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Health & Exercise Forum

The truth about vitamins: Part 1 of 2

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Dec 9, 2019
Robin Tanner, MD3

Guest Author: Robin Tanner MD3

3rd Year Medical Students at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (GCSOM)

Robin Tanner MD3 is a third year medical student at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. Originally from Danville, Pennsylvania, Robin received her bachelor’s degree from Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. Aside from studying medicine, she enjoys learning about World War II, politics, classical literature and new languages. She volunteers with different pediatric organizations including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Camp Victory. She hopes to pursue a career that incorporates medical education, pediatrics and global health. 

We have all seen that one aisle at the grocery store, pharmacy or health food store that overwhelms us …the aisle with hundreds of little bottles with tiny font and colorful pills. It’s the vitamin aisle.  It is full of pills reaching from the floor to ceiling, all of which claim to improve your health in some aspect. Which do you pick? One says that it will improve your energy. Others claim to make your hair grow faster. Is this all too good to be true?  This one aisle is just a small piece of a $30 billion industry in the United States. How did this happen? Is it money well-spent?

What is a vitamin?

What is a vitamin? In a general sense, it is a substance which is used by the body for processes needed for growth and development.   They assist in the building of proteins and the breakdown of products to create energy for a cell. Many vitamins are consumed in our everyday meals such as vitamin C, found in lemons, and vitamin A, found in carrots.  Many studies have focused on the amount of each vitamin that is required to stay healthy. These studies have lead to a recommend daily intake of each vitamin in the diet, which can be found on the FDA’s website.


Scientists have studied vitamins for many years. In 1913, Thomas Osborne discovered vitamin A.  In 1922, Edward Mellanby discovered vitamin D. Many of these discoveries where guided by research focusing on a specific disease where the underlying cause of disease was a lack of the specific vitamin. Many current scientists believe this may have led to the beginning of vitamin supplementation: to avoid the diseases caused by a deficiency.

All throughout the 1900’s vitamins were advertised to improve energy and job performance, as alternative to healthy food choices, and as a way to have more fun in general.  Advertisements like these can lead to confusion regarding the purpose of vitamins and when to use them. Even today, vitamins are still advertised to increase energy and avoid unwanted illnesses. 

Do you need a vitamin?

So, do you need vitamin supplementation? Many research trials have failed to demonstrate a significant benefit from vitamin supplementation in preventing diseases which are not caused primarily from lack of a specific vitamin itself.  This is especially true in individuals who eat a well-balanced diet, because many of the vitamins needed for the body to work properly are already present in the food we eat. Moreover, taking a vitamin supplement does not provide an alternative to a healthy diet.  

Some research has shown that there is even a potential for harm when ingesting a vitamin level higher than the recommend intake.  For example, Vitamin E and folic acid may lead to increased risk hemorrhagic shock, a condition where bodily organs do not receive enough blood and oxygen.  Vitamin supplementation also has a potential risk for harm when mixed with certain medications. Therefore, it is important to tell a medical provider all medications along with supplementations one is taking.  

Although tempting, vitamin supplementation may not be the most beneficial method for achieving good health.  Maintaining a healthy diet and participating in regular exercise is the most important step to living a healthier life and to help in the prevention disease.  Although vitamin supplementation is nonessential for most, there are specific individuals and diseases which may benefit from vitamins. Please read next week’s article to review those who can benefit and those who can be harmed from vitamin supplements. 


National Institutes of Health (NIH) - Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) – Fact Sheet for Health Professionals

Blumberg, J., Frei, B., Fulgoni, V., Weaver, C., & Zeisel, S. (2017). Impact of frequency of multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement intake on nutritional adequacy and nutrient deficiencies in US adults. Nutrients, 9(8), 849.

Medical Reviewer: James W. Joseph, MD, Geisinger Family Practice, Elysburg, PA and GCSOM Family Medicine Practice Clerkship Director

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

NEXT MONDAY – Read Dr. Paul J. Mackarey “Health & Exercise Forum!” Next Week: The Truth About Vitamins Part II of II 

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (formerly The Commonwealth Medical College).