Vitamin and supplement intake – an expert’s perspective


CORVALLIS, Ore. – Are you interested in taking some vitamins or supplements to improve your health or fill in the gaps of a less-than-perfect diet, but also confused by a myriad of claims and contradictory studies?

If so, that probably means you face the same uncertainties as a few hundred million other people around the world. What to take, what to avoid? How much is enough?

One of the nation’s leading experts on vitamins, phytochemicals and micronutrients recently outlined what he takes personally – and has made it available online at http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/ss10/director.html

“At various meetings or presentations, I’ve been asked dozens if not hundreds of times what vitamins and supplements I take myself,” said Balz Frei, a distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics, and director of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. “So I finally decided to write it down for anyone who is curious.”

Frei is the head of an internationally recognized research and educational institute that focuses on the use of vitamins and micronutrients in addressing disease issues and promoting optimal health. He is 51 years old, normal weight, eats a proper diet, exercises regularly and doesn’t smoke. He’s quick to point out that vitamins are supplements, not substitutes, for a healthful diet and lifestyle.

And part of what stands out about his personal vitamin use is that it’s not very exotic, complicated or expensive. But it also goes beyond the old mantra that “you get all the nutrients you need from a balanced diet” – a concept he doesn’t believe is generally true.

“Millions of people in the U.S. don’t get enough vitamin D, vitamin E or vitamin C,” Frei pointed out. “And I have pretty good health habits, but I can’t say that I get the recommended nine servings of fruits and vegetables every single day.

“Hardly anyone eats an absolutely perfect diet,” he added, “and many are a lot, lot less than perfect.”

So to start with, Frei takes a good quality multivitamin/mineral – a lifelong health practice he recommends for virtually everyone.

“A multivitamin on one level is good health insurance, a guarantee that you’re not missing out on some vitamin or trace mineral that’s important but not always covered in your diet,” Frei said. “I believe everyone should take a multivitamin, all of their life.”

“But it can also be more than that,” he said. “More than 90 percent of Americans, for instance, don’t get enough vitamin E, and if you have a low-fat diet it’s almost impossible to get the recommended dietary allowance of it, because it’s found mostly in fats and oils. We get more of it from fat and desserts than any other source.”

Then, Frei takes a 500-milligram tablet of vitamin C – an amount that studies have shown is adequate to saturate body tissues. The RDA of this vitamin is only 90 milligrams for men and 75 for women, and that’s adequate to prevent scurvy – the age-old disease that caused the teeth to fall out of sailors on long voyages. But the many other roles vitamin C may play in optimal immune function, cardiovascular health and other issues would be better served by a higher intake.

Also important, Frei says, is to get enough vitamin D – he takes 2,000 international units a day, in addition to the 400 IU RDA that he gets in the multivitamin. There’s evidence of widespread deficiency of what’s called the “sunshine vitamin” in most temperate zones, even as research is finding compelling evidence of its importance in immune function, protection against infectious disease, osteoporosis, and possibly hypertension and cancer.

“My doctor did a simple blood test for my vitamin D levels during a routine physical, and I was somewhat shocked to find I was at the very low end of normal,” Frei said. “I needed a very high dosage for about two months just to get body stores back up to a healthier level.”

For a supplement that is getting more interest all the time, Frei also takes 1,200 milligrams a day of fish oil, which contains the omega-3 fatty acids that provide important protection for cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, and play roles in brain function, development and possibly slowing cognitive decline.

In addition to the calcium from his multivitamin and diet, Frei gets some extra calcium from an eight-ounce serving of a low-fat, probiotic yogurt every day to bring his total calcium intake close to the recommended 1,000 milligrams. And finally, a bit off the beaten path, he takes 400 milligrams of lipoic acid and 1,000 milligrams of acetyl-L-carnitine each day. That’s a little more cutting-edge.

“Lipoic acid and carnitine are of particular value for older people, what we call age-essential micronutrients that are related to energy, glucose and fat metabolism, inflammation, cardiovascular health and other issues, including lowering body weight in experimental animals,” Frei said. “It’s an area of focused research in the Linus Pauling Institute and I’m personally convinced of its beneficial effects, especially for older adults.”

To summarize, Frei takes:

  • A daily multivitamin/mineral
  • 500 milligrams of vitamin C
  • 2,000 IU of vitamin D
  • 1,200 milligrams of fish oil
  • 400 milligrams of lipoic acid
  • 1,000 milligrams of acetyl-L-carnitine

Use of this regimen of supplements, he said, is similar, but not identical to the Linus Pauling Institute “Prescription for Health” that’s also outlined on the web, at http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/lpirx2.html 

Different regimens may vary with the individual depending on their age, health, lifestyle and personal genetics, he said. Greater detail on many vitamins and supplements is also available at LPI’s Micronutrient Information Center, http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter

As research has shown, Frei cautions against too much vitamin A, which has negative, sometimes serious effects, with long-term consumption of more than 25,000 IU per day. The 5,000 IU of vitamin A often found in a good multivitamin is generally adequate. And excessive calcium consumption – more than 2,500 milligrams a day – has been associated in some studies with increased risk of prostate cancer in men.

Frei also noted that all of the vitamins and supplements he takes are either essential nutrients, those found in healthful foods, or produced naturally by the body – which can’t be said for the much broader range of herbal supplements and other compounds. Most of these supplements/compounds available in health food stores have been less scientifically studied; some can even be toxic or harmful. And while some of these products may have value, none should be used by consumers without thoroughly researching them first, he said.

Vitamins and supplements from any reputable source are fine, Frei said, so long as they have a “USP” stamp, which verifies they have been approved by this non-governmental health organization that monitors quality, purity and potency of dietary supplements.