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What the Health? Should I be taking dietary supplements?

The answer to this very common question may not be a simple “yes” or “no.”

In fact, the answer is as complicated as multivitamins’ ingredient list. And it’s no wonder, because even the experts don’t agree on the use of dietary supplements, which are vitamins and minerals that add value to the diet.

“In an effort to fill our bodies with what our plates lack and to prevent disease, it’s easy to turn to a tiny pill,” said Dr. David Kriegel, a physician with Augusta University Family Medicine. “However, it’s important to recognize that dietary supplements can be dangerous and that they aren’t the be-all and end-all for better health.”

Two widely used dietary supplements are vitamin D and multivitamins.

The deal with vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body to absorb calcium – one of two minerals that you need for strong, healthy bones. It’s found in fatty fish like salmon, as well as in egg yolk, liver and mushrooms and is added to some products like milk. Another way to get vitamin D, aka the “sunshine vitamin,” is through unprotected sun exposure.

“I recommend consuming these foods and getting 10 minutes of indirect sun exposure daily on areas of your body like your arms and legs,” Kriegel said.

Vitamin D taken with calcium can prevent fractures in the elderly and, by itself, may also provide some degree of protection from falling.

“Patients who are on long-term steroid treatment should also be on vitamin D with calcium to prevent osteoporosis,” Kriegel said.

Multivitamins: more vitamins means more to consider

Many multivitamins include the following vitamins and minerals: vitamin C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12, biotin, A, E, D2 or D3, K, potassium, iodine, selenium, borate, zinc, calcium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, betacarotene and/or iron.

Understanding what some of these vitamins do may help you to determine whether or not they’d be right for you. For instance:

  • Vitamin C deficiency is seen in those who have an unbalanced diet such as the elderly who may have difficulty preparing adequate meals for themselves. This group may benefit from a reduced risk of pneumonia with vitamin C supplementation although the daily requirement isn’t consistent.
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1) is used in alcohol-dependent people, as their levels are often so low, which can lead to a neurological disorder called Wernecke’s encephalopathy.
  • Folic acid (vitamin B9) is recommended for all pregnant women to prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida and anencephaly but ideally should be used prior to conceiving and at least until the end of the first trimester.
  • Vitamin B12 is used in those with a known deficiency and to vegans, as their diet is limited in this particular vitamin.
  • Vitamin K is used in those who overdose on the blood thinner warfarin and is given to newborns to prevent bleeding into their brains but is not necessary as a daily supplement.

Too much of a good thing?

“While it’s, in general, very difficult to consume too much of many kinds of vitamins and minerals, you should exercise caution,” Kriegel said.

For instance, vitamin A can accumulate in the fatty tissue and overdose can lead to a number of side effects, including the following:

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Irritability.
  • Reduced appetite.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Headaches.
  • Hair loss.
  • Muscle pain and weakness.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Altered consciousness.

An element found in vitamins that can also be used as a stand-alone supplement and taken in excess is iron, which can lead to liver toxicity. However, the doses found in multivitamins tend to be fairly low.

“You should exercise caution when taking supplements that contain iron or other minerals like calcium, magnesium or zinc especially if you are taking thyroid medications for underactive thyroid,” Kriegel said, “as they can interfere with the effectiveness of the medication.”

Speaking of medications, even over-the-counter medications (OTC’s) can be dangerous if taken in excess, Kriegel warns. Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) is found in many cough and cold medicines and can cause liver damage.

“I advise taking no more than 4 grams (4000mg) daily,” Kriegel said.

If you choose to take dietary supplements and OTC’s, just be sure to take them with a grain of salt (not literally).

Still unsure about what to do?

If you’re still unsure about whether or not you should take dietary supplements, talk to your doctor. To make an appointment with a primary care physician at Augusta University Family Medicine, call 706-721-4588.

About the author

Augusta University Health

Augusta University Health

Based in Augusta, Georgia, Augusta University Health is a world-class health care network, offering the most comprehensive primary, specialty and subspecialty care in the region. Augusta University Health provides skilled, compassionate care to its patients, conducts leading-edge clinical research and fosters the medical education and training of tomorrow’s health care practitioners. Augusta University Health is a not-for-profit corporation that manages the clinical operations associated with Augusta University.

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