The Risks of Taking Vitamins: What You Need to Know

On the one hand, dietary supplements can sometimes interact with each other, as well as with over-the-counter and prescription drugs. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not authorized to review the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements before they are marketed. Manufacturers must ensure that their products do not contain contaminants or impurities, are properly labeled and contain what they claim. In other words, the regulation of dietary supplements is much less stringent than that of prescription or over-the-counter drugs. If used correctly, some supplements can improve your health, but others may be ineffective or even harmful.

For example, a systematic review analyzing the potential effects of nutritional supplements on cardiovascular health, mainly heart attacks and strokes, suggests that few supplements help prevent heart disease; only omega-3 fatty acids and folic acid were effective. The same was true with dietary changes, with the exception of a low-salt diet. Other research involving self-reported dietary habits of a group of Americans linked daily doses of more than 1000 milligrams (mg) of calcium to an increased risk of death from cancer (although other studies, as noted by the National Cancer Institute, suggest otherwise). In addition, the data showed that people who ingested adequate amounts of magnesium, zinc, and vitamins A and K had a lower risk of death, but only if they got them from food rather than supplements. To get more information on the benefits and risks of individual vitamins and minerals, as well as herbal supplements, you can consult the National Institutes of Health (NIH) fact sheets.

If you're managing an underlying health condition (especially if you're taking medication) or are pregnant or breastfeeding, it's best to talk to your health care team before adding any new supplements to your regimen. While supplement trends come and go, there are seven supplements that have historically been popular and experts recommend taking them with care.

Vitamin D

promotes the absorption of calcium in the body and having enough is essential for health and well-being. Vitamin D supplements are popular because it's difficult (if not impossible for some) to get enough from food. In addition, our bodies produce vitamin D when bare skin is exposed to direct sunlight; however, due to increased time spent indoors and widespread use of sunscreens, many people don't get enough vitamin D from exposure to the sun. But vitamin D supplements are a sensitive topic.

Sometimes it may seem like guidelines and research are contradicting each other. The truth is that enthusiasm for vitamin D supplements is outpacing the evidence. Taking high doses isn't a good option either; in healthy people, blood vitamin D levels greater than 100 nanograms per milliliter can trigger greater calcium absorption and cause muscle pain, mood disorders, abdominal pain and kidney stones according to the Cleveland Clinic. It can also increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. That said, vitamin D supplements may benefit certain people such as those at risk of suffering from a deficiency (people with darker skin, those living with certain health conditions or older adults).

The most recent consensus statement from the American Geriatric Society suggests that people over 65 can help reduce the risk of fractures and falls by supplementing their diet with at least 1000 IU of vitamin D per day in addition to taking calcium supplements and eating foods rich in vitamin D.Keep in mind that vitamin D supplements and medications can interact with each other. Medications that don't work well with vitamin D include weight-loss drug orlistat (Xenical, Alli), several statins such as atorvastatin (Lipitor), thiazide diuretics (such as Hygroton, Lozol, and Microzide) and corticosteroids such as prednisone (Deltasone, Rayos, Sterapred). St. John's Wort is a plant used as a tea or in capsules with purported benefits for depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), menopausal symptoms, insomnia, kidney and lung problems, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), wound healing and more according to the NIH. St.

John's Wort is effective in treating mild depression; a review of short-term studies looked at 27 clinical trials involving about 3,800 patients and suggested that the herbal remedy worked as well as certain antidepressants in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression. However Dr. Denise Millstine an internist in the integrative medicine department at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix Arizona warns “the biggest problem with St. John's Wort is its interactions with medications”.

Taking St. John's wort may reduce the effectiveness of other medications such as birth control pills chemotherapy medications for HIV or AIDS or medications to prevent organ rejection after a transplant according to the NIH. Calcium is essential for a strong skeleton but too much can be harmful; more than 2 500 mg per day for adults ages 19 to 50 and more than 2 000 mg per day for people age 51 and older can cause problems according to the NIH. With calcium supplements hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis and an increased risk of heart disease are risks although research is mixed according to the Cleveland Clinic. The NIH recommends 1000 mg of calcium per day for women ages 19 to 50 and 1200 mg per day for women age 51 and older; for men ages 19 to 70 it's 1 000 mg per day while men aged 71 and over should take 1 200 mg per day. According to Dietary Guidelines for Americans there are several dietary sources of calcium such as dairy products fortified cereals dark green leafy vegetables canned fish with bones tofu soybeans almonds sardines etc. When it comes to vitamins it's important to be aware of potential risks associated with taking them especially if you're managing an underlying health condition or are pregnant or breastfeeding.

It's best to talk to your health care team before adding any new supplement to your regimen so you can make an informed decision about what's best for your health.

Ben Liebhardt
Ben Liebhardt

Amateur travel fanatic. General web buff. Certified travel junkie. Twitter nerd. Infuriatingly humble web practitioner. Certified beer nerd.

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