Vitamins Versus Drugs: Which Is Safer?

Pharmaceuticals Don't Build Health

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.


Recently, I wrote a blog called The Three Drugs That I Would Not Take. And nearly 8,000 people shared this information!As I explained, pharmaceutical drugs mask symptoms—they don’t get to the root cause of the medical problem.In acute situations, they can save your life. And yes, sometimes they are helpful and necessary. But when an entire population has been led to believe that finding and taking the right drug for every ill is the Holy Grail of healthcare, we have a problem—especially since most health conditions respond so beautifully to holistic treatments. Meanwhile, every now and then, our attention is very cleverly turned away from the treatments we’re led to trust without question (drugs) in order to stop us from doing the things that actually contribute to health—like taking vitamins. Here’s a recent example. In November 2013, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) released a report stating that there was no evidence to support a role for vitamin and mineral supplementation in protecting against cancer and cardiovascular disease.1

Studies Are Often Skewed

By design, the type of analysis done by the USPSTF was meant to ascertain the effectiveness of drugs, NOT vitamins and minerals. By adhering to the standards used for drug assessment, the USPSTF ignored huge amounts of data on vitamins and minerals simply because those study designs did not follow the method they chose to review.Thus the results were narrow and skewed.And only one trial included women! Andthat particular trial used a supplement with only five ingredients—hardly a high-quality multivitamin. I could go on and on about how limited and misleading this study was if taken out of context. But the mainstream media snapped it up like candy. And with glaring headlines such as “Do You Take Vitamins? This Is Why You Shouldn’t.” Suddenly people all over the country started to question a healthy behavior!2 Where are the headlines telling you to stop taking over–the-counter or other pharmaceutical drugs? Although pharmaceuticals are approved by the FDA (in the U.S.) for safety, their track record for safety is abysmal. Did you know that in 2010, drug-related deaths were the number one cause of injury deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)?3 Here are just a few facts from the CDC’s findings:

  • Approximately 9 out of 10 poisoning deaths are caused by prescription and over-the counter drugs.4
  • In 2010, there were 38,329 deaths from drug overdose (an injury death). However, 78% of all individuals (30,006) did not intentionally overdose, and 60 % (22,134) of these cases were related to pharmaceutical drugs. Included in the 60% are people who took their medication as directed by their doctor.3,5
  • In 2011, 2.5 million individuals were treated in the emergency room for drug abuse or misuse (taking it differently than the way it was prescribed). More than half—1.4 million emergency room visits—were related to prescribed or over-the-counter medicine.6

What About Nutritional Supplements?

In absolute stark contrast, there were no deaths from vitamin, mineral, or other herbal or nutritional supplements in 2010.Not even one! We know this from the U.S. National Poison Data Systems’ report.7None of 57 Poison Control Centers across the U.S. reported any deaths from nutritional supplements. It’s shocking to learn that about 80% of deaths reported by U.S. Poison Control Centers were the result of taking a prescription or over-the-counter medication—both of which are regulated and approved by the FDA.7And that includes acetaminophen, the ingredient in Tylenol and many other products. Regarding acetaminophen alone, there are 100,000 calls to Poison Control, 56,000 visits to the emergency room, 2,600 hospital admissions, and nearly 500 deaths per year!8 If you are wondering about side effects from vitamins, minerals, and other supplements versus side effects from medication, nutritional supplements come out on top again. One of the measures enacted by Congress to monitor the nutritional supplement industry is the FDA’s Adverse Effects Reporting (AER) protocol. Here are some stats released in the March 2013 GAO Dietary Supplements report on data from 2008:

  • 1,080 AERs on supplements were reported
  • 526,527 AERs on prescription drugs were reported

And this is for one year!9 Yes—I realize that there are all kinds of negative studies in the news about this supplement or that supplement. Many were poorly designed or report on skewed data, just like my example. Besides, treating nutrients like drugs—and holding them to the same standards as drugs—is ridiculous. Nutritional supplement safety in 2010 is no different today. And the industry has enjoyed similar if not identical safety levels for the last 25 or more years. That’s not to say that there isn’t a quality difference between brands. There is! So choose a high-quality supplement from a manufacturer you trust. You can also expect the same concerns to continue from pharmaceutical and some over-the-counter medications. So be careful and be informed! What is your experience with prescription or over-the-counter medications? What advice would you give to someone who is concerned about the safety of nutritional supplements?   Sources Cited:

[1] Fortman, SP, et al. Vitamin and mineral supplements in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer: an updated systematic evidence review for the US Preventive Services Task Force, Annals of Internal Medicine, Nov 12, 2013.

[2] Blake Gossad, Kira Schmid, ND, et al. Federally–funded Analysis Attempts to Undermine Vitamin and Mineral Supplements, Alternative Therapies, 2014, Vol 20: Supplement 1, pages 16-17 )

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wide-ranging OnLine Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) [online]. (2012) Available from URL:

[4] Paulozzi LJ. Prescription drug overdoses: a review. Journal of Safety Research, 2012;

[5] Jones CM, Mack KA, Paulozzi LJ. Pharmaceutical overdose deaths, United States, 2010. JAMA 2013;309:657-659.

[6] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Highlights of the 2011 Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) findings on drug-related emergency department visits. The DAWN Report. Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2013. Available from URL:

[7] Bronstein AC, Spyker DA, Cantilena LR, Green JL, Rumack BH, Dart RC. 2011 Annual report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System (NPDS): 29th annual report. Clin Tox 2012;50:911-1164.

[8] Alliance for Natural Health, FDA Copies the European Union and Slips In One of its Deadliest Weapons, 2011.

[9]GAO Report: Dietary Supplements March 2013

Last Updated: May 20, 2014

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.


Add comment
  1. Tony Lim
    6 years ago

    Thank God for this article and all the comments from all the wonderful people. I am a heart patient currently on quite a number of heart medications with various side effects. After taking them diligently for the past 8 months, all the side effects rear it’s ugly head….I am suffering like hell to say the least and have to take additional different medication to resolve the side effects…Seems no end to it as I again required different to resolve other type of side effects from medication taken to resolve my earlier heart medication. It was a terrible chain effect…

    I was having trouble over decision to stop the drugs and go on vitamins and supplements. With this article, I am now confident of to go on vitamins and supplements together with a healthy life style…God bless all of you…

  2. Marcia
    10 years ago

    Sooooo looking forward to seeing you in Austin june 2014!

  3. Daryl Hannon
    10 years ago

    I take USANA supplements and whst s difference for my wife and I

  4. Linda
    10 years ago

    I had been taking a variety of medication after being diagnosed with Fybromyliga. For 12 years I followed the advice of MD’s and what happened is I became an addict. Its has been a year since I choose a Naturopathic doctor, and I know take only 2 supplements daily and about every two weeks I have a “B” shot. And the best part is ..! I feel great!

  5. Doris Meehan
    10 years ago

    I have been using Shaklee food supplements for years. 66 years old now and on no prescription medications at all. I, too, find Big Pharma frightening and am concerned about friends who are on many, many drugs told by their doctors that these are “preventative”!!! I haven’t figured out why the big push to get everyone on a prescription.

  6. Dora
    10 years ago

    I am bipolar and taking lithium and my stabiliser keeps me well and living a productive and happy life – be careful about generalising about all drugs. I also take vitamins.

  7. CJ
    10 years ago

    I developed dangerous physical side effects to warfarin and heparin as well as such mania that I felt as though I would lose my mind. ER staff said that no one can have that kind of reaction to blood thinners. By trusting my intuition and a network of holistic practitioners, I got off of these dangerous drugs 3 weeks after being diagnosed with 2 pulmonary emboli. Two years later, I still feel judged by family and community because of those short-lived, drug induced changes in my personality.

  8. moonepower
    10 years ago

    In my late 30’s, I was prescribed Sinequan for severe clinical depression. I remained on that protocol for seven years. Thirty years later I was told that my Vitamin D levels were in the toilet. My doctor sent me home with a recommendation to up my intake to 9000 UI per day. Guess what? More energy, reduced pain and absolutely no sign of depression whatsoever. Bottom line : if you are depressed, get tested for Vitamin D levels before you accept an SSRI.

  9. Gail Kenny
    10 years ago

    My uncle died because there was a mistake in his meds when the pharmacy accidentally doubled the dose. I’m on an antidepressant that I tried to get off of twice but am staying on it for now because the withdrawal side effects were horrible thee weeks out from the last dose. Thanks for telling the truth about pharmaceuticals.

  10. Lisa D
    10 years ago

    Numerous medications were being prescribed for my daughter, the side-effects were horrible..hard to even know what was causing problems due to the “layering”. She was described as being “non-compliant” when she would refuse to “up” to a “therapeutic dose”. Finally a wise dr. suggested no meds would be best in her case of Ehlers-Danlos/Dysautonomia. Supplements, diet, mindfulness, forgiveness, etc were all more effective. (Medical marijuana helps with chronic pain…another discussion)

  11. Werner Berger
    10 years ago

    I’m 76 years – last year I became the oldest person in the world to climb the 8th of the 7-Summits (incl. Mt. Everest). I have been on quality supplements since 1994 & still can’t believe the difference in my health and vitality. I take NO pharmaceutical drugs; don’t need them as long as I cut out junk and processed foods; and, because all of today’s foods are still nutritionally depletion, supplement with quality vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants (definitely not Centrum or One-A-Day).

  12. Revis
    10 years ago

    I used to have really unpleasant side effects when I took an antibiotic, usually for strep throat. For weeks after taking antibiotics I would have digestive problems. I started using an herbal combination (Nature’s Sunshine Lymph Gland Cleanse) at the first sign of illness. I get well in 48 hrs. or less and have no side effects. I have not had (or needed) an antibiotic since 1982.I look to natural remedies first and they usually work. I see doctors who practice integrative medicine.

  13. Rebecca
    10 years ago

    It is amazing how healthy I am compared to my Doctor and his partner. They are good friends but due to their training follow all the suggested drug regiments. One is 50 and already on 3 meds for life. They take the flu vaccine every year and get…the flu. I haven’t been sick in years!

  14. Diana
    10 years ago

    Prescription medications do have their place, but I only like to use them as a last resort. I prefer to take a nutritional supplement over a prescription any day. I have only been really sick once in the past 9 years and haven’t had a flu shot. I feel it’s due to my healthy lifestyle, eating habits, and taking nutritional supplements. I prefer food based nutritional supplements without a lot of fillers, as I feel they are recognized by our bodies and get absorbed better.

  15. Judit Hajdu
    10 years ago

    I was suffering from extreme fatigue, muscle pain and the usual symptoms of menopause. My doctors offered solutions like synthetic hormone, muscle relaxant, anti anxiety drug, pain killer, physiotherapy, acupuncture … I tried some of them (not the synthetic hormone) I read your book and started to take vitamins and other supplements based on your guidance and I feel 100 times better now than 2 years ago …

  16. Janice
    10 years ago

    I have been taking vitamins and nutritional supplements for many years. And have used alternative care such as chiropractic, acupuncture, acupressure, reiki, massage, t’ai Chi, ChiGung, etc. Many years ago when a teenager and in my early 20’s I took antibiotics for acne and no doc ever asked me what was going on in my life, nor was diet/lifestyle ever discussed. The idea that vitamins could be harmful is just so stupid that I can’t believe that anyone could give it a second thought.

  17. Leslie
    10 years ago

    I briefly took a low dose of Xanax last year and when I stopped taking it I went into acute withdrawal. Fortunately I found online information and support for accidental addiction and a doctor who believed me. With his help I got through the ordeal. ACCIDENTAL ADDICTION HAPPENS ALL THE TIME! These medications (particularly the benzodiazapines and the sedative/hypnotics like Ambien and Lunesta) are DANGEROUS and people go through hell trying to get off of them.

  18. Melissa Carr
    10 years ago

    I believe whole heartedly in vitamins vs. drugs. Since I became pregnant my first time, I have been taking vitamins every day! This was 4.5 yrs ago and I can tell when I have missed them. I make it a point to choose Non-GMO, Organic, Sourced from real food vitamins. We do not get sick at our house. Once in 5 yrs I was sick with a flu like sickness and quickly over came it with herbs. God put them here for a reason! Thank you for a great article to highlight the need to NOT need drugs!

  19. Gina
    10 years ago

    I suffered from debilitating migraines a few years ago and my doctor prescribed several different medications from anti depressants to anti seizure meds. None of these worked and all left me feeling worse because of the side effects. After a year of trial and error she finally suggested vitamin B2 that I complimented with Magnesium, now I rarely get Migraines and when I do they are less severe.

  20. Christiane Northrup
    10 years ago

    As I read over this, I realized that for the last 30 years this issue of public opinion being swayed by Big Pharma and Big Food has repeated itself over and over again. And when I finally did the research, even I was astounded by how misleading articles are when it comes to vitamins. Can’t wait to read YOUR comments!!

  21. Sandy
    10 years ago

    I am extremely terrified of Big Pharma. Seems to me there is a huge conflict of interest with the same government organization managing our foods and drugs.

  22. Peg Doyle
    10 years ago

    Thank you for speaking out about the assumption that taking drugs is normal and expected. I wish we could change that thinking to an expectation that medicine should be a last resort only after all beneficial lifestyle improvements are in place.

  23. Karen Ovens
    10 years ago

    I have taken supplements of some sort most of my adult life, for the past 13years I have been taking USANA Health Sciences products EVERYDAY and will do for the rest of my long healthy life.
    I had done my research and was totally blown away by the science behind the product. And the founder Dr Myron Wentz WOW what an incredible man!

  24. kate granado
    10 years ago

    I am 67 and I am continually taken for early 50s and I know exactly why…my attitude, my style and my well-nourished and vitamin infused interior landscape. I eat a well-balanced diet – that is not shaped like a pyramid. I adore you and have since the day I found you 25-30 years ago.
    so from one Goddess to another – thank you Dr. Northrup.

  25. Rae Marie
    10 years ago

    I have often wondered what pharmaceutical companies, if any, are the parent company of any supplements on the market (other than the known manufacturers of high quality supplements)? And if there are pharmaceutical companies involved, can we trust them? Can that information be traced back through all the ‘loop-holes’ of possible deception? Too many names to deal with just like we had to learn all the names for ‘sugar’, etc..

  26. susan
    10 years ago

    I would always advise anyone to take herbs or supplements before taking a drug. I feel drugs are a high risk to any ones health.

  27. Linda Sheridan
    10 years ago

    I have taken nutritional supplements since
    My 20’s religiously. I am almost 58.
    I do take prempro. I just like it. Never
    Had any hot flashes.
    I am on no other prescriptions.
    I have not been sick for yrs and was on
    One zpak following a root canal. Prior to
    That nothing since my mid 20’s.
    Positive energy and outlook are also very
    Important along w gratitude.
    I am very grateful!!

  28. Mary
    10 years ago

    While it is true that different brands of vitamins & minerals have different standards, it is very rare for someone to be injured in any way by them so choose a brand you trust.

    If any supplement makes you feel worse, it is time to think about whether or not this particular product is for you. We are NOT all the same.

  29. Vivian Drake
    10 years ago

    I am 74 years old and do not take any prescribed medications. For the past 16 years I have been taking the USANA Nutritional Supplements and credit their use with my reasonable good health! I recommend them, but most of all I recommend each person become knowledgeable about the differences among supplements, their ingredients, and the veracity of the company that manufactures and markets them.

  30. Mary
    10 years ago

    What supplements do you recommend? I think it is wonderful that your mother is on NO pharm drugs!! Thank you for keeping us informed!

  31. Stephania
    10 years ago

    acetaminophen: thank goodness for my body’s natural reaction to VOMIT, vomit, vomit for HOURS in reaction to taking a prescribed very low dose, once, of TYLENOL; have avoided taking it, despite urging, since (20+ years ago) Thank you, Dr. Northrup!

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