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by Health By Principle

Are Multivitamins Effective?


By Rachel Welch 


Multivitamins are commonly marketed as a seemingly convenient option for daily nutrition. But, many people may not be aware of their actual lack of efficacy. Is it possible that multivitamins may not be as convenient as they seem?



What Are Multivitamins? 

Multi-vitamins are what the name suggests: multiple vitamins/supplements in one pill. Many people have chosen multivitamins over the years, because they claim to offer the various benefits of different nutrients in one pill, versus needing to take a handful or assortment of individual pills every day. It’s easy to see how this could be an appealing concept, but “easy” is not always effective.  



Multivitamins, Broken Down 

First, let’s dive into some of the common individual vitamins that are often present in popular multivitamins.  


Vitamin B 

Vitamin B is a widely beneficial nutrient that serves our bodies in various ways. From helping with skin and hair health, to energy levels, and beyond, vitamin B is a necessary nutrient, and one that many people choose to get from supplements. Most likely, you have heard of the importance of vitamin B complex, which often contains a variety of B vitamins 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 12. All of these provide a different benefit, and together give our bodies much of what they need.  

Vitamin B12, however, is unique in that it actually copies the functions of other vitamin B forms, and also has its own benefits. Red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis are all specifically supported by vitamin B12. 

A deficiency in vitamin B has the potential to cause a number of unpleasant neurological symptoms, such as vision problems, memory loss, and the feeling of pins and needles (paraesthesia.) In addition, a vitamin B deficiency can lead to loss of physical coordination, difficulty speaking, and in severe cases, damage to parts of the nervous system. 


Vitamin A 

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient that our bodies use to maintain good eyesight, healthy pregnancy and breastfeeding, and healthy aging. Vitamin A often comes in the form of beta carotene, retinyl palmitate, or retinyl acetate, which are commonly used in multivitamins.  

Many people choose to reach for vitamin A supplements to help maintain a healthy immune system, and this is why they usually appear within the multivitamins that are commonly marketed and purchased.  


Vitamin D: 

Vitamin D is the helpful, sunshine vitamin that many of us need more of! This nutrient helps to maintain mood, can alleviate the negative effects of some mental health disorders, and helps with our skin and energy production.  

With so much of the population deficient in vitamin D, it is not surprising that many people choose to take a supplement to get their levels where they need to be. This makes vitamin D yet another popular addition to many multivitamins.  


Omega-3 Oil: 

Additionally, omega-3 oil is commonly supplemented. This is because of their anti-inflammatory benefits, support for healthy nails, hair, and skin, and heart health properties.  

Omega-3 may occasionally show up in a multivitamin also, as it is one that many people see fit to add to their supplement regimen.  



So what’s the problem with multivitamins? 

In order to explain why multivitamins are ineffective, we first have to explain something called MTHFR.  

What is MTHFR? 

MTHFR stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, which is a gene in the human body. This gene gives the body instructions about how to process folate, thus being able to make DNA and protein modifications. These instructions allow the body to create the MTHFR protein which is important in the body’s ability to process folate.  

Every person has two copies of this gene, one from the biological mother and one from their biological father. There are some possible differences (genotypes) of the MTHFR gene. In some people, this gene may have a variant which is different from the normal DNA sequence. For some of these individuals, it may be much more difficult for their bodies to adequately process folate, which can hinder nutrient absorption and effectiveness. This has been shown by studies which confirmed that individuals with particular gene variants may have slightly lower levels of folate, when consuming the same amount as people without the genotype.  

Folic acid is a crucial nutrient, specifically for women who are of childbearing age, or who plan to become or are pregnant. This nutrient supports a healthy pregnancy and healthy development of the baby.  

One particular mutation of this gene that has been known to cause problems with folate absorption, is the MTHFR C677T mutation. Individuals with this particular gene mutation have a reduced ability to convert folic acid into its active form. Additionally, research suggests that the additional supplementation of folic acid (to make up for this reduced absorption), may also hide symptoms of vitamin B deficiency. Alternatively, it may exacerbate the neurological impact of vitamin B deficiency, which as we discussed above, can be quite unpleasant.  

All of this is to say that due to the commonality of MTHFR genotypes and variants, there are many issues with supplemental relationships between various nutrients, and their ability to actually be effective for many people.  


Absorption and the Human Body 

Humans can only absorb nutrients if certain nutritional values are already present. For instance, the body needs proper levels of electrolytes to process and utilize certain nutrients. Without the proper amount of electrolytes and hydration, the body does not operate at its best in any way, nutrient absorption included.  

In the case of individuals with the MTHFR gene variant, they cannot absorb vitamin B at all if it is in certain forms. For people with this genetic makeup, their bodies can only successfully take in vitamin B in the form of methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin.  

Because of this, a multivitamin that contains, say, vitamin B, folate, vitamin A, and others, would not even be biologically available to these individuals. And, people with MTHFR variants vary with each population, but are much more common than you might realize. In the United States, for instance, it is estimated that roughly 30-40% of people may have a mutation like we discussed above. 

This means that multivitamins and their common components are not bioavailable to approximately 30-40% of the population, which means that for a vast number of us, they may be ineffective.  


What about taking separate vitamins at the same time? How is that different? 

You may be thinking “Okay, so if I’m not supposed to take multivitamins, then I should take multiple individual vitamins. But, how is that any different?” 

Basically, if a person is taking multiple, individual vitamins from different places, then they may be able to select vitamins in the forms that work best for them. By doing this, they are able to personally cater the assortment of nutrients, in their proper forms to maximize absorption and ultimate efficacy.  

While it may be more time-consuming to set up various supplements separately, it is ultimately going to do much more good than taking a multivitamin that isn’t even biologically accessible to so many people.  


Also Consider Nutrient Interactions 

When contemplating why multivitamins are not effective, it is also relevant to consider the relationship and interactions of certain nutrients with one another. Many vitamins work well together, just as many may cancel each other out. We explore in a separate post, the pros and cons of taking certain vitamins together, as there are several beneficial and detrimental pairings to be aware of: 

Vitamin/supplement pairings that are beneficial: 

  • Vitamin C and Iron: Vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron found in foods like vegetables. One way to gain this pairing's benefit is to eat a salad with spinach (rich in iron), and add tomato wedges or strawberry slices (full of vitamin C). 
  • Calcium and Vitamin D: We already discussed the benefits of vitamin D, and should also keep in mind that it works very well with calcium. The body needs vitamin D in order to absorb calcium. 
  • Vitamins A, D, E, K, and healthy fats: As mentioned above, these vitamins are unique, in that they are fat-soluble versus water-soluble. This is important to remember, as vitamins that are fat-soluble can be harmful if taken in larger-than-recommended doses. However, these vitamins work very well with a small amount of healthy fat (like a bit of avocado or olive oil), and can be a beneficial combination.  

There is research to support that taking certain minerals together with other minerals can decrease their rate of absorption. An example of this is calcium and magnesium. These minerals work well together inside of the body, but should be taken at least two hours apart. This will help to ensure proper absorption. If they are taken too close together, they have the potential to counteract one another’s efficacy. 

Another pair to avoid taking at the same time is fish oil and ginkgo biloba. The omega-3 benefits of fish oil are beneficial for heart health and weight management. Ginkgo biloba helps with cognitive performance. However, they both can lead to thinning of the blood, making it risky to take them at the same time. It is also helpful to know that ginkgo-based supplements have been shown to negatively interact with certain SSRIs and antidepressants. Make sure to consult your doctor if you take prescription medications, prior to adding in a new supplement. 

In light of this, taking a multivitamin with various combinations present may not be effective.  


What if I still really want to take just one multivitamin per day? 

If you still are married to the idea of the multivitamin, and feel that you must only take one vitamin per day, the best way to go about this is to be mindful of these various concerns.  

If you are one of the 30-40% of people with a MTHFR gene variant, you would need to find a multivitamin that presents adequate amounts of folate, as well as vitamin B in the proper form for absorption to be biologically possible. 

Even if you do not have a gene variant, you still would need to find a multivitamin that only has vitamins which work well together. Avoid nutrients that cancel each other out, or that are not going to properly absorb due to their amounts of the timing at which they are taken.  

Essentially, while it may be possible to find a multivitamin which is perfectly catered to your unique biological needs, it is not likely. 



“Easy” May Not Mean “Effective” 

We at Health By Principle recommend creating your own supplement regimen, with unique factors that work for you and your unique chemistry. (As always, consult your physician prior to beginning any new supplement or medication).  

If you are ready to start supplementing with selective, individual vitamins, Health by Principle is a great place to start! 


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