We all think that taking vitamins will help us get healthier, but will they? Or can we take too much of a good thing? To supplement or not to supplement—that is the question. This question and others about vitamin supplements are answered in the new documentary The Curious Case of Vitamins & Me, airs on Thursday, October 22 on CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things.

To learn about the science behind vitamins, filmmaker Bryce Sage acts as a human guinea pig. He meets with an anthropologist to find out why we don’t make our own vitamins and visits a supplement factory to understand where they really come from. He also gets his blood tested for deficiency levels to find out what he really needs. (And so can you. Just ask your doctor.)

So which vitamins are essential, which are unnecessary and which can harm you?

Bryce starts the investigation with something that always seems to confound us: the nutrition info on the back of prepackaged food. (Does anyone really understand those?) Nutrition Facts labels provide information on percentage Daily Values, which are based on Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for each micronutrient, which were originally calculated way back in 1968.

But get this. When it comes to essential micronutrients, food labels in the United States or Canada are only required to include info on Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron. Including data on the other 11 essential vitamins is optional. The numbers are based on figures over a decade old, so food labels don’t always recommend the proper vitamins. Take Vitamin C, for instance. Labels say we need only 60mg, when in fact the RDA for Vitamin C is currently 75mg for women, which is 50% higher.

Since labels aren’t trustworthy, how do we know whether or not we should take vitamins to supplement our diets?

Vitamin Supplements: Are They Making Us Healthy or Sick?Most experts agree a balanced diet of colourful fruits and veggies is the best vitamin source, but these foods have less nutrition these days because of soil depletion. So many people take vitamin supplements, like multivitamins, as insurance. Some experts believe that besides a placebo effect, these supplements provide no definitive health benefits, that in fact, multivitamins do little to prevent cancer, heart disease or other signs of aging. Still, if they’re not dangerous to our health, maybe there’s no downside to taking them.

Turns out certain vitamins consumed in excess can be dangerous. Study after study shows that taking excess amounts of fat-soluble Vitamins A (or beta-carotene) and E can increase the risk of developing cancer by up to 20%. While the scientists can’t pinpoint the exact molecular processes at work, the reality is we can overdose. The RDA figures include Upper Limits for most vitamins, and many have severe side effects if you consume too much. To make matters worse, unlike prescription medications, dietary supplements aren’t required to go through the same kind of rigorous testing for safety and accurate labeling.

Hold up. Before you flush your supplements down the toilet, there may be some exceptions to the rule. Case in point: Vitamin D, an important micronutrient that’s essential for good bone health.

We need sunlight to activate Vitamin D and many food products like milk are fortified with it to ensure we get enough to prevent the deficiency disorder, rickets. But some argue we may not be getting enough Vitamin D, especially for those of us in cooler climates, like Canada. We need the sun to make Vitamin D–and scientists recently discovered we need Vitamin D to make serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter, which might explain why so many of us get depressed during the winter.

If we have different needs for Vitamin D based on our geography, does that mean we have different needs for other vitamins, too? Given how complex nutrition science can be, here’s one thing we know for sure: We all need to get better informed about our individual needs.

Vitamin Supplements: Are They Making Us Healthy or Sick?Want to learn more? Watch  The Curious Case of Vitamins & Me on Thursday, October 22 on CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things by Bryce Sage, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and writer with an interest in telling stories that inspire, inform and entertain. He recently contributed to CBC’s Marketplace, worked in the writing room of hit ABC/Global series Rookie Blue, and just completed an animated short for Bravo. He has also worked as writer and editor in factual entertainment such as Wipeout Canada, Style by Jury and Majumder Manor. The Curious Case of Vitamins & Me will be Bryce’s second documentary on The Nature of Things, made with Merit Motion Pictures. 

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