Can’t sleep? Need an energy boost? Are you a vegetarian who needs more iron? There are supplements for all of that — and practically every other health need you can think of. But is there such a thing as taking too many supplements? We asked the experts to give us the real deal on whether taking too many vitamins can be bad for your health, and they answered all of our burning questions about supplements.
Does taking vitamins and supplements actually make a difference?
In short, yes. But, ideally, you should be getting all of your necessary vitamins, minerals and antioxidants through a healthy, balanced diet. “It’s not a secret — we’ve all heard this common refrain from doctors, scientists, health experts and even our mothers,” says Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN and Women’s Health Expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “What you may not know is that the average diet can leave gaps in our daily nutritional intake, which means we’re missing out on some vital elements that our bodies require to function. Vitamin supplements play an essential role to fill in the gaps and provide nutritional insurance for those nutrients missing from your diet.”
In fact, a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 10 people have at least one nutritional deficiency. Vitamin deficiencies can lead to physical and emotional symptoms, so Ross explains that there are some exceptions to “food is best” rule. Many foods are now fortified with vitamins that are commonly missing in our diets such as folate, Vitamin C and D.
Do certain people need vitamins more than others?
“There are definitely certain situations where vitamin supplementation is more appropriate,” says Natasha Trentacosta, MD, sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. “For instance, women of child-bearing age should consume folic acid to prevent birth defects in cases of potential pregnancy. Those with heart disease are advised to consume omega-3-fatty acids. Calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health.”
It’s also important to consider your eating and diet habits. “You should definitely do your dietary homework and know what your daily diet is missing,” Ross says. “A great example is if you are a vegetarian, you may not be getting enough protein and iron and may have to supplement to ensure you are getting what your body is missing. Additional vitamins, especially during pregnancy, breastfeeding and certain medical conditions, are helpful when your body needs extra nutrients.” Others with special diets, like vegans or those who are dairy-free, also may not be getting all the essential vitamins and minerals from their diet, so vitamin supplementation is more important for them. Another common one is vitamin D, which is notoriously difficult to get from its primary sources, which are the sun and natural foods. Since 75% of people are deficient in Vitamin D, additional supplementation is often recommended. While everyone’s needs are different, a multivitamin is a safe bet to compliment a healthy diet.
Is it possible to take too many vitamins?
Yep, there really can be too much of a good thing. “You can definitely take too much of a supplement,” says Kristine Arthur, MD, internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. “Vitamin D is an example of this. While vitamin D has many health benefits, it is a fat soluble vitamin, meaning that is stays in the body for much longer than other types of vitamins, so it is possible to take too much.” Your doctor can easily check your vitamin D level for you and tell you how much you should be taking. The doses on the market range from 1000 units to 10,000 units, so simply guessing at a dose is not a good idea. Vitamins A, E and K are other fat soluble vitamins that can be dangerous in high doses.
High doses of certain vitamins can lead to stomach cramping and diarrhea, cautions Trentacosta. At higher than recommended levels, some vitamins can lead to more serious, long-term complications, including hardening of blood vessels. “Some supplements can be outright dangerous and cause everything from palpitations to dangerous heart rhythms to liver and kidney failure,” Arthur says. “Herbs in particular can interact with medications you may take. There are not many studies showing what the exact interaction is between each herb and a prescription medication, so it is always best to take the supplement to your doctor first to review.”
Another thing to keep in mind that many supplements may overlap and contain the same ingredients. “If you are taking a multivitamin plus a supplement for eye health and another one to boost your immune system, you may actually be overdosing on certain vitamins,” Arthur says. “Be sure to read each label closely to check that you are not taking the same vitamin in each supplement.”
Calcium supplements are the best example of why you should get this mineral from a food source instead of a supplement, Ross says. “Recent studies showed older women who took high amounts of calcium from supplements were more likely to develop kidney stones and strokes.”
Should women consult their doctor about their vitamins?
Absolutely! “Remember that supplements are medications and should be treated the same way that we treat prescription medication,” Arthur says. “It is always recommended that you check with your doctor first before starting any supplements — even vitamins. Just because something is sold over the counter does not necessarily mean it is safe. Additionally, while it may be safe for most people, it may not be safe for you specifically.”
If you are taking certain medications such as aspirin, blood thinners, steroids, heart and immune-suppressing meds, you should always ask your health care provider if vitamin supplements are safe,” Ross says. “And, if you are planning to have surgery, vitamins can potentially cause excessive bleeding and other surgical complications.”
When you’re considering any new supplements, bring them to your doctor to review and ask for some blood tests to ensure that you’re taking the right dose for you. This way, your doctor will also be able to track progress of treatment. “Also, some vitamins can interact with medications you may be taking, which is important for your prescribing physician to know,” Trentacosta says.