Monday, May 26, 2008

Finally, a pill to treat crankiness

How many people do you know who eat a balanced, healthy diet? I mean the kind with 5+ servings of fruits and veggies per day.

To massage our bad consciences, we swallow multi-vitamin pills, hoping this will make up for skipping the salad. But how much do these vitamin supplements really help?

One recent study, which flew through the media, claimed that vitamins A and E increase the risk of death. That study didn’t actually involve any experiments or subjects; it was a statistical analysis of data from other people’s experiments, all of which had already shown that vitamin supplements have either no or negative effects on life expectancy. So the study didn’t actually present anything new.

Nevertheless, if you are taking vitamins hoping they will make you live longer, you can stop now. But if you are worried that taking vitamins will kill you, just keep in mind that vitamin supplements are intended to supplement the diet. If you eat a balanced diet, you don’t need them. And too much of the fat-based kind (A, D, E, and K) can be toxic.

So, vitamins won’t make us live longer, but can they make our short stay on Earth healthier and happier?

How can these benefits be measured scientifically? Ideally, the effects of vitamins would be studied by monitoring two large groups of people: one group gets vitamins every day, and the second group placebos. The catch is, all members of both groups need to eat the same foods and get the same amount of exercise.

Where to find hundreds of people whose diet and activities are the same every day? Prisons!

One of the first studies to examine the effects of vitamin supplements came out in 2002. A team of researchers headed by C. Bernard Gesch, of the University of Oxford, recruited 231 prisoner volunteers to act as subjects in their study.

Neither the subjects nor the prison guards who distributed the pills knew who was receiving the supplements and who got placebos. The study was also randomized, to eliminate effects of ethnic or social factors.

Daily intake of vitamin supplements reduced antisocial behavior, including violence, by 35%. These improvements showed up after just two weeks.

A new 3-year study is starting in the UK this month to reproduce these findings. The scientists plan to evaluate 1000 prisoners over the course of 12 months.

Professor John Stein of Oxford University, said that the prison food was not lacking in nutrition, but the inmates generally chose not to eat the fruits and vegetables. (He didn’t say how fresh the prison veggies were.) The scientists are hoping that their findings will encourage schools to provide dietary education and vitamin supplements.

What does this mean for us? Vitamin supplements won’t extend our lives, but they may make life more pleasant for those around us.

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