Should I take vitamins or other nutritional supplements? Are they safe? What is the right amount? Are there side effects? These are all questions that many people ask about nutritional supplements’ safety and effectiveness. This article explores these questions and provides information to help you, the consumer, make more informed and healthier choices.
Are Vitamins and Nutritional Supplements Really Needed?
According to the FDA, “[v]itamins are essential nutrients that contribute to a healthy life” and according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, many people consume more calories than they need without taking in recommended amounts of a number of nutrients. This suggests that we need to evaluate our eating habits as well as consider nutritional supplements in order to achieve the recommended levels of nutrient intake.
Numerous reports suggest that the average American diet contains too much saturated fat, processed sugars and lacks the full compliment of 13 vitamins that are essential to human body functions. We ingest too much “bad” stuff and not enough “good” stuff. In addition to this, doctors may also recommend nutritional supplements for certain health problems, if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding (American Academy of Family Physicians – AAFP). The 13 essential vitamins are A, C, D, E, K, and B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12 and folate).
Are There Risks Associated with Taking Vitamins and Nutritional Supplements?
Quality nutritional supplements manufactured in accordance with the FDA’s “current Good Manufacturing Practice” (cGMP) are believed to be safe; however, excessive or inappropriate use may have side effects or not produce the desired results. The body handles vitamins differently depending on whether they are Water-soluble or fat-soluble.
Water-soluble vitamins (Vitamin C and Vitamin B) are easily absorbed by the body and are not stored in large amounts. Excessive amounts above what is needed are removed by the kidneys and passed through the urine. Taking too much of these vitamins generally result in a waste of money but may also cause side effects such as:
Vitamin B-3 (niacin): Flushing, redness of the skin and upset stomach.
Vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine, pyridoxal and pyridoxamine): Nerve damage to the limbs, which may cause numbness, trouble walking, and pain.
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid): Upset stomach, kidney stones and increased iron absorption.
Folic Acid (folate): Masking of B-12 deficiency, especially in older adults, which is a condition that can cause nerve damage.
Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E and K) are absorbed into the body and stored for use as needed. One should be especially careful about not over-doing it with these vitamins. Some of the side effects that may accompany ingesting too much of these vitamins include:
Vitamin A – Nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, blurred vision, clumsiness, birth defects, liver problems and possible risk of osteoporosis.
Vitamin D: Nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, weakness, weight loss, confusion, heart rhythm problems, deposits of calcium and phosphate in soft tissues.
If you take blood thinners, you should talk to your doctor before taking vitamin E or vitamin K pills according to the AAFP.
There are, of course, nutritional supplements other than the essential 13 noted above. These include herbal remedies, amino acids, digestive enzymes, probiotics and various minerals each of which are believed to provide certain benefits to aide the body’s various functions.
How Do I Safely Take Vitamins and Nutritional Supplements?
There are numerous scientific studies as well as anecdotal evidence suggesting specific benefits for each available vitamin and nutritional supplement; however, everyone has unique needs so a health care provider should always be consulted prior to taking any medicine, vitamin or other nutritional supplement in order to determine which ones may be needed and to also discuss any possible adverse interactions with other medications.
Nutritional supplements are called “supplements” for a good reason. They are not intended to replace good dietary habits. They are intended, however, to supplement good eating habits in order to make up for particular nutrients that may be lacking or to address particular issues. An effective nutritional supplement program, along with a healthy diet, are widely believed to help the body in a number of different ways but vitamins and other nutritional supplements are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure diseases or illnesses. Be wary of advertisements that suggest otherwise and always consult your healthcare provider to ensure your nutrition plan has the right balance of healthy foods, vitamins, nutritional supplements and/or any medications that you may require.
According to Vasilios Frankos, Ph.D., Director of FDA’s Division of Dietary Supplement Programs, “Vitamins are not dangerous unless you get too much of them.” So, consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages within and among the basic food groups while limiting the intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, and alcohol. Meet recommended nutrient intakes by adopting proper eating habits and using nutritional supplements as deemed appropriate by your healthcare provider based on your body’s nutrient levels, age, whether you are pregnant or may become pregnant, have dark skin, do not receive sufficent sunlight exposure or meet other criteria requiring supplementation. Following these guidelines and the advice of your healthcare provider should make taking vitamins and nutritional supplements both safe and effective for healthier living.
For additional information about the recommended upper limits of intake (ULs), visit the National Academy of Sciences site at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=6432#toc.
About the Author
Clark is the owner of Bailey’s Health Store, an on-line nutritional products and information site and also owns a local carpet cleaning company. Clark invites you to participate in the recently started discussion forum for health, wellness and nutrition topics.