There was a lot of publicity just before Christmas about an editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine which after reviewing one heck of a lot of data concluded that there was no evidence that multivitamins had any health benefits.
The case they made was pretty strong. Vitamin supplements are a frustrating area for people who like their stories cut and dried, because there situations where they can be shown to be effective. The best example is the well known one of the Royal Navy’s embracing of vitamin C supplementation to overcome scurvy. But if you aren’t planning on spending months at sea on a diet of salt meat and ships’ biscuits, there doesn’t seem to be any particular need to take a supplement.
There isn’t much hard evidence that applying vitamins to the skin in the form of skin creams does much good either come to that, but I keep an open mind on that one.
The thing that interested me and inspired me to write this post about it is the very rapid response from the Linus Pauling Institute. Linus Pauling was one of the giants of twentieth century physics and his reputation in that area is secure. But he also became interested in vitamin C and became convinced that it had huge benefits in general, and in particular it was a defence against the common cold. This was well known enough an idea for my mother to prescribe daily oranges in winter when I was a kid. (I still got colds.)
In fact it has never been shown to be the case that very doses of vitamin C help the body’s defences in this way.
The Linus Pauling Institute has continued to promote the benefits of vitamins in general. They work in a way that is a bit unusual. Science should be about pursuing truth, not following an agenda. But aside from that rather unscientific premise they seem to work in a logical and honest way. A good example is their response to the multivitamin story. They don’t dispute the findings but suggest that we need better ways of looking for the health benefits.
Maybe they are right. Maybe we do. But that doesn’t mean that multivitamins actually work. When some actual evidence appears perhaps they should be considered. In the meantime give them a skip.
The case against multivitamins
The case for multivitamins
Cochrane Review of Vitamin C and the Common Cold