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To Take or Not to Take: The Pros and Cons of Vitamins

Azriela Jaffe

Some say it’s their secret to good health, longevity, and vitality. Others claim they have no scientific backing, and can even be dangerous. Family First explores vitamin supplementation

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Esther, turning eighty-eight years old, is used to the comment: “You look like you're seventy! What's your secret?” Maybe it's her genes — her mother was niftar over the age of 100. Or perhaps it's a long, loving marriage, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who give her nachas, an active schedule of exercise, and frequent shiurim, which serve to keep her younger than her years.

All that helps, she admits, but she believes that there's something else that also contributes to her good health — the vitamins she's been taking without fail for over forty years. “When we were first married,” she says, “my husband read in a health magazine that individual vitamins were better for you than just one multi, and he decided that we should take vitamins — long before it was the thing to do. For all of our life together, I've taken eight vitamins every day but Shabbos: zinc, vitamin E, B complex, vitamin C, garlic, niacin, vitamin A, and vitamin D. The doctor told us, 'You don't have to take these vitamins,' but my husband didn't believe the doctor. And as he grew older and was in excellent health, the doctor said, 'Nu, how were you so smart to be taking vitamins all these years?’ ”

Philip, a mid-seventies retiree in Florida, can't attribute his robust health to his genes: “I lost both of my parents to cancer before they were sixt0. I feel that I am healthy in spite of my genes, not because of them. I've been taking an assortment of vitamins all of my life, and I don't know if they help, but they sure can't hurt. A lot of my friends are dealing with one heath problem after another. I don't take a pill for anything, not high blood pressure, cholesterol, pain, nothing at all. Is it from the vitamins? I don't know, but I'm not going to stop.”

To take, or not to take, that is the vitamin question. But it is not the only question. If you believe in the concept of taking vitamins, how do you figure out which to take, how much to take, and how to avoid taking something that could actually do more harm than good? How do you determine if a vitamin is quality-made? How do you know if treating a particular illness or discomfort with vitamin therapy makes more sense than traditional medicine, and if the financial outlay for vitamins is a wise investment of your resources?

These are complex questions, without easy answers. Some people, like Zalman, fifty-eight, approach the topic of vitamins pragmatically: “I've been on a vitamin regime that's changed as I've aged, but it's basically been the same all of my adult life. I haven't had a sick day at work in eighteen years. I took large doses of vitamin E for quite a while and my carpal tunnel syndrome went away. (I stopped the vitamin E when concerns arose about possible problems with vitamin E and heart disease.) I know my vitamin program is working for me because I give up my vitamins entirely for Pesach, and I can feel the difference in my body in just that nine-day period of time.”

Zalman continues with the conviction of a life-long vitamin user who won't be convinced otherwise by any medical research or naysayer: “When I return to my multi, vitamin D, fish oil, and probiotics after Pesach, my body feels better immediately. When I go off of them, I'm not in top form; my knees don't feel good, my thyroid and throat feel funny. Back on daily vitamins, all of those symptoms go away.” 


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