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Enhancing health with a multivitamin

Wednesday, March 01, 2006 by: Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.
Tags: multivitamins, disease prevention, physical exercise

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"An apple a day keeps the doctor away." But then, you also need a banana, an orange, a pear, a handful of carrots, some avocado, a head of lettuce, some tomatoes ... the list goes on. Did you make sure to get your five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables today? How about yesterday and the day before that? Chances are, even if you are the most diligent of nutritional fiends, you still don't get your daily requirement of vitamins and minerals.

Nowadays, it's nearly impossible to find the necessary level of nutrients in our food alone. The mineral content in our soils has diminished over the years due to increases in pollution and pesticides, and the hormones in our meat and poultry supply lower the food's overall nutritional value. Just a century ago, our food contained all of the nutrients that our bodies required to perform at optimal level. But today, that is no longer a fact. Today, it has become necessary to supplement your diet with a multivitamin.

The Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for vitamins was established during the First World War when food supplies were limited and concerns about vitamin deficiency-related diseases ran high. RDIs were established to ensure that Americans received the minimum vitamins necessary to ward off diseases such as scurvy. Today, such diseases are relatively unheard of, and medical researchers have begun to focus their attention on the role that vitamins play in preventing degenerative diseases.

Cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes are serious diseases that thrive on our nation's poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyle. A lack of the necessary vitamins and minerals triggers a cascade of events within the body that ultimately lead to these degenerative diseases. But with a multivitamin, your body is armed with the necessary weapons needed to fend off life-threatening illnesses.

Lower your risk of cardiovascular disease

Testing your blood for homocysteine and C-reactive protein levels can indicate your current health status. Elevated levels of either one is a red flag that something is not right within your body. Too much homocysteine in the blood stream can alter DNA, which can fuel the progression of heart disease, accelerate aging and increase your risk of developing cancer. Two studies recently reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that taking a daily multivitamin with folic acid and B vitamins can lower homocysteine levels.

C-reactive protein (CRP) is produced in the liver and helps the body heal wounds and fight off infection. The presence of CRP in the blood is an indication of an underlying infection or inflammation. Chronic inflammation is associated with a variety of diseases, including cardiovascular disease and stroke.

CRP levels may be elevated many years prior to a coronary event and can be a significant predictor of new coronary events in apparently healthy men and women. Studies indicate that the higher the CRP level, the higher the risk of developing a heart attack. Elevated CRP levels present in the blood after a stroke or heart attack can be indicative of a repeated coronary event with a lower survival rate.

A study printed in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2003 found that multivitamins can significantly lower CRP levels, with an observed average drop of 14 percent.

As a matter of fact, authors of a similar study reported in JAMA stated that the simple act of taking a daily multivitamin, "could prevent tens of thousands of cases of cardiovascular disease each year at very low cost and with few (if any) adverse effects."

Lower your risk of cancer

A study published in 2003 in the Journal of Epidemiology found that people who took a multivitamin regularly for 10 years had a 30 percent lower risk of developing colon and rectal cancer. Multivitamins contain vitamin D, which has been found to keep cancer cells from multiplying and dividing in laboratory studies. Likewise, the vitamins D, E and folic acid have been linked to a lower risk of both colon and breast cancer.

Multivitamins also contain several antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene, which serve to fight off potentially dangerous molecules in the body called free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that search the body for healthy molecules to complete them. When a free radical encounters a healthy molecule, it takes what it needs from the healthy molecule to stabilize itself, rendering the formerly healthy molecule damaged. Free radicals leave behind them a wake of destruction, altering DNA and oxidizing the body from the inside out. Left unchecked, free radicals can cause cancer as well as heart disease and other degenerative diseases. Antioxidants seek out free radicals in order to neutralize them, stopping them before their damage leads to a deadly outcome.

Lower your risk of diabetes

Insulin resistance is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. Normally, ordinary levels of insulin will escort glucose into your cells. With insulin resistance, your cell receptors do not recognize the insulin hormone and deny it access to deposit the glucose. With nowhere for the glucose to go, sugar begins to build up in your bloodstream. Your pancreas, unaware of the insulin resistance, steps up insulin production in an effort to pump out enough of the hormone to remedy the situation. The overproduction of insulin inundates your bloodstream. The chromium found in multivitamins can assist the body in maintaining normal blood sugar levels and can be an important measure toward preventing type 2 diabetes from taking hold.

Multivitamins level the playing field of good health. A food-based multivitamin will contain all of the vitamins and minerals that should be a part of your regular diet and fill in the gaps where your diet falls short. Multivitamins do not replace healthy eating, but rather they supplement an already healthy diet. As a matter of fact, the healthier your diet, the better your multivitamin will work for you.

Dr. Connealy, M.D., M.P.H., began private practice in 1986. In 1992, she founded South Coast Medical Center for New Medicine, where she serves as medical director. Her practice is firmly based in the belief that strictly treating health problems with medications does not find the root cause of the illness. Dr. Connealy writes monthly columns for Coast and OC Health magazines, and is a biweekly guest on Frank Jordan's "Healthy" radio show. She routinely lectures and educates the public on health issues.

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