Unproven methods such intravenous vitamin drips are living their heyday. This is, in part, the result of overwhelmed healthcare systems and patients taking their health into their own hands. People who suffer from long-Covid, athletes who expect to see improved performance and faster recovery or anyone looking to feel more energized or fit visit these places regularly. Very few are aware of the risks involved though.
Making a claim that vitamins are inherently good or bad is never easy.
“Vitamins are a large group; some may require supplementation, others not, while some may be supplemented with no harm but there is no point doing so”
– says István Takács, Director, Department of Internal Medicine and Oncology at Semmelweis University, Budapest.
Fat-soluble vitamins (D,E,A) take longer to be excreted from the body, so they can be really harmful if given in extremely large volumes. Take vitamin D. Its ratio in a “cocktail” is often far higher than the recommended daily intake. “The proper dosing for vitamin D is set monthly; the halving time being 19-21 days this is how it makes sense” – Takács says. If this dose is administered at once, not only will its effect wear off in three months but, in toxic range, may have adverse effects. “These are just the opposite of the desired ones: instead of protecting the bones, it will destroy them and can cause a loss of bone density”, he explains. Similarly, vitamin A overdose may have undesired side effects including blurred vision, nauseas, headache or fatigue.
Though they are not stored in the body, water soluble vitamins can cause problems too. “Vitamin C serum levels in blood cannot be pushed beyond a certain level” – Takács says. Yet it is not uncommon for some drip bars to pump doses of as high as 25,000 mg. “Linking higher doses of vitamin C to improved immunity is not backed by science. Since the body doesn’t store it, the excess will be disposed of through urine increasing the risk of kidney stone creation” – he adds.
Besides instant results, what makes these clinics so appealing is the claims they make. Proponents of IV-therapy say the high concentration allows these vitamins and nutrients to be absorbed more rapidly and efficiently and transported directly into the cells. But this is false. Since vitamins administered via IV bypass the gut-liver system, larger quantities enter the body than what it can safely tolerate. This leads to dangerously high levels of nutrient and risks toxicity. “While the body has the ability to control the absorption of the nutrients consumed orally, IV therapy doesn’t allow for any “protective mechanism” – Takács notes.
Physicians, we always leave room for some uncertainty using phrases such as ‘likely that’, ‘may result in’, ‘can cause’. The providers of vitamin infusions on the other hand will claim: ‘By taking this, your immunity will improve a hundred percent’. This is more straightforward, just not true.
Who is it for?
The population that does benefit from extra supplementation are pregnant women who need folic acid for the proper development of the embryo. People suffering from conditions accompanied by absorption dysfunctions such as short-bowel syndrome, Crohn-disease or cystic fibrosis also require extra supplementation. However, these are rare or extremely rare diseases and the responsibility to assess what is deficient and how to be restored falls on the physician. “Levels of the deficient nutrient should first be checked, then the practitioners can decide on the proper treatment”, the expert highlights.
But not even in the case of severe deficiency is there an example for IV administration, only injection (for vitamin B12) given intramuscularly
– he adds.
As boring as it may sound, a diet rich in whole foods is generally enough to cover a healthy body’s needs. By eating the whole fruit, vegetable or meat, we benefit from the synergistic effect of vitamins, nutrients and fibers together and this is what the body best responds to. Supplementing specific vitamins separately or in combination will just not yield the same results.
Photo: Attila Kovács – Semmelweis University, illustration – iStock