Studies discount Vitamins C & E for prevention of Rheumatoid Arthritis, heart disease and cancer

Christine Miller Health Guide
  • Vitamin E and vitamin C are both antioxidants, which are thought to protect against damage caused by reactive O2 radicals or free radicals.  Free radicals are substances that can harm cells, tissues and organs and help cause damage in inflamed tissues and joints. Fruits and vegetables are rich in both, and it has been shown that people who eat plenty of these foods may have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer and other conditions.  Researchers have also been studying whether taking supplements of Vitamins E and C might also prevent diseases like cancer and RA.


    However, November was a bad month for people hoping to find positive effects of taking supplements of vitamins C and E to prevent disease.  An analysis of the Women's Health Study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital found that taking vitamin E supplements does not reduce a woman's risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  In similar research also conducted by scientists at Brigham and Women's Hospital through the Physician's Health Study, researchers found that supplements of vitamins C and E failed to prevent heart disease and cancer in men. The studies were funded by the National Institutes of Health and several vitamin and drug manufacturers.

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    Previous studies have shown that high antioxidant diets are associated with a lower risk of RA, but studies specifically of vitamin E and RA had shown inconsistent results.  As part of the Women's Health Study, 39,144 women 45 years or older who were not previously diagnosed with RA were divided into either a placebo group or a group taking 600 IU of vitamin E every other day.  The longitudinal study followed the women for about 10 years.  Similar numbers of women in both groups developed RA (50 women in the vitamin E group and 56 in the placebo group), suggesting that vitamin E supplementation does not significantly affect the risk of RA.  The study was published in the November issue of Arthritis Care & Research.


    In the analyses conducted of the male participants in the Physician's Health Study, and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that Vitamins C and E do not prevent heart disease in men.  In fact, vitamin E appeared to raise the risk of bleeding strokes (vitamin takers had a 74% higher risk). A previous study had found that male smokers taking vitamin E had a higher rate of bleeding and several other studies have found no benefit of taking these supplements for heart health.  The study included 14,641 male doctors, 50 or older.  Five percent had heart disease at the time the study started in 1997. They were put into four groups and given either vitamin E, vitamin C, both, or dummy pills. The dosages were 400 IU of vitamin E every other day and 500mg of vitamin C daily. After an average of eight years, the researchers found no difference in the rates of heart attack, stroke or heart-related deaths among the groups.


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    The same data from the Physician's Health Study were also analyzed to determine whether vitamin E or vitamin C might help prevent cancer.  The studies found that patients taking these supplements had no impact on cancer development than placebo. Previous research found that people who ate diets rich in vitamins E and C had a lower risk of cancer, suggesting that supplements of these vitamins might help ward off cancer. In summary, the researchers stated that they found no compelling reason to take vitamin E or C supplements.


    So why is it still important to maintain a diet rich in vitamins C and E?    

    Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin, and the body needs it to form collagen in bones, cartilage, muscle, and blood vessels.  It also aids in the absorption of iron. Fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits such as oranges, are high in vitamin C. Severe deficiency of vitamin C causes scurvy, which damages bones and tissues and can even cause death in rare cases.  People commonly believe that taking vitamin C helps boost the immune system and prevents or treats the common cold and respiratory infections.  However, research has been inconsistent and controversial. More than 30 clinical trials including over 10,000 participants have examined the effects of taking daily vitamin C for cold prevention but none have proven a significant reduction in the risk of developing or risk of severity of colds for the general population. 


    Vitamin E is important to the body's ability to produce red blood cells and it helps the body to use vitamin K.  Vitamin E is also an antioxidant, thought to protect against damage caused by reactive O2 radicals or free radicals. It is believed to play a role in preventing inflammation associated with free radicals and certain conditions associated with aging, but as the studies above show, those results are inconclusive. Vitamin E is found in wheat germ; corn; nuts; seeds; olives; spinach and other green leafy vegetables; asparagus; vegetable oils -- corn, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed; and products make from these foods, like margarine.


Published On: December 10, 2008