vitamin overdose? All the fruits and vegetables you
can eat won't put you in harms way, but magic little pills certainly
Around 50 percent of the US population takes supplements, with many
people spending hundreds of dollars a month in the hopes of fortifying
their health. It's "just to be on the safe side," they say, but rarely
is the intake necessary or safe.
What objective evidence points to vitamin pills being at all effective?
Who in the developed world suffers from any of the diseases caused by
vitamin deficiency? When was the last time you met someone suffering
from scurvy (not enough vitamin C), beriberi (lack of B1), or pellagra
(not enough niacin)?
The vast majority of diseases we suffer from today are diseases of
excess nutrient intake, whether it be from calories, salt, protein,
remedy these excesses. Who loses weight
or reverses atherosclerosis by taking a vitamin pill?
I don't know anyone who has improved their health this way, but I do
know plenty who've done so by switching to a low fat raw
vegan diet, eating plenty of healthy produce, and sunbathing.
The truth is that taking supplements dramatically increase your
risk of developing cancer, heart disease, and losing bone mass, among
The Folly of Second-Guessing Mother Nature
Listening to the host of scientists and corporations who've teamed up
to create thousands of high-profit products based on isolated,
concentrated nutrients, consumers have come to believe they can
overcome dietary deficiencies and excesses by popping pills.
The pills aren't that complicated. The supplement industry just needs
to find a phamacologically-active ingredient in common food, purify and
isolate it, and then manufacture it in large quantities. These are
marketed as "natural", and comparable to actually eating fruits and
vegetables. The result is bottles filled with Omega-3 fish oil and whey
protein, and pills containing vitamins and minerals. Nutrition bars,
fortified cereals, and nutrition bars are in the same category.
What Is A Vitamin?
Vitamins are compounds the human body cannot create on its own. We must
take them in from outside ourselves to remain healthy and prevent
illness. Of the 13 known vitamins (opinions vary, but there are likely
many more we don't know about), 11 are found in plant foods.
Vitamin D -actually a hormone manufactured by the body when sunlight
hits the skin, and not a vitamin at all - only comes about when we
expose ourselves outdoors. Vitamin B12 is created from bacteria, and
how exactly we come to possess it is a controversial subject. Some
think we have internal production capabilities, others that we can get
it through organic produce, and still others that we need to eat animal
foods or take a pill to get enough.
None of these supplements can give us what we need because of a simple
rule: the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.
Plants display a riot of connections working in harmony that the
community hasn't even begun to get their heads around, and trying to
extract one part in isolation from this intricate web is folly.
Why You Can't Manufacture An Apple
Take a look at an apple - it is what it is because of
arrangement of molecular architecture resulting in precisely the form
we've dubbed an apple.
There are proteins, fibers, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins,
and many other plant-based phyto chemicals present in your apple in
uncounted thousands, all working together to make it what it is.
When you chew this apple, it does not magically fall apart into its
constituent parts, but remains full of connections. As it moves down
your throat and into your stomach, the chewed food bits contain almost
all the basic components and relationships the whole food did. Just as
importantly, no element is present in quantities disproportionate to
our nutritional needs.
Eventually, these parts enter the blood stream and begin interacting
with the body's approximately 10 trillion cells, providing the raw
materials for the proper function of your body.
Scientists admit they only have the most basic understanding of how the
body and food interact, but they've seen enough to understand that,
like an orchestra, the whole is far more beautiful, complex, and
effective than the individual instruments (vitamins). Also like an
orchestra, if there are too few or too many of something in the system,
disharmony is often the result.
Shouting Over The Truth
The tremendously-profitable supplement industry (it made $25 billion in
2008) has the resources to wage an endless PR campaign touting the
benefits of its products. This campaign has taken in most of the public
and even many doctors, despite the numerous studies showing vitamin
supplements harm our health.
But health authorities are now asking the supplement industry, doctors
and dietitians to act more responsibly and warn consumers about the
dangers of consuming vitamins in isolation (1).
For the same reason, some are calling for the fortification of our food
supply (breads, cereal, flower, and other processed food) with folic
acid and other nutrients to be halted (2).
What could cause such an about face?
Although the evidence has been building since the 1990s, in 2008 the
Cochrane Collaboration, considered one of, if not the, greatest
authorities in the medical field, issued two straight-forward reports
(3, 4) concluding: "Beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E given
singly or combined with other antioxidant supplements significantly
increase mortality (Read: chance of dying earlier than you should).”
The ramifications of this statement are huge. Large swaths of the
general public take one or even all of these vitamins every day in
multivitamin pills, and are killing themselves slowly as a result.
How Could This Happen?
Vitamin supplements came about for a very simple reason: We are
convinced we're smarter than nature is. Life, however, routinely
demonstrates that we're bumbling fools when it comes to one-upping her.
Take, for instance, out idiotic handling of beta carotene, an organic
compound which plays a role in the red and orange pigments found in
many fruits and vegetables.
concluded to their satisfaction that that those
who ate large amounts of beta carotene from fruits and vegetables had
much lower incidences of cancer. The wondered if they'd struck paydirt
and found the one element that prevents cancer, one of the scourges of
To test their theory, they set up multiple studies to see if beta
carotene in an isolated pill, divorced from the full nutrient package
it originally came in, would be enough to prevent cancer formation.
Vitamin Overdose: The Beta Carotene Tests
A Finish study of high-risk lung cancer patients was one of the first
to come back, and demonstrated how mistaken we were.
The study showed that not only had the beta carotene failed to
prevent lung cancer, it had actually increased the subjects' chance of
getting it by 28 percent (5)! The death rate from heart disease had
also increased by 17 percent (6).
The study was called off when the scientists realized what was
happening, and only much later did people come to understand what
occurs when you flood the body with beta carotene in isolation.
The problem is that a pill is not a plant. Beta carotene is one of
about 50 carotenoids found in plant foods. Normally, when the
appropriate mixture of carotenoids enters a cell, they float around
in the cytoplasm until they find a receptor site to attach to.
But when the body is flooded with a vitamin overdose of isolated beta
carotene from a
pill, there is an overwhelming competition for the receptor sites, and
50 other needed carotenoids are displaced, creating deadly nutritional
Cancer Is Only The Beginning
Beta carotene is just one example among many.
For instance, isolated Retinol (vitamin A) causes a 1 in 57 chance of
creating birth defects when taken by a pregnant woman (7) and increases
hip fractures in elderly adults (8).
Vitamin E increases your chance of heart failure (9).
Among diabetics with kidney disease, those given a mix of vitamins had
worse kidney function than the control group and twice as many vascular
The list goes on and on, and there is a very common and repeated
sequence of events.
Scientists conclude those
who take in a lot of a specific nutrient from fruits and
vegetables have improved health.
The scientists extract
that nutrient from its source, isolate it, and stick it in a pill. They
design a study around it and see if giving it to people will be
effective in fending off some disease or health complaint.
Although there are
exceptions, such as folic acid supplements reducing the chance of birth
defects (11), the overwhelming majority of these trials have shown
little if any health improvement, and, in many cases, an increased risk
of disease for those taking supplements. Vitamin overdose is a real
threat. Often before anyone has
determined what the long-term consequences will be, the public jumps
onto the newest vitamin craze and starts supplementing.
So why does this cycle go on? It's quite obvious that isolated
nutrients are not going to give us long-term solutions. The answer to
disease is to eat a diet predominating in fresh produce.
Unfortunately, there is little money to be made in hawking fruits and
vegetables. Standard American diet eaters are also well known for their
aversion to eating more of them, and so another way
around the problem is continuously sought. Pills, on the other hand,
are extremely easy to make and profitable. As long as they can be
hawked as magic cures, their success will continue.
Are There Any Exceptions?
Vitamin Overdose B12
39 percent of the US population is
deficient in Vitamin B12 (12), and deficiency can lead to serious
problems, some suggest B12 should be an exception to the no-supplement
There is no known risk of a B12 vitamin overdose, so those wishing to
supplement appear to be safe.
However, B12 deficiency is as much an issue of absorption as intake.
Anyone who eats meat is getting plenty of B12 because animals have
it in their system. Regardless, plenty of meat eaters are deficient.
Despite not supplementing or eating animal foods in years, I've still
got high levels of B12, which would seem to indicate
that I'm getting it through my diet of raw fruits, vegetables, nuts,
seeds, or that the bacteria in my intestines is able to produce it
For a more thorough overview of the B12 issue, see this
Vitamin Overdose: D
Vitamin D -actually a hormone - is another critical area where many
people are deficient, and so once again we are tempted to supplement.
The problem is that in many cases, despite large-dose D supplements,
deficiency problems do not seem to be improved (13). Blood
concentrations rise, this doesn't seem to make much difference in our
And just as with many other supplements, a D vitamin overdose causes
Even in concentrations considered medically safe, an increase in
prostate cancer, immune system suppression, autoimmune diseases,
gastrointestinal symptoms, kidney disease, and calcium stones have been
noted resulting from D supplementation (14-20).
The only way to safely take in Vitamin D is by letting the sun's rays
fall on your skin. To learn more about the benefits of making sun
exposure a part of our routine and ideas for how to do it, see my
The Inescapable Conclusion
I certainly support science's quest for solutions, but as of today, we
are far from knowing better than the nutritional layout of 400 million
years of evolution.
The uncountable but purposeful and effective interactions that occur
between man, plants, and the planet have clear reasons for being
around. When we meddle
with them without understanding the results are often disastrous, as
our vitamin supplement use should show us.
Luckily, we have a much better solution to disease. The underlying
realizations that vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients cure disease
is correct, but we must understand that they only work in conjunction
with each other as part of a healthy package.
It's virtually impossible to overdose on a nutrient by eating it
through whole fruits and vegetables.
In fact, better than anything medical science can bring to bear, the
compounds found in raw fruits and vegetables inhibit cellular aging,
fuel cellular repair, induce the detoxification enzymes that keep us
clean and healthy, and bind the carcinogens which lead to cancer (21).
The answer is clear: Skip the vitamin overdose and eat a diet of fruits
and vegetables, get plenty of
sun, and lead a healthy lifestyle.
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