Some Michiganders have turned to supplements for the cold and flu season to boost their body’s defenses.
While vitamins can help boost the immune system, too much of a good thing can have negative effects, explains Sarah Hutchinson, registered dietitian with Henry Ford Health.
“Supplement toxicity is when you get too much of a vitamin or mineral, usually from supplements or synthetic sources,” she said. “It’s becoming more of an issue with readily available nutritional supplements.”
It is very uncommon for individuals to ingest a toxic amount of a particular vitamin or mineral from food sources alone. But adding one or more supplements can result in taking hundreds or thousands of percentage points in excess of what is recommended daily.
For example, Hutchinson described a situation in which a patient might take a daily multivitamin, in addition to a daily dose of a vitamin C supplement such as Emergen-C, a zinc supplement, and an elderberry supplement that also contains zinc and vitamin C.
“They’re taking one product on top of the other when maybe they just need this multivitamin every day or every other day,” she said. “I heard a good metaphor recently: If you put more fuel in a car, it won’t go faster. In the same way with vitamins and minerals, just because we have more, it doesn’t mean your body will function better.”
Symptoms of getting too much of a vitamin or mineral can be general or nonspecific, such as 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 feel like a deficiency in another, making it difficult to diagnose the problem on your own. A blood test can help assess unhealthy levels; So nutritional labels can be better evaluated when deciding which supplements to take.
The required nutrients listed on the typical Nutrition Facts label have undergone a change in recent years to reflect nutrients that many Americans are not getting enough of. Labels still need to include calcium and iron, but instead of asking for vitamins A and C, they now require vitamin D and potassium.
When possible, nutritionists suggest forgoing nutritional supplements in favor of a nutrient-dense diet; Citrus fruits and broccoli, for example, are good sources of vitamin C. Dietary supplements should only be used in cases of deficiency, such as if you struggle to get enough of a particular nutrient naturally.
Hutchinson also recommends avoiding supplements that far exceed the daily recommendations. A good way is to discuss nutrient options with a primary care physician to better determine which ones are best, and whether a supplement could interact negatively with another medication.
For example, the FDA warns that medications for HIV/AIDS, heart disease, depression, organ transplant treatments, and birth control pills are less effective when combined with an herbal supplement known as St. John’s wort. In addition, the combination of several blood thinners, including a vitamin E supplement, may increase the risk of internal bleeding or stroke.
Since 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 you don’t get more than 100% of the[recommended daily allowance],” she said. “It’s much more beneficial to take smaller doses than to get 100% all at once.”
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