Getty Images
Getty Images

Alice Ellis

We love our vitamin pills, but recent research has found supplements can lead to long-term health problems.

A study of more than 60,000 elderly Swedish women, published in the British Medical Journal, found that those who take high doses of calcium tablets to toughen their bones may have a higher risk of death, particularly from heart disease.

The researchers from Uppsala University, Sweden, found that women who had a dietary intake of calcium exceeding 1400mg a day (equivalent to about 4 cups of yoghurt) and who also popped calcium pills, were more than twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those with a 600 to 999mg/day calcium intake.

What’s more, a US government advisory group has found that typical low doses of calcium and vitamin D (the combo believed to prevent weak bones) don’t provide benefits for most post-menopausal women – the group most likely to take them. In fact, taking 400IU of D and 1000mg calcium increases the risk of kidney stones.

These aren’t the first studies to highlight the potential risks of vitamin tablets – a study by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found women who take a multivitamin may have a 19 per cent higher relative risk of developing a breast tumour than non-multi users.

But keep in mind that health pros worldwide gave this study a bashing. “It’s not a great study – it doesn’t specify which combination of vitamins, or whether or not the vitamins were synthetic. And the study was based on a lot of self-reported questionnaires,” said Dr Marc Cohen, Foundation Professor of Complementary Medicine at RMIT University, Victoria.

And he adds that vitamin popping can’t be lumped in with unhealthy behaviours like boozing.

And to add a whole lot more confusion to the issue, another study, by Puerto Rico’s Ponce School of Medicine, found multivitamins can reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Yep, you read that right.

So, what to do? Get most of your nutrients from food. Sounds obvious, but a lot of us don’t make enough effort to do this, with 35 per cent of respondents in Australia’s Biggest Health Check, conducted by Women’s Health in conjunction with Priceline saying they take pills because they don’t get enough nutrients through their diet.

Women’s Health expert Dr Ginni Mansberg, a GP, isn’t keen on multivitamins but does advise that some groups of people take individual tablets – for instance, folic acid for women trying to conceive and in the first trimester of pregnancy, and D for those deficient in the sunshine vitamin.