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You can't buy good health but you can buy good health information. Check out these newly released Special Health Reports from Harvard Medical School:

The truth about dietary supplements, from the January 2013 Harvard Women's Health Watch

More than half of American women (and men) reach for a supplement bottle to get the nutrition insurance they think they need. But nutritional supplements rarely live up to their hype, reports the January 2013 issue of Harvard Women's Health Watch.

Over the years there has been a lot of highly positive news about supplements. Antioxidants such as vitamin E were once seen as a promising silver bullet against heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. Omega-3 fatty acids were once touted for warding off strokes and other cardiovascular events. The latest supplement in the spotlight, vitamin D, is being eyed as a possible defense against a long list of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, depression, and even the common cold.

But here's the big caveat: much of the most exciting research included observational studies, which can't show cause and effect. Observational studies follow large groups of people who chose to take supplement. While that strategy can yield useful information, it isn't nearly as reliable as testing a particular supplement against a placebo (inactive pill) in a controlled setting. When that was done, the more stringent randomized controlled trials often found no effect for the supplement.

"Often the enthusiasm for these vitamins and supplements outpaces the evidence. And when the rigorous evidence is available from randomized controlled trials, often the results are at odds with the results of the observational studies," explains Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and principal investigator of a large randomized trial known as VITAL (VITamin D and OmegA-3 TriaL).

We need a variety of nutrients each day to stay healthy, including calcium and vitamin D to protect our bones, folic acid to produce and maintain new cells, vitamin A to preserve a healthy immune system and vision, and many, many more. Yet the source of these nutrients is important. "Usually it is best to try to get vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from food as opposed to supplements," Dr. Manson says.

Read the full-length article: "Dietary supplements: Do they help or hurt?"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Women's Health Watch

  • Dietary supplements: Do they help or hurt?
  • Ask the doctor: What is Mohs surgery?
  • Ask the doctor: Why does alcohol affect women differently?
  • Should you be screened for a hearing problem?
  • Hair loss: It's not just for men
  • Antioxidant-rich diet protects women's hearts
  • Could you have a thyroid problem-and not know it?
  • In the journals: Delaying help for a heart attack could be especially deadly for women
  • In the journals: Exercise protects against age-related brain shrinkage
  • In the journals: Botox as effective as oral medication for overactive bladder

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.