Dose & Don’ts: When Do Vitamin Supplements Make Sense?

Are vitamin supplements a pathway to better health? Experts offer some guidance.

We all know we need our vitamins, but which ones and how to get them aren’t as clear. Depending on what you read, vitamin supplements are anything from critical for disease prevention, to useless – maybe even toxic – drains on both our bodies and our bank accounts. The U.S. government’s 2015 dietary guidelines state that “nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods,” adding that supplements “may be useful” in some cases. The guidelines are not exactly definitive.

Illustration by Eric Piatkowski.
Illustration by Eric Piatkowski.

“The research has been pretty stable and clear that there’s really no established benefit to taking routine supplements,” says Dr. Mark Obermyer, internal medicine physician at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Springdale Health Center in Brookfield. “Now, what that refers to are people who are just taking it to kind of improve their health if they don’t have a specific problem.”

That’s an important distinction, says Dr. James Bell, family practitioner at Aurora Health Center in Hubertus. Because vitamin D comes from the sun, for example, many in northern climates are indeed lacking. Others, particularly older patients, have diagnosable B-complex deficiencies. Bell recommends a multivitamin every day, along with B-complex for energy and joint relief, 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C for the immune system, and between 2,000 and 5,000 units of vitamin D3 for bone health.

“Especially people who tend to eat the same foods on a weekly basis,” says Bell, adding that vitamins C, B, and multis are water-soluble, eliminating worries of overdose. “It’s always a good insurance policy.”

To find out if you have any specific vitamin deficiencies, ask your doctor to run a blood test.

“But for most of us who aren’t prescribed them for a certain reason,” says Obermyer, “there’s no proven benefits in terms of cancer, longevity, heart disease or anything.”


‘Dose & Don’ts’ appears in Milwaukee Health, a special issue from Milwaukee Magazine.

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Maggie Ginsberg is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has also appeared in Madison Magazine, Midwest Living and Wisconsin Bride.