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Big Trouble in Little Supplements: Risks of Overdoing It

by Sárka-Jonae Miller
See more articles by Sarka_Jonae Miller

(The Best Years in Life) Many people are worried about not getting the nutrients they need from a modern diet. You see cereals, breads, pastas, energy bars, sports drinks, and other products that are “fortified” or otherwise have added vitamins and minerals. The issue becomes that although most regular diets cannot possibly overdo it on nutrients, when you combine a multivitamin and enriched foods, you could. Those little pills could put you at risk for serious side effects.

Risks from Supplement Overdose 

Would you like some nerve damage and hair loss to go with that mineral supplement? Probably not, but too much selenium in your body might cause you to lose your hair, feel tired, experience gastrointestinal discomfort, and could even lead to mild nerve damage.

Another mineral to watch out for is iron. Only people who are anemic and instructed by their doctors to take iron supplements should do so. Your body cannot get rid of excess iron in the same way it does many other substances, unless you bleed it out. Too much iron in the body may increases your risk of heart disease and cancer. Some women who experience heavy menstruation may benefit from supplements that include iron, but most people should avoid them.

Like iron, vitamin A can be toxic if there's too much in your system. Consuming too much vitamin A – particularly as retinoic acid or retinol – can lead to an accumulation that causes bone loss or bone pain. Irritability, fatigue, dizziness, mental confusion, and blurry vision are other symptoms of too much vitamin A. It can also cause you to lose your hair or feel nauseated. Some people see their skin peel off, especially on the soles of their feet.

In severe cases of vitamin A toxicity, people have been known to experience hemorrhaging or to slip into a coma. Too much vitamin A can kill you.

Vitamin B6 can be problematic when taking large doses. More than 300 milligrams daily of vitamin B6 could lead to nerve damage. And an excess of zinc or vitamin C might lead to vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal cramping.


Rare but Real Risks of Dietary Nutrients

Generally speaking, foods that are not enriched or fortified pose no danger of nutrient overdoses. Yet, a combination of the added vitamins and minerals in foods might be risky in you're also taking multivitamins, mineral complexes, or specific supplements.

The possible exceptions include Brazil nuts and polar bear liver. There have been a few reports of people who experienced an overdose of vitamin A from eating polar bear liver, which is naturally high in vitamin A.

Brazil nuts are high in selenium. The tolerable upper intake limit, as given by the Institute of Medicine, for selenium is 400 micrograms daily for persons 14 years of age and older. However, a single ounce of the nuts has 544 micrograms. If you eat a lot of Brazil nuts on a regular basis, or if you're getting high amounts of selenium from another source like enriched food items or supplements, then you could be at risk.

Don't Stop Taking Supplements

Just because there maybe be some risk doesn't mean supplements are harmful. The body eliminates most excess nutrients. However, this doesn't mean there is a reason to knowingly go above maximum safe levels. The best thing to do is to determine your proper level of supplementation by consulting with a qualified naturopathic or integrative doctor or other medical professional who is well versed in diet and nutrition

If you are on any medications, it is especially important to speak with a qualified medical professional - again, preferably a naturopathic or integrative one - to find out if any of your supplements may interfere with your medications. For example, some supplements could interfere with the ability of your body to make blood clots when combined with blood-thinning medications. As a bonus, a naturopathic or integrative specialist may be able to recommend safer and more effective natural alternatives to mainstream drugs and their possible side effects.

See also:

The myth of being able to get all the nutrition one needs from diet alone

Forget the Headlines - Keep Taking Your Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements



About the Author

Sárka-Jonae Miller is a health and fitness expert. She began working in the fitness industry in 2000 while pursuing a BS in journalism at Syracuse University. She became certified as a personal fitness trainer and group exercise instructor in 2003. She has also received training in massage therapy. Sárka also writes fiction. She is the author of the chick lit novel, Between Boyfriends. Get more health and wellness tips on Sárka's Natural Healing Tips blog or join her on Facebook and Twitter.

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