Some Michiganders have turned to supplements this cold and flu season to bolster their body’s defenses.
While vitamins can help boost the immune system, too much of a good thing can have negative impacts, explained Sarah Hutchinson, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health.
“Supplement toxicity is where you get too much of a vitamin or mineral, usually from supplements or artificial sources,” she said. “It’s becoming more of a problem with more readily available supplements.”
It’s very unusual for individuals to intake a toxic amount of a given vitamin or mineral from food sources alone. But the addition of one or more supplements can lead to an intake of hundreds or thousands of percentage points beyond what’s recommended daily.
As an example, Hutchinson described a situation where a patient may be taking a daily multivitamin, plus a daily dose of a vitamin C supplement like Emergen-C, a zinc supplement, and an elderberry supplement that also includes zinc and vitamin C.
“They’re taking one product on top of another when they probably only need that multivitamin every day or every other day,” she said. “I heard a good metaphor recently: If you put more gas in a car, it’s not going to go faster. The same way with vitamins and minerals, just because we have more, it doesn’t mean your body will work better.”
Symptoms of getting too much of a vitamin or mineral can be general or nonspecific, like headache, stomachache, or heart flutter. More serious reactions can include blood clots and stroke-like symptoms, especially in individuals with liver or kidney problems.
Too much of one nutrient can also look like a deficiency of another, making it difficult to self-diagnose the issue. A blood test can help assess unhealthy levels; so can better evaluate food labels when determining what supplements to take.
The required nutrients listed on the typical nutrition facts label underwent a change in recent years to reflect nutrients many Americans do not sufficiently ingest. Labels still need to include calcium and iron, but Instead of requiring vitamins A and C, they now require vitamin D and potassium.
When possible, dietitians suggest forgoing the supplements in favor of a nutrient-rich diet; citrus fruits and broccoli, for instance, are good sources of vitamin C. Supplements should only be used for deficiencies, like if you’re struggling to get enough of a given nutrient naturally.
Hutchinson also recommends avoiding supplements that far surpass daily recommendations. A good route is to discuss nutrient options with a primary care physician to better determine the right ones to take, and if a supplement could negatively interact with another medication.
For example, the US Food and Drug Administration warns drugs for HIV/AIDS, heart disease, depression, treatments for organ transplants, and birth control pills are less effective when combined with an herbal supplement known as St. John’s wort. Additionally, combining multiple blood thinners, including a vitamin E supplement, may increase risk of internal bleeding or stroke.
Given the average American diet “has room for improvement,” Hutchinson said there’s generally nothing wrong with taking a multivitamin. But some are better than others.
“The best rule of thumb is to make sure not to get more than 100% of the (recommended daily allowance),” she said. “It’s more helpful to take smaller doses instead of getting 100% at once.”
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