If you are in good health and eat a balanced diet, taking a multivitamin is not likely to improve your over-all health or reduce your incidence of certain diseases. Our bodies are extremely good at extracting the vitamins and minerals that we need from our foods. However, people may benefit from a multivitamin, including those with heart diseases, pregnant women, those over the age of 50 or in high stress situations, vegetarians and vegans.

Who Could Benefit from Multivitamins?

  • Vegetarians. Vegetarians and vegans are at greater risk for having deficiencies of vitamin B12, omega 3s, 6s and iron. Multivitamins for vegetarians are specially formulated to make sure the body receives these essential vitamins.
    Those experiencing extreme stress: It is a good idea to take multivitamins in periods of emotional or physical high stress. The zinc and vitamin C in multivitamins are immune system boosters.
    Women with heavy menstrual cycles. Younger women, especially those who have heavy menstrual bleeding, need to replace lost iron. Multivitamin supplements can help the body do this.
  • Pregnant women: Expecting mothers or women wishing to become pregnant should take a prenatal vitamin to ensure they have sufficient levels of iron, folic acid, calcium and other vitamins to prevent birth defects or nutritional deficiencies in the mother.

Complementary Treatment

Multivitamins can serve as a complementary medicine in the treatment of the following diseases and conditions:

  • Chronic diseases. People with chronic diseases usually have a reduced appetite, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Doctors recommend multivitamins if people suffer from digestive ailments, long term liver problems or gallstones.
  • Brain diseases. Studies show that elderly people who take vitamins and minerals, especially over several years, have a higher cognitive functioning. B vitamins are very important for brain health and for preventing dementia and the depression which can occur in advanced years.
  • Eating disorders. Eating disorders can cause insufficient digestive secretions, intestinal absorption disorders, loss of appetite and nutritional deficiencies. In these cases, multivitamin supplements can partially replace some of the nutrients of solid food.
  • Muscular injuries. A multivitamin can hasten the recovery process of the injured muscle tissue.
  • Infections. The multivitamin are an adjuvant in healing an infection of any kind. Because of the high content of vitamins which act on different cellular levels, the minerals come as a support, sustaining the healing process.

Potential Side Effects

  • Breast cancer. A study published in the 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that older women who frequently take multivitamins were at higher risk of breast cancer. The researchers, who followed 35,000 Swedish women, said it was biologically possible that there was a link, although it warrants further investigation.
  • Hypervitaminosis. This refers to a toxic (poisonous) reaction caused by the excess of a certain vitamin in the body. Hypervitaminosis is generally related to fat soluble vitamins (A, D, K, E), which can accumulate in the body, not the water soluble type which are flushed out of the body. It occurs with supplements, not food. Such poisoning would require vitamin intake that is much higher than the recommended daily dosage.
  • Dry itchy skin, loss of appetite, headache, aching bones and joints. These side effects are caused by excess levels of certain vitamins.
  • Bone demineralization, gallstones and calcium deposition in soft tissues. Excess calcium and vitamin D3 can cause bone demineralization.
  • Impaired blood clotting and bleeding. An excess of vitamin A or E can decrease the intestinal absorption of vitamin K which is essential for the functioning of proteins involved in blood clotting.

If you are eating a healthy balanced diet, multivitamins are probably not necessary. However, they are suitable for certain people, or during times of extreme stress. Many multivitamins are designed for specific needs. For example, vitamins for men do not usually contain iron, this is important for women’s vitamins contain iron as it is lost during menstruation. Multivitamins for people with absorption problems or other conditions may contain much higher doses than those recommended by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. Note that excess levels of vitamins can cause health problems. You should choose a multivitamin tailored to your specific needs. Consult with a nutritionalist or dietician if you are unsure what is best for you.