Are You Overdosing on Nutritional Supplements?
Editor’s Note from Rebecca Snowden: It’s great to see patients and consumers taking charge of their health; however, all too often their efforts to supplement their diets are in vain, which could result in side effects, interactions and wasted money. Dr. Marcantel offers us some perspective on a few of the issues that can present in cases like these.
I recently had a new patient who came to see me with complaints that included headaches, nervousness, and irritability–even her co-workers were beginning to make comments about her short temper. As “Alice” and I talked I learned that she had seen another naturopathic doctor some time before who had recommended certain dietary food supplements for her. She also had done some online research on her own and was buying supplements from a couple of different Internet websites. I asked her to bring in everything she was taking so we could get a better idea of her daily dietary intake.
On her next visit, Alice walked in carrying a grocery bag filled with bottles of all shapes and sizes. She had literally hundreds of dollars worth of vitamins and food supplements that she had purchased and was consuming on a regular basis. Together she and I went through and discussed the products while also reviewing proper food consumption and her specific medical condition. By the end of the visit, Alice was down to a few targeted supplements on a daily basis.
As we monitored Alice’s progress over the next several weeks, she was pleasantly surprised to find that the irritability she had been experiencing for months had almost completely disappeared. She and I agreed that her improved condition was directly related to the decreased number of supplements she was taking. As an added benefit, she had simplified her life and was saving quite a bit of money by taking only those supplements she truly needed for optimal health.
Alice’s story is not unusual. In fact, I see a similar scenario with new patients on a regular basis. Most people who seek out the services of a naturopathic doctor are already motivated to look for “natural” (as opposed to “pharmaceutical”) answers to their health issues. Their intentions are certainly good, but they often make the same mistake Alice did: they assume that because something is natural and healthful that the more they take of it, the better their health will be. There really can be, however, “too much of a good thing.”
One fact that is sometimes overlooked is that water-soluble vitamins (for instance, B and C vitamins) can only be absorbed in certain amounts and over a certain length of time. After that, all those unabsorbed vitamins simply pass from the body in urine and solid waste. In other words, you are quite literally flushing many of those expensive products down the toilet! In order to get the most benefit from vitamins, I suggest taking the recommended daily dose two to three times a day in smaller increments to allow for more complete absorption.
On the other hand, fat-soluble vitamins and supplements (such as A, D, and E vitamins) can build up in the body’s tissues and actually become toxic, leading to various adverse physical effects that can include (as in Alice’s case) headaches, irritability, and sleeplessness.
Another problem is that many food supplements can interact with prescription medicines or with other supplements the patient may be taking. In some cases this may mean that a particular supplement reduces the effectiveness of the intended medication; in more dangerous circumstances, the interaction may actually lead to harmful mixtures of chemicals in the body. See my article “Herbal Remedies: What Every Consumer Should Know” for more specific information on this.
So how much is really enough? The truth is that there’s no “one size fits all” answer to which vitamins or food supplements you should be taking. I do usually suggest a good multi-vitamin for my patients to ensure they are getting a full range of their necessary daily intake of vitamins. After that, it’s important to tailor the use of supplements to the individual needs of patients.
A proper, healthful diet is the most important and effective way to get the vitamins and minerals you need. Dietary supplements are supposed to be exactly what their name implies: they should be used to give you a boost with specific nutrients your body needs that a good diet alone isn’t providing for you.