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Nutritional supplements: Friend or foe to the heart?
Your body needs vitamins to function properly and keep you feeling and looking healthy. Vitamins help build and maintain the body’s tissues and organs. They provide energy and boost the immune system.

Antioxidant vitamins, which include vitamins E, C and A, protect the body from free radicals, which are harmful chemicals associated with disease.

Many studies have been done to determine if antioxidant vitamins can prevent or treat heart disease. A diet containing these vitamins shows the most promise in protecting your heart.

“Eating a diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and beans can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Palmetto Health Heart Hospital cardiologist Dr. Joe Hollins. “It is best to get your vitamins from natural food sources, not supplements.”

The American Heart Association also recommends that you get vitamins from food instead of supplements.

Some studies on the benefits of vitamin supplements on heart health show them doing more harm than good. For example, in a clinical trial on vitamin E led by Canadian physicians, 7,030 people age 55 years or older with coronary heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, prior stroke, diabetes and one other cardiovascular disease risk factor were monitored for ten years. Half were given 400 units of vitamin E daily, while the others were given a placebo. The vitamin E group experienced a large increase in heart failure rates.

“Most research does not support the routine use of antioxidant supplements for heart patients,” says Dr. Hollins. “High doses of any supplement can upset the balance of chemicals in your body, which all work together to protect you from disease.” A supplement should only be taken for its intended purpose—as a supplement—if a person does not receive enough of the vitamin from the food he or she eats.

Some smaller studies suggest that vitamin E supplements are helpful to the heart, such as the Cambridge Heart Antioxidant Study (CHAOS). In this 2002 study, patients with coronary artery disease were given vitamin E and had a 47 percent reduced risk for heart disease-related death and non-fatal heart attack. In fact, taking vitamin E is a helpful treatment for patients with fatty liver, a condition caused by poor diet and obesity. In other larger studies, however, vitamin E demonstrated no benefit.

For example, the Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation (HOPE) found no benefit for high-risk heart disease patients who took 400 units of E a day for four years. Also, the Heart Protection Study, published in 2002, followed 15,000 men for five years and demonstrated no positive effects from taking vitamin E.

Taking large amounts of vitamin E will not lower one’s risk for heart disease, but getting a daily dose of about 200-400 units from natural food sources is good for general health. Vitamin E is found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, whole grains and leafy greens.