When Health Supplements Become Toxic: How To Manage Them Correctly

Updated on December 2, 2016

By Ted Bremer

Perhaps you’re part of the majority of Americans who take some form of dietary supplement, or perhaps you’re just considering introducing them to your routine. Whether it’s calcium to help with osteoporosis, or an Omega-3 tablet to lower the risk of heart disease, it’s all in effort to stay healthy. But be warned, health conscious folk: there can be too much of a good thing.  

Health supplements can become dangerous if not managed correctly. In fact about 23,000 Americans end up in the ER each year because of confused supplement regimes, from either taking too high a dose of one vitamin or mineral, or mixing the wrong types. But with so much health information being thrown our way, taking control of our supplement intake can seem like a lot to handle. So what do you need to watch out for, to ensure your health and fitness efforts are just right for you and don’t land you in the hospital?

The hidden dangers of health supplements

In July 2016, Public Health England (PHE) warned the public should be taking 10 micrograms of vitamin D supplements a day, citing people in the UK do not get enough vitamin D in autumn and winter. And after the warning, drugstores in Bristol claimed sales of vitamin D tablets had already risen 180 percent in just one month. Good, right?

Tim Spector, head of the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at King’s College London, doesn’t think so. The professor has been treating osteoporosis for 30 years, and says he now thinks differently about prescribing vitamin D, pointing to new evidence that states patients who take large amount of the vitamin over a long period of time have an increase of falls and fractures. Exactly what vitamin D aims to protect against.

“While the new recommendations for supplementations are modest in terms of dose (10ug or 400IU), it will be overdone by some and reinforces the misguided view that supplements and food sources are interchangeable,” he writes. It’s a clear reminder that when it comes to taking supplements, one can certainly overdo it.

Taking too much of a single vitamin is especially dangerous when the vitamin is fat soluble, like vitamin D. While water soluble supplements like vitamin C won’t do you much harm, fat soluble ones – such as vitamin A, E, and K, to name a few more – can become toxic if you take too much, an effect called hypervitaminosis.

Since our bodies collect these vitamins in our fat cells, they build up in our bodies over time (mostly in the liver and kidneys) to become dangerous. Too much vitamin A for example, can cause dizziness, nausea, headache, coma, and even death. So high potency fat soluble vitamins should be the beginning of a red flag when looking into how to manage supplements properly.

Your Supplement Cocktail

You also need to pay close attention to the mixology of your supplements. Mixing the wrong types can cause some serious harm. Taking Kava, an herb marketed to promote relaxation, with something like Tylenol for example, can cause liver damage or death. The FDA warns consumers of the potential risk associated with the herb, and Kava was even at one point banned in a few countries, including Canada and Germany due to the dangers.

The FDA also warns that mixing supplements or medications known to thin blood can be dangerous. Prescription warfarin, herbal supplement ginkgo biloba, aspirin or vitamin E taken together could increase the potential for stroke or internal bleeding.

Additionally, weight loss, body building, and sexual enhancement products can all cause heart palpitations. Any combination of these supplements increases the risk.

Managing your supplements for health and safety

The dangers of health supplements are well, pretty scary. But there’s so many risks to keep track of. So how can you properly manage your dietary supplements to stay in the clear?

Simply put, you need to do your research. You might have heard that a vitamin is healthy or been recommended it by friends, but you still need to arm yourself with your own information to understand what supplements are best for your body. You then need to talk to your doctor or nutritionist about what health supplements you’re interested in taking, before you take them. Health professionals will be able to tell you if you might be going overboard on a certain vitamin or mineral, or if it interacts poorly with something you’re already prescribed.  

Unfortunately, we still don’t have an easy way to keep track of the vitamins and minerals being absorbed by our bodies. In fact, the vitamin industry hasn’t changed since the 1920’s, when it first came to be: we still pop pills, and just hope for the best. But as wearable technology and more health apps come of age, we’ll be able to use tailored, self monitoring tools to better understand our vitamin and mineral intake. The apps will go beyond calorie counters and virtual pedometers, but will give us a truly deeper look at our supplement regimes to really help us to avoid risks, and be healthier all around.

A-Z Benefits and Risks

Vitamin A

  • The benefits include easing skin conditions such as acne, cold sores, or sunburns.
  • However beware that the vitamin can also cause fatigue, irritability, or heavy sweating.

Vitamin D

  • The vitamin is known to help in the development of strong bones and good blood.
  • Taking too high a dose, however, can cause kidney stones or hardening of the arteries.

Vitamin E

  • Vitamin E can lessen the effects of some medical treatments, like radiation.
  • But beware, as it can also cause an increased risk of stroke.

Vitamin K

  • Vitamin K can help with blood clotting.
  • However, it’s a tricky one. Taking too high a dose can also cause blood clotting problems.

Ted Bremer is the CEO of Nature’s Aide, the company providing health-conscious Americans with the most popular and highest quality natural health supplements and vitamins

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