerals can be dangerous when used excessively or inappropriately--that's not the gist of my objections. What I object to are generalizations like "multivitamins damage the liver."
For that remark to be true, then all the individual nutrients therein would have to be unhealthy--or, more specifically, such products as a "whole" would have had to have been proven to be hepatotoxic. Since multivitamins don't all contain the same nutrients (or in the same concentrations), such a remark is, at best, a shot-in-the-dark guess. Since when is it good science or medicine to be taking "guesses?"
It's better if we stick to what we know. We can say, for example, that iron, when taken in excess, can damage the liver (and other vital organs). There is significant scientific evidence to back up this assertion.
Should You Be Afraid to Use Multivitamins?
What you should be most concerned about is whether you are getting all the nutrients your body needs. If not through nutritional supplements, like multivitamins, then how will you get that nutrition? Ideally, you should grow your own food or, when possible, buy only organic foods, especially the fresh, unpackaged variety.
If you depend on mass-produced, affordable food at most local supermarkets, though, then you are, as I said earlier, in trouble. You won't be getting the nutrition you need from these foods. Turning to nutritional supplements, then, is more of a necessity than a luxury--in spite of what Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Med, or Big Brother may tell you.
Will multivitamins damage your liver? We need more formal, verifiable, not-conducted-by-heavily-conflicted-professionals scientific studies to answer that question. Many experts, however, already do believe that not getting the vitamins and minerals you need on a daily basis can not only damage vital organs but can lead to disease both in the short and in the long run (depending on the nutrient in question).
In addition to misuse, failure to use, or overuse of certain nutritional supplements, there is also the problem inherent in making, extracting and/or synthetically duplicating naturally-occurring nutrients. Extracting a certain vitamin or mineral from naturally-produced foods may not sound too risky, as long as what is derived is pure (though it's difficult to consistently prevent contamination); then again, extracted substances can often behave totally different than they behave when consumed as part of a cohesive, naturally-occurring entity.
Coming up with synthetic versions of naturally-occurring things, though, presents a much more serious and potentially dangerous challenge. Synthetically-produced nutrients could easily turn out to be toxic; this is especially difficult to categorize and document if the toxicity is of a long-term (that is, if it takes years to have its damaging effect) type.
Yet another possible way that multivitamins might harm us is if vitamins and minerals can't (ideally) be absorbed as stand-alone substances but, rather, can only be properly and efficiently absorbed as ingredients in foods, in inseparable conjunction with built-in, naturally-occurring enzymes (and other natural "catalysts"). Some experts believe, for example, that ascorbic acid (labeled as "Vitamin C" by some people) is only one of several key components of what we call "Vitamin C."
If it turns out that vitamins and minerals can only be properly absorbed when consumed within the complicated chemical tapestry that make up our foods, then, again, we're all in serious trouble. Such a fact would mean that, indeed, nutritional supplements are merely a poor (if not completely ineffective) substitute for a proper, well-balanced and not-heavily-contaminated-or-altered (when compared to naturally-occurring foods) diet.
For the record, though, this has not yet been conclusively scientifically proven to be the case!
Clearly, there are still many unanswered question when it comes to nutrition. But going simply by personal opinions (even if from a doctor) is not the most efficient approach. For now, we should go with what we know for sure:
- Our bodies need certain specific, naturally-occurring nutrients in order to stay healthy.
- We need to get those nutrients either from foods or from supplements.
- No one should be making any claims (either in favor or against nutritional supplements) without the verifiable, conclusive, and impartially-obtained scientific evidence to back up those claims.
- Some people oppose nutritional supplements for ulterior, non-beneficial (to the public) motives.
- Most of the evidence to date is in favor of naturally-produced vitamins and minerals--in fact, these substances are only dangerous or harmful when taken in excess, improperly or when not taken/absorbed at all (in spite of being "essential," if only in tiny amounts).
- Certain vitamins and minerals can indeed be toxic (not just to the liver) if taken in excessive amounts. Some examples include: Iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B3, etc. You should learn what these substances are, making sure that you never exceed the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for each of these.
- While naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals (when taken appropriately and in the right amounts) are generally safe for use, other nutritional supplements (i.e., herbs, teas, supposedly-therapeutic plants, enzymes, phytonutrients, flavonoids, carotenoids, polyphenols, etc.) may carry some risks that you need to be wary about and watch out for.
- In general, synthetic substances carry a bigger and more potentially serious risk than naturally-occurring substances--in fact, naturally-occurring substances are only dangerous mostly in relation to dosage/quantity or potential negative interaction with other substances being used at the same time. Synthetic substances may be dangerous at any dosage, especially if the body doesn't have the capacity (i.e., the enzymes) necessary to break down or digest the substance. This is in addition to the always-present danger of toxic interaction with other substances (whether natural or synthetic).
- Certain nutritional substances should not be used by certain groups of people or should be used under more strict control for those groups. For example, pregnant women should always take under consideration how the substance in question may affect the baby; as such, consulting with your OB/GYN or pediatrician may be your best bet before taking any supplements. By the same token, people on blood-thinners should think twice before taking things like garlic or gingko biloba, which can both further thin out blood (potentially making users vulnerable to out-of-control bleeding). Finally, be especially careful before giving children any nutritional supplements since they may be more sensitive than adults to most substances (whether natural or synthetic).
- There is no question that certain substances in the body (e.g., vitamins, minerals, enzymes, proteins, hormones, etc.) act as essential catalysts, thus helping the body to conduct life-preserving or optimum-health-promoting processes; they can also help extract necessary nutrients from foods. These things (often available as supplements, especially for people whose digestive systems have been compromised) can also act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, or co-factors in essential physiological processes.
Whether you take multivitamins or not is an important, potentially-life-altering decision. By all means, consult with your doctor. If at all possible, also consult with a naturopathic physician or, if one is not available, a holistic doctor. The latter two are generally more knowledgeable and have received more training in nutritional sciences than your average conventional medicine doctor.
You can also conduct your own research. Ultimately, your health is in your hands since you are the one who will face the consequences of acting or not acting on important matters like these. At the very least, hear all sides of an argument.
By looking at all the facts (including those from non-traditional media sources), you should be able to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. Good luck to you in your quest to do what's best for your own health!
References & Resources