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Breast & Brain Health Boosted by Vitamins
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Two new studies support the value of vitamin-mineral supplements; brain study is the first in middle-aged people; breast study measured participant’s DNA repair capacity and took that into account
by Craig Weatherby

Vitamins are showing up everywhere, even in water... with one vitamin-fortified brand of beer in our past and perhaps another in our future.

But with the notable exception of vitamin D, supplemental vitamins have taken some hits in recent years.

Key Points
  • Vitamins and calcium linked to reduced breast cancer risk (30 and 40 percent reductions respectively).
  • Middle aged men show better brain performance and mood within one month of taking a daily B complex, vitamin C and minerals supplement in a controlled trial.
The results of several studies published in 2008 found that neither supplemental B vitamins nor vitamins C or E reduce the risk of cancer or heart disease.

In general, the evidence seems to support the idea that diets high in whole, nutrient-rich foods are better allies than supplemental vitamins (see “Whole Foods Seen Superior to Supplements”).

The obvious exceptions are vitamin D and omega-3s, which are lacking even from many healthy, well-rounded, plant-rich diets.

However, as we wrote in 2009, the cluster of negative studies published in 2008 simply suggested that specific vitamin supplements lack disease-prevention power over the short-term (10 years or less).

This kind of finding from epidemiological studies is not uncommon, probably because vitamin users have generally healthier-than-average diets and lifestyles. Researchers can attempt to “control” for the healthier habits of vitamin takers, but it is not easy.

And, negative findings about vitamin supplements are balanced both by the positive outcomes of other studies… such as the two investigations we report on today.

For our take on the cluster of negative studies published in 2008, and a fuller look at the preventive potential of vitamin supplements, see “Vitamin Studies Paint a More Positive Prevention Picture.”

Now, two new studies add positive evidence to the supplemental vitamin picture, with one finding reduced breast cancer risk, and another finding enhanced mental function in vitamin users.

Let’s take a look at the details.

Study #1
Vitamin and calcium supplements linked to reduced breast risk
Although it trails heart disease as the biggest cause of female deathby a very wide marginbreast cancer is the most common cancer in women.

More than 178,000 new cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in 2007, and more than 40,000 women died from it that year.

Last month, researchers from Puerto Rico’s Ponce School of Medicine presented the results of a “case-control” type epidemiological study to the 101st Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (Vergne y et al. 2010).

This rather sophisticated study was designed to discover any links between women’s “DNA repair capacity”, their use of vitamin and calcium supplements, and their risk for breast cancer risk.

The capacity of the DNA to repair itselfwhich was measured in the participating womenis a critical, complex process involving over 200 proteins and at least five metabolic pathways.

DNA repair capacity is measured in blood cells to gauge a person’s overall DNA repair capacity, with a low repair capacity predicting higher risks for many kinds of cancer.

A team lead by Professor Jaime Matta, Ph.D., compared diet and health data collected from 268 women with breast cancer to the same data from 457 healthy controls. 

As expected, women were more likely to have breast cancer if they were older, had a family history of breast cancer, had no history of breastfeeding and had lower DNA repair capacity.

The researchers reached an encouraging conclusion:

“Vitamins and calcium intake are protective for breast cancer… Vitamins intake is an independent protective factor for [breast cancer] while the protective effect of calcium may be explained by an increased [DNA repair capacity]” (Vergne y et al. 2010).

Specifically, women who took vitamin supplements were 30 percent less likely to have breast cancer.

And women who took calcium supplements were 40 percent less likely to have breast cancer.

The link between taking daily vitamin pills and a 30 percent lower risk of breast cancer persisted after the researchers controlled for the women’s recorded levels of DNA repair capacity.

In contrast, calcium supplements no longer appeared as protective when the researchers controlled for women’s DNA repair capacity (DRC).

Why would a 40 percent cut in risk from calcium pills disappear in women with high DRC levels? The Ponce team speculated that calcium may enhance the DNA repair capacity of breast cells.

If they’re right, women with high DRCs wouldn’t gain much added protection from taking calcium, while women with low DRCs could gain a big preventive benefit.

Study # 2Vitamin-mineral pills boost mood and brain performance in controlled trial
The results of a controlled clinical trial in healthy, middle-aged British men suggest that taking a vitamin-mineral supplement can rapidly improve mood and mental performance while reducing stress, mental tiredness, and fatigue.

The trial, conducted by researchers from the UK’s Northumbria University, is one of very few studies to scrutinize the relationship between vitamin/mineral supplements, brain function, and mood in middle-aged people (Kennedy DO et al. 2010).

The new study was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in which 215 men aged 30 to 55 were given either a multivitamin pill or a placebo pill for 33 days.

The two groups took mood, stress and health questionnaires and were tested with physical and mental tasks at the beginning and end of the study.

The multivitamin was a B complex, vitamin C and minerals supplement manufactured by Bayer, which sponsored the study.

When the study started, there were no significant differences between the placebo and multi-vitamin/minerals groups with regard to test scores.

However, after 33 days of supplementation the multivitamin/minerals group showed clear advantages.

They reported significantly improved ratings of general mental health, reduced subjective stress and increased ratings of ‘vigor’, with a strong trend towards an overall improvement in mood.

The vitamin group’s performance on tasks and tests was significantly better, and they reported lower ratings of “mental tiredness” before and after the intense mental tests.

In contrast, the placebo group showed no significant changes.

As lead author David Kennedy said, “Overall, these results suggest that improving nutritional status, by supplementation if necessary, may be beneficial to males within the general population as a whole” (NU 2010).

He went on to make three key points:
  • “We know that optimum functioning of the central nervous system is dependent on a wide range of micronutrients, and there is a wealth of evidence from epidemiological studies that clearly suggest a relationship between micro-nutrients and psychological functioning.”
  • “Vitamin C for example is the brain’s most prevalent antioxidant and is found at its greatest concentrations in neuron-rich areas.”
  • “The assumption was made here that the men tested enjoyed typical nutritional status… the very fact of being able to improve mood, ratings of mental health and vigor and aspects of task performance by simple supplementation with B vitamins, vitamin C and minerals indicates that the cohort [group] must have been suffering from less than optimal micronutrient status at the outset” (NU 2010).
We’ll keep our eye on research into the disease-prevention and anti-aging potential of vitamin and mineral pills… stay tuned.

  • Kennedy DO, Veasey R, Watson A, Dodd F, Jones E, Maggini S, Haskell CF. Effects of high-dose B vitamin complex with vitamin C and minerals on subjective mood and performance in healthy males. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2010 May 8. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Northumbria University (NU) Berocca® Study. Accessed at
  • Vergne y et al. Consumption of vitamins and calcium reduces breast cancer risk by their regulation of the DNA repair capacity [abstract]. In: Proceedings of the 101st Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research; 2010 Apr 17-21; Washington, DC. Philadelphia (PA): AACR; 2010. Abstract number 976. Accessed at{0591FA3B-AFEF-49D2-8E65-55F41EE8117E}

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