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Are vitamins a waste of money?

Vitamins are a waste of money if you're doing it wrong. And they can be the bargain of a lifetime if you're doing it right. Find out why.

It depends. Vitamins are a waste of money if you’re doing it wrong. And vitamins are the bargain of a lifetime if you’re doing it right. Keep reading to find out why.

Vitamins are a waste of money if you don't understand what they are and what they do.

Vitamins are not every pill in the supplement aisle. Vitamins — A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, C, D, E, K — are essential nutrients that your body needs to function, but cannot produce on its own. If you don't have the required levels of these vitamins, your body won't work as it should. You may have weird problems like improper wound healing, hair loss, and a swollen tongue, or harder-to-notice symptoms like overall malaise and fatigue. These are symptoms that you do not have enough nutrients to complete basic processes like healing wounds and creating cellular energy.

Minerals are slightly different than vitamins, but we'll include them here because your body also cannot produce them and you must get them from exogenous sources (supplements and food). And because they often get lumped in with vitamins when supplement manufacturers label daily supplements as multivitamins. Magnesium, zinc, potassium, calcium, and iron are examples of minerals.

Vitamins may seem like a waste of money if you conflate them with general supplements that contain dubious ingredients that your body doesn’t require. Vitamins and minerals, on the other hand, are critical to your well-being. If your body does not have them, it will cease working. Yes, that means death.

Vitamins are a waste of money if you take them in the wrong doses.

More is not better. More is a waste of money, or potentially toxic.
Vitamins are either water-soluble or fat-soluble. Your body can't store water-soluble vitamins (B, C), so you excrete any excess that you get from food or supplements. That means that you cannot overdose on water-soluble vitamins. You can, however, experience some unpleasant gastric effects of this increased excretion. But, they do not build up in your system and cause a toxic reaction. Excessive dosing of water-soluble vitamins is a waste of money, and is what some describe as “expensive urine.”

Your body can store fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), which means they can accumulate in your tissues and possibly have toxic effects.

You need vitamins to make basic processes work, but excessive vitamin intake will not make those processes work even better.

The myth of Biotin as the beauty vitamin is an example. Biotin, a.k.a. Vitamin B7, is critical for proper metabolism in conjunction with the rest of the B Vitamins. Symptoms of Biotin deficiency — which can happen by avoiding biotin-rich foods like meat, and by taking certain medications — include brittle nails, loss of hair and hair color, and scaly skin. If these are the symptoms of too little Biotin, then strong nails, thick hair, and smooth skin must be the effects to lots of Biotin, right? Wrong! Your body can absorb the amount of Biotin necessary to prevent the symptoms of a deficiency, but it can’t over-correct.

Vitamins are a waste of money if you're taking them for the wrong reasons.

You want glowing skin (whatever that means) so you're popping "hair, skin, and nails" gummies. You want a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, so you're dissolving several B-12 pills under your tongue.

That isn’t how to meet your goals.

B-12 is critical for your body to convert food into energy, i.e., your metabolism. If you don't have enough B-12 for you specifically (yes, this may differ from the recommended daily allowance), your metabolism will not work as it should. Taking massive amounts of B-12 will not give you a jolt of energy or speed up your metabolism. It is not trucker speed or even caffeine. Also, your "slow metabolism" may have nothing to do with B-12 levels. It may be diet, activity level, or just your perception.

Vitamin C megadoses at the onset of a cold are a prime example of taking vitamins for the wrong reasons. The Vitamin C link to the common cold is marketing, not science. Some companies have spent a lot of money disseminating this misinformation to sell products with fear.
That doesn’t make it true.

Vitamin C is critical for your white blood cells and numerous other entities in your immune system to work as they should. You can't feel the sniffles start then expect Vitamin C to work as an antibiotic and kill the bacteria or virus causing your discomfort. It just doesn't work like that. You want to keep your immune system functioning as it should, not "super-charged" or "boosted" as an overactive immune system is just as bad as an under-active one (just ask anyone with asthma, eczema, or food allergies).

Vitamins are a waste of money if you take the wrong forms.

Many bargain supplements are not biologically active, meaning that your body has to go through a lot of effort to convert them into the active forms. These steps use a lot of cellular energy, and some people are just not physically equipped to complete the process.

Folate — a.k.a. folic acid, a.k.a. Vitamin B9 — is a requirement to grow new cells, which is why it is the central nutrient in prenatal supplements. You also need it to remove the dangerous chemical homocysteine that can lead to cardiac problems if levels get too high. Unfortunately, the form of folate that occurs naturally in foods, and is used in many lower-priced supplements, is not biologically active.

For the body to use it, your cells first must convert it through a process called methylation. This requires the presence of an enzyme that many people cannot produce in adequate amounts due to genetic factors. These people, through no fault of their own, cannot process folate and the nutrient goes right through their system without being used.

If you have this genetic mutation, a standard folate/folic acid supplement is a waste of money. Luckily, many Folate and Vitamin B Complex supplements now include a methylated form of folate that is biologically active and does not require the enzyme to produce.

Vitamins are a waste of money if they're basically just candy.

Sugar interferes with vitamin absorption. Vitamin C is popular as a gummy because it lets you think that candy fruit slices confer health benefits. If you read the labels of many gummies or equally tasty effervescent powder/tablets, you'll see that they contain more sugar than Vitamin C, often up to 7X more. Obviously you don't want 7 grams of added sugar (70% of the recommended daily maximum) in your vitamins that are supposed to be healthy.

But, it's not just that. Vitamin C and sugar rely on the same absorption pathway. The presence of sugar actively interferes with your body's ability to absorb Vitamin C. So, if you're taking candy-like Vitamin C supplements, you are literally taking a sugar pill, the ultimate placebo.

Vitamins are a waste of money if they are not absorbed.

Vitamins are only effective if they can be absorbed. The wrong doses, the wrong types of vitamins, and the wrong added ingredients make absorption more difficult than it already is. And the absorption processes of each vitamin and mineral are as different as they are difficult.

Let's use Vitamin C as an example since it is one of the most commonly supplemented nutrients, and so few people do it effectively. Here is how the absorption process works.

When you take a Vitamin C supplement, or eat Vitamin C-rich foods, the vitamin content enters the small intestine. From there, a transporter protein picks it up and moves it to the bloodstream. There, it waits for another transporter protein to pick it up and transport it to its ultimate destination, the cells. The problem is that Vitamin C molecules crowd the small intestine waiting for a ride like the subway platform during rush hour; a lot of commuters fighting for very few seats. The lucky vitamins that catch a lift to the bloodstream must then disembark and wait again because there is no direct connection from the small intestine to the cells.

Unlike evening commuters, Vitamin C can’t just wait for the next transporter protein. Since they are water-soluble, your body just excretes the vitamins that are left behind, either in the intestine or the bloodstream. Taking massive doses of Vitamin C from traditional oral supplements exacerbates the excretion by flooding your system with way more vitamins than your limited number of transporter proteins can possibly carry. That’s why people often report stomach upset with high doses of Vitamin C from pills, powders, and the like.

Your body has complicated absorption pathways that vary by nutrient. Projections in your intestines extract minerals like magnesium from food and supplements. Certain digestive conditions flatten these projections, making them unable to extract magnesium, thus any intake goes right through your system and down the drain. Stomach acid extracts B-12, so if you don't have enough from taking medications or just getting older (stomach acid declines with age), you'll have trouble absorbing B-12 from foods and traditional supplements.

Vitamins are not a waste of money if you are taking the ones you need.

Several factors influence your need for specific supplemental vitamins and minerals.

Prescription drugs

Common medications deplete nutrients. Sometimes they actively interfere with absorption pathways, sometimes they induce excretion. Depletion of B vitamins is frequent when taking common drugs like hormonal birth control pills, antibiotics, blood pressure medications, and acid blockers. Some of those drugs also deplete minerals like magnesium. Pharmacists have witnessed first hand how their patients may start one prescription, then come into fill others to treat the symptoms of a nutrient deficiency that is a known, though seldom communicated, side effect of the original medication.

Restrictive Diet

Very few foods contain high amounts of many vitamins. The ones that do, i.e., the superfoods, are often expensive, impractical, tough to find, and just not appealing to most people (seaweed, for example). So, if you exclude major food groups from your diet, you will inevitably exclude nutrients.

The most well-known diet-induced nutrient deficiency is the lack of B-12 in a vegan diet. This is obvious because only animal foods contain B12, but nutrient deficiencies due to diet can be more nuanced. For example, the form of iron found in plants is not biologically active like its meat-based counterpart. The plant-based iron requires Vitamin C for absorption, so if you’re depending on this type of iron, you need ample Vitamin C.

Iterations of keto and other low-carb diets restrict many nutrient-dense foods due to the carbohydrate content (including the fruits that help you get your fill of fiber). And just plain picky eating, known today as “the beige diet,” is taking some of the blame for the recent rise in scurvy, the extreme Vitamin C deficiency that plagued 16th century buccaneers.

Digestive challenges

By flattening the intestinal villi, several conditions — including celiac, irritable bowel, and colitis, among others — interfere with your ability to absorb nutrients like magnesium from food and many supplements. Bariatric surgery that reroutes the intestine also changes the way you can absorb B1, folate, Vitamin D, and more. Because the procedure reduces production of the stomach acid necessary to extract B12 from protein, gastric bypass patients are at risk for deficiency in this vitamin as well.


Smoking and drinking

The recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C for cigarette smokers is higher than for non-smokers. That’s because cigarettes create a lot of free radicals that lead to oxidative stress, a lot more free radicals than are expected in people who don’t smoke. To rid your body of these dangerous substances, you need more antioxidants like Vitamin C.

Alcohol consumption — both chronic and acute (e.g., one wild night) — deplete B vitamins and the critical antioxidant glutathione. It also creates more oxidative stress, which you’re not so well-equipped to neutralize with your glutathione stores so low.

Vitamins are not a waste of money if you're taking a biologically active supplement.

Here’s one of the major reasons for the price discrepancies in the supplement aisle. Vitamins that are not biologically active are much cheaper, but you get what you pay for. Magnesium is a prime example. Magnesium oxide is the common form in multivitamins and bottom-shelf supplements. It’s the cheapest and the compound is small, which makes it easier to put into smaller pills. But, only about 4% of a magnesium oxide supplement can be used in your body. It’s water-soluble, so your body excretes the rest. Remember that magnesium is often used as a laxative, so you get the idea of the potential experience you can have when bargain shopping for your magnesium.

Magnesium citrate and magnesium glycinate have far superior bioavailability, but they are also more expensive and the pills are larger. Magnesium l-threonate is the only compound shown to raise magnesium levels in the brain where it is needed to support learning and memory. Because it’s so unique, it’s pricier. While it can be a waste of money to buy a cheap magnesium oxide supplement, a biologically active magnesium supplement can be a great investment for long-term wellness.

Vitamins are not a waste of money if you're taking the proper doses.

As mentioned in the rush hour analogy, taking a monster dose of a vitamin that relies on scarce transporters for absorption will mostly end up excreted instead in the cells where it’s needed. With Vitamin C pills and powders, that’s pretty much anything over 200 mg. You can find out how much Vitamin C you as an individual can take by performing the “bowel tolerance test,” which is just shy of a fraternity hazing ritual.

You can take Vitamin C and other water-soluble nutrients staggered throughout the day, if you want to simulate what it’s like to be a centenarian.

Now, if all you need is what you can realistically expect to absorb from a multivitamin, that pill may not be a waste of money. However, multivitamins are formulated for people in general, not those who have the aforementioned specific nutrient needs. You may require a lot more B12 than what is included in the pill, but doubling up would put you at risk for Vitamin E toxicity.

Vitamins are not a waste of money if you're taking a supplement that is absorbed.

This is what it all comes down to. If a vitamin is not absorbed, it is a waste of money. Absorption varies by nutrient, so the supplement formulation that enables superior absorption for each nutrient varies as well. Some doctors recommend taking Vitamin D in olive oil because it offers an effective means to absorb that particular fat-soluble nutrient. In other forms, specifically bone health supplements, Vitamin D and calcium are put together because Vitamin D enables calcium incorporation into the bones.

For water-soluble vitamins and minerals, liposome encapsulation technology offers a better way to absorb nutrients. Liposomes are microscopic bubbles made out of the same material that comprises your cell membranes. The liposomes wrap around the water-soluble vitamins, so a liposomal supplement is in a liquid or gel consistency instead of a pill or powder.

Remember the analogy of all the Vitamin C molecules shoving their way onto a subway car during the evening rush? Think of the liposome like a chauffeur for the vitamin. It protects the vitamin like the Popemobile as it carries the water-soluble nutrient into the bloodstream and then to the cells. Because it’s the same composition as the cell membrane, the liposome just assimilates into the cell and helps it stay strong after it drops off the intact vitamin.

Liposome encapsulation technology is not new; the pharmaceutical industry has been using it since the 1960s to help cancer drugs better absorb in patients’ cells. For dietary supplements, however, it’s still new as the first liposomal supplement wasn’t released until 2004. And like any other supplement, there are varying degrees of quality within liposomal supplements. We’d, of course, recommend buying from the company that spent years formulating the liposomes and experimenting with the technology until it yielded an effective product.

These liposomal supplements are much pricier than standard pills, powders, and gummies because the process to make them is way more complex and sourcing reliable, non-GMO, high-quality material to make the liposomes is costly. The companies that go through such pains to engineer an effective supplement do not skimp on ingredient costs and use biologically active forms of nutrients in optimal amounts.

Vitamins are not a waste of money if you buy quality supplements that you need.

Understand that more vitamins will not accentuate purported benefits. Understand that these benefits are only the benefits of not being deficient. Find out which vitamins you actually need to supplement. Use them to fill gaps in your nutrition. Remember that you get what you pay for. The only bargain in vitamins is the money you’ll save on depletion-related health costs by paying a little more to take the ones that are best absorbed.