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Updated 08 December 2015

Vitamin drips are not 'magic bullets' Part I

The reasoning that 'if small amounts of a substance are good for me, then having vast amounts of that same substance, must be even better', is naive and can be highly dangerous.

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Nowadays many impulsive (and well heeled) people subject themselves to all kinds of weird treatments in an attempt to feel better and/or achieve better health. One of the newest fads is vitamin drips as a pick-me-up.

According to reporter Katherine Child writing in The Times, the latest rush is to have a concoction of vitamins, amino acids and glutathione (an antioxidant) infused via an intravenous drip as a “regmaker” or vitality booster. The cost of such IV vitamin drips is hefty, ranging from R1 000 to close to R3 000.

Naïve and dangerous

Small quantities of vitamins and amino acids and antioxidants such as glutathione are important for good health. But the reasoning that “if small amounts of a substance are good for me, then having vast amounts of that same substance, must be even better”, is naive and can be highly dangerous.

Read: Vitamin overdose FAQs

Ever since vitamins were discovered in 1897 by a Dutch biologist, Dr Eijkman, who identified the link between beri-beri and the vitamin called thiamin or vitamin B1, people have jumped to the conclusion that taking masses of vitamins and minerals is a healthy practice. That this is erroneous can be illustrated by the criteria for micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), that apply to these dietary components.

To qualify as a micronutrient, a nutrient must generally satisfy the following criteria:

  1. It must be an organic compound which is not a fat, a protein or a carbohydrate (the macronutrients).
  2. The nutrient must be a natural component of foods, which is usually present in minute (very tiny) amounts.
  3. It should generally not be synthesised by the human body in quantities that meet the requirements of the human body.
  4. It must be essential in minute amounts (very, very small, once again) for normal physiological function (e.g. growth, normal development, reproduction, maintenance of immunity etc.)
  5. The absence of this nutrient from the diet must cause a specific deficiency (e.g. pronounced lack of vitamin C can cause scurvy).
 

The definition of these divergent micronutrients, therefore, emphasises how little we need to ingest. Micronutrients are vital in very small quantities. The moment you consume too much, you risk exposing yourself to a variety of negative effects (see below).

Read: Vit & Min doses per day

To pay large sums of money to have vitamins, amino acids and antioxidants dripped into your veins is a waste of money. The same can be said for people who constantly pop vitamin pills and supplements. Rather use your money to buy fresh, unprocessed food.

Negative effects of excessive vitamin intake

To highlight the potential hazards of vitamin “overindulgence”, let’s see what negative effects excessive intakes may have. Because the public generally do not realise how many different vitamins there are, and that they can be divided into two main groups, the fat-soluble and the water-soluble vitamins.

To start off, we'll look at the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K:

a) Vitamin A: doses of vitamin A in excess of 100 times the required amount will overwhelm the liver’s storage capacity, inducing toxicity and causing liver disease. The condition is known as hypervitaminosis A, which can cause the following symptoms: dry lips; dry nasal membranes and dry eyes; dry skin with flaking, peeling and scaliness; hair loss and brittle nails; headache; nausea and vomiting; increased tendency to hip fracture; and embryo-toxicity if an unborn child is exposed to excess vitamin A.

Toxic doses: 200 mg in adults and 100 mg in children. Chronic intake which can lead to damage: doses exceeding 10 times the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) or NRV (Nutrient Reference Value) in adults and children

NRV*: In South Africa the NRV for vitamin A for persons older than 4 years is 900 microgram/day.

(*All NRVs used in South Africa are specified for persons older than 4 years.)

b) Vitamin D: toxic in doses exceeding the Upper Limit of 120 micrograms (also sometimes expressed as 4000 IU [International Units]) or about 7 times the required amount with symptoms such as increased calcium and phosphorous levels in the blood leading to calcium deposits in the soft tissues of the body (kidney, lungs, heart and membrane of the ear causing deafness); headache; and nausea. Infants and young children who are particularly prone to hypervitaminosis D, can develop digestive upsets, fragile bones and retarded growth.

NRV: 15 micrograms of vitamin D/day

c) Vitamin E (tocopherol): doses exceeding 100 times the recommended intake or 1 000 mg/day can lead to inability to use the other fat-soluble vitamins (A, D and K) and have been linked to an increase in death due to cardiovascular disease, joint disease and cancer. Until researchers have determined exactly how much vitamin E can lead to increased mortality and morbidity, it is safer not to exceed the recommended intake.

NRV: 15 mg alpha tocopherol/day

Read: What vitamin E does for the skin

d) Vitamin K: excessive doses may cause haemolytic anaemia and jaundice in infants. Any patient using blood thinners such as warfarin or their daily aspirin to prevent blood clots, should discuss excessive intakes of vitamin K with their doctors because vitamin K counteracts the effect of such medications.

NRV: 120 microgram vitamin K/day (Gov. Gazette, 2010)

By now it should be evident to most readers that taking very large doses of fat-soluble vitamins is a bad idea. Having the vitamins enter your body via a drip may make the situation even worse. So please do not consider this type of treatment unless it has been specifically prescribed for you by a medical doctor who monitors your treatment and any side-effects you may develop.

Read more:

Vitamins, minerals and supplements

History of the vitamin industry: part 1

Vitamins every child needs

References:

- Child, K (2015). Wealthy hooked on treatment that drips with controversy. The Times published 25 November 2015, page 6.

- Government Gazette (2010). Nutrient Reference Values (NRVs) for Individuals of 4 Years & Older. Regulations relating to the labelling & advertising of foodstuffs, No. R. 146, Foodstuffs, Cosmetics & Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972). Government Gazette, published on 1 March 2010.

- Mahan K L et al (2012). Krause’s Food & the Nutrition Care Process. Elsevier Publishers, USA.

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.

 
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