To take a multivitamin or not to take a multivitamin? That is the question. In recent years there have been mixed messages around whether it is worthwhile for healthy people to take additional dietary supplements. Dietitians tend to advocate a diet filled with fruits and vegetables before reaching for the supplement bottle. Medical clinicians have suggested that without clear evidence of health benefits, taking a multivitamin is a waste of money.
But is this a case closed, multivitamins are useless, scenario? Generally multivitamins have been recommended to improve physical health, but what about mental health? There is a growing recognition that our diets influence both our physical and mental health. Multivitamins contain B vitamins as well as minerals zinc and magnesium, all of which have a role in combating stress and regulating mood.
Stress is the body’s reaction to negative pressures and threats. In our busy lives we are bombarded with workplace, social and family pressures. Stress is a daily reality which can lead to more severe mental health problems if not kept in check. Our research has shown that taking a multivitamin was able to rapidly reduce stress in the 1-2 hours after taking the supplement. This was a single supplement taken on a single occasion. New results from the same study also showed that stress was reduced gradually over a four week period when the multivitamin was taken daily. Reductions to stress were only seen when mood was measured on a day when the participants had actually consumed the multivitamin. This research was conducted in older women and therefore can’t directly be applied to men or younger people, but the results do line up with the work of others who studied more diverse groups of people
What is interesting is that intake of vitamins and minerals from food or supplements may affect our mood in the short term as well as the long term. Good nutrition can help to combat stress, whether the same benefits are provided through the diet or a supplement is not certain. For instance how does taking a multivitamin stack up against having a nutritious snack? What about vitamin fortified foods? What about all the different multivitamins on the market? There is a need for more research to answer these questions.
Multivitamins have not turned out to be the secret weapon in the war against poor health. On the other hand, before we conclude multivitamins are a waste of money, we still have a lot to learn about their effects on mental function.
Author: Dr Helen Macpherson
NHMRC-ARC Dementia Research Fellow
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN)
School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences