Should vitamin supplements be a part of food preps? If so, of what kind, and how much? These are the questions I’ve been considering; and I thought it might be of value to you to share some of the research I’ve been reading. (I’m not a physician so I don’t give medical advice; I share what I’ve read and you can make your own calls.)
First question: Do we need vitamin supplements?
More than half of Americans take a vitamin or mineral supplement daily, but dozens of studies have looked for any related reduction in illness or death without finding it (1). That tells me that if your diet is even halfway decent, No, no supplements are necessary.
But would we need them in a crisis scenario? Seems to me that depends a lot on what one’s food preps look like. If my situation limited my significant food storage to five gallon buckets of rice and beans, yeah I’d be stocking up on multivitamins. Since we store quite a lot of vegetables and fruits (easy to dehydrate and dead cheap when you grow them) and have the means to produce more each year, it’s not a priority for me.
Second question: Would extra help?
This one’s trickier. It definitely depends on ‘extra of which’ and ‘how much’, and possibly also ‘under what conditions’. Here are some relevant points:
While most supplements of higher doses of specific vitamins didn’t show positive effects, there was less illness associated with a few select choices:
The whole ‘vitamin C prevents colds’ thing has turned out to be a bust for the average population, but taking a gram or so of Vit C every day did lower the incidence of colds in one subset of people by about 50%: People who were doing a lot of exercise out in the cold. They saw the same effect in children at ski school as with soldiers doing cold weather training. (2) . The story of Vit C reducing the incidence of urinary tract infections didn’t survive controlled testing, though (3); and neither did the story about the Vit C reducing stomach ulcers. (4)
Vitamin D supplementation came out of the testing with the best results. People who supplemented with it were less likely to get sick with respiratory infections that required antibiotics (5). Times and places where people have the least Vitamin D have higher infection rates in general. (6) . Marik and Flemmer (7) didn’t find much benefit for most kinds of supplements, but people taking D specifically had less illness. Many Americans have low blood levels of this vitamin anyway, especially those who spend most of their time indoors. We can make Vit D in our skins if we get enough UV rays. Some people think that’s the real reason the flu mostly strikes in the winter; less Vit D in the population.
Vitamin A as a stand-alone also did pretty well in the testing, at least in children. 200,000 IU doses given just occasionally (often in kids who developed respiratory infections and measles) did reduce mortality significantly (9). They like to give Vit A for respiratory infections because it both supports immune function and helps maintain the lining of the airways where respiratory germs like to settle. For a reference on how much Vit A those doses represent, your bright orange vegetables such as acorn squash and carrots offer something in the neighborhood of 10,000 IU per 1/2 cup.
Third question: Is there such a thing as too much?
It pays to be a bit careful with the Vit D. Several times the recommended minimum seems safe, but with real megadoses some people collect too much calcium in the blood (8). Given that high calcium messes with the electrical activity needed to run nerves and muscles, including the heart, that’s not a good thing.
Vitamin A is also prone to overdose problems if you take a lot of it regularly. The carotenoid forms of the vitamin are safer than the retinol forms, apparently. Reading the fine print on the bottle will often tell you which is which.
In general, the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K are most likely to produce overdoses, since you store them up in your body fat day to day. Water-soluble vitamins such as C and the B vitamins get flushed (literally) if you take too much in a given day. I’ve heard rumors that too much Vit C can encourage kidney stones, but it takes stupid high doses, more than a gram a day, before people start worrying about that. (If you want to know more about a prepper-related concerns with kidney stones, click here.)
Fourth Question: Do they actually store well?
Shelf life is an important question for a prepper, but danged hard to find solid data on. What I’ve got to offer is general rules from the biochem lab I worked in once upon a time.
Ascorbic Acid (Vit C) was still perfectly usable even when several years old. The B vitamins we didn’t trust if they were more than five years old – based on their molecular structures looking fragile rather than more concrete evidence.
The fat soluble vitamins (including D and A) usually come in gel capsules. Those have a reputation for relatively short life spans. I toss them on their fifth birthday.
Keeping complex organic molecules, particularly colored ones, out of the light is a big deal if you want them to stay intact. Keeping them away from oxygen is also important. Commercial bottles generally are airtight and have an oxygen absorber in with them. If you decide to keep bottles of vitamins, you might choose to make sure to rotate through them, trust opened bottles for far less time, and keep them quite dark.
On the up side, I’ve never heard of toxic effects from old vitamins. (That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but it’s a positive sign anyway.) . I expect they just lose potency.
(1) Gaia Pocobelli Ulrike Peters Alan R. Kristal Emily White. Use of Supplements of Multivitamins, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E in Relation to Mortality. American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 170, Issue 4, 15 August 2009, Pages 472–483, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwp167
(2) Douglas RM, Hemilä H (2005) Vitamin C for Preventing and Treating the Common Cold. PLoS Med2(6): e168. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020168
(3) Mariëlle Beerepoot * and Suzanne Geerlings. 2016. Non-Antibiotic Prophylaxis for Urinary Tract Infections. Pathogens 2016, 5(2), 36; doi:10.3390/pathogens5020036
(4) Gail, M. H., Pfeiffer, R. M., Brown, L. M., Zhang, L., Ma, J., Pan, K., . . . You, W. (2007). Garlic, vitamin, and antibiotic treatment for helicobacter pylori: A randomized factorial controlled trial. Helicobacter, 12(5), 575-578. doi:10.1111/j.1523-5378.2007.00528.x
(5) Norlin, A., Hansen, S., Wahren-Borgström, E., Granert, C., Björkhem-Bergman, L., & Bergman, P. (2016). Vitamin D3 supplementation and antibiotic consumption – results from a prospective, observational study at an immune-deficiency unit in sweden. Plos One, 11(9), e0163451. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163451
(6) Shuler, Franklin D., et al. “Antibiotic-like actions of Vitamin D.” West Virginia Medical Journal, vol. 109, no. 1, 2013, p. 22+. Academic OneFile, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=north1010&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA315370712&sid=summon&asid=aa5c320baaa7c4d96e32f1015e7b5a20. Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.
(7) Paul E. Marik, Mark Flemmer. (2012). Do Dietary Supplements Have Beneficial Health Effects in Industrialized Nations. J of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. Volume: 36 issue: 2, page(s): 159-168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0148607111416485
(8) Tran, B., Armstrong, B. K., Ebeling, P. R., English, D. R., Kimlin, M. G., van der Pols, Jolieke C, . . . Neale, R. E. (2014). Effect of vitamin D supplementation on antibiotic use: A randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 99(1), 156-161. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.063271
(9) Mayo-Wilson Evan, Imdad Aamer, Herzer Kurt, Yakoob Mohammad Yawar, Bhutta Zulfiqar A. Vitamin A supplements for preventing mortality, illness, and blindness in children aged under 5: systematic review and meta-analysis BMJ 2011;343 :d5094