Following my earlier blog entry today on the same topic …

The power of vitamins to accomplish miracles is widely touted in the US. While it is true that they are essential nutrients, a deficiency of which can lead to a wide variety of health problems, including diseases like scurvy and rickets, the fact is that vitamins are not miracle workers. The more they are studied, the less it appears they can do; for example, there’s this report from U.S. News & World Report:

Selenium, vitamin E and vitamin C won’t prevent men from getting prostate cancer.

In findings that were released early because of the public health implications, the results of two large randomized, controlled clinical trials showed the supplements failed to provide a cancer-prevention benefit, despite past findings that seemed to indicate great promise — particularly for selenium. Both studies were expected to be published in the Jan. 7 print issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Our results showed no evidence of benefit from selenium and vitamin E on prostate cancer and other cancers,” said the lead author of one of the studies, Dr. Scott Lippman, a professor of medicine in the division of cancer medicine at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston.

This is not the only lesson conveyed in this USN&WR story; it goes on to point out:

These studies are just the latest in a long list of recent research that’s been discounting the use of individual vitamins and supplements for chemoprevention. Other recent studies have suggested that vitamins, B, C, D, E, folic acid and calcium taken alone, or in various combinations, aren’t effective for cancer prevention.

I have no doubt that essential nutrients such as vitamins enhance health and may even fend off disease. The problem here is “‘magic bullet’ thinking,” or the tendency to view one in particular as being the single best way to fend off or cure an illness. Somehow I doubt human biochemistry is as simple as that. It’s more likely that there is a complex interplay among nutrients which is more effective, but one that’s too complex to be able to isolate down to a single most-efficacious substance. Nonetheless, many people believe it is this simple, and I doubt the series of studies this article refers to will change people’s minds about that.

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