Approximately 86 percent of Americans take some form of vitamin, according to the American Osteopathic Association. Regardless of the fact that less than a quarter of Americans have a nutrient deficiency, people take these over-the-counter supplements in hopes of improving their health. But a new analysis of research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that most vitamins and supplements aren’t as effective as people think — at least in terms of heart health and longevity.
The research team investigated 277 scientific analyses and 16 different types of supplements: antioxidants, beta-carotene, vitamin B-complex, multivitamins, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D alone, calcium alone, calcium and vitamin D together, folic acid, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. They also reviewed a number of different dietary health interventions, including diets with varying amounts of fat and sodium.
Very few of the diets they tested were linked to a longer life or lower heart risk. Even the widely-applauded Mediterranean diet did not have a significant effect. The only dietary intervention with a significant impact was a reduced salt intake, as it helped to improve heart health. This was likely due to the effect high-sodium foods and drinks can have on blood pressure.
Almost every supplement tested was not significantly linked to longevity or heart health. In fact, some supplements (calcium plus vitamin D supplements in particular) could increase stroke risk, according to the study.
“The panacea or magic bullet that people keep searching for in dietary supplements isn’t there,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Erin D. Michos, in a statement. “People should focus on getting their nutrients from a heart-healthy diet.”
There were just two exceptions: folate and fish oil.
Folate, a B vitamin also known as folic acid, was linked to a 20 percent reduced risk of stroke in healthy people. They found that the strongest benefits were found in studies conducted in China, where cereals and grains are not fortified with folate. In the United States, folate is added to many foods. The study authors warned that these supplements may not be as beneficial for Americans who already get enough folate from their diets. Of course, that could be true with all vitamins — if you get the vitamins you need from food instead of pills, you might not receive the same benefits from taking supplements.
Fish oil has a complicated history of research. Some previous studies have shown that fish oil supplements don’t have any significant benefit to your heart, while others seem to show that the supplements prevent heart disease and act as a powerful anti-inflammatory. This group of researchers looked at 41 studies with a total of 134,034 participants to find an answer. After analyzing the data, they found that fish oil supplements were linked with an 8 percent lower risk of heart attack risk and a 7 percent lower risk of heart disease. Though these numbers might seem low, the researchers found they were still significant.
That being said, not all fish oil supplements affect your body in the same way. Learn which one is right for you, along with these other things you should know, before you take a fish oil supplement.