A Tale from the Trenches: Can Vitamins Make You Sick?

By Dr. Romy Blockvitamins-make-you-sick

If some is good, more must be better…. Wrong! This is the case with many good things in life– red wine, sunshine, exercise, some healthy foods, chocolate–  too much of any of them is not only not better for you, but it is in fact bad for you.  This holds true for many vitamins as well.

Vitamins, like any other medication can actually hurt you if taken improperly.  People do not often realize this. They think that if you take too many vitamins you will just pee them out. Many assume that vitamins are always safe and natural, therefore harmless.  The reality can be quite the opposite. Vitamins are a form of medication and their manufacturing and consumption should be monitored as such. Unfortunately vitamins and supplements are not regulated by the FDA as medications are, so this can create problems. There is little oversight to their manufacturing and in addition there are so many confusing sources about what to take and how much, that many people struggle to get accurate information.

I do not mean to scare you, but rather to educate you about the perils of willy-nilly vitamin use. A quick story:

I was making rounds in the hospital and was called to see a patient in the ICU. This fifty-something year old woman had been brought in by her husband in a stupor, nearly comatose. She had been evaluated in the ER for everything from stroke to meningitis and found ultimately to have too high of a blood calcium level which caused her to lose consciousness.  Interestingly, her problem was not from taking too many calcium supplements (though this could do the same), it was actually from taking too much Vitamin D.

I often see patients who come in with bags full of vitamins and supplements that they are taking. They pull each one out, mentioning who recommended it– it can be anyone from their neighbor to their dentist to their stock boy at Whole Foods.  They are often downing huge doses of certain vitamins without any knowledge of how these can be more harmful then helpful. Likewise, they often falling short on key nutrients in which they are deficient.  Some people give up all together and stop taking vitamins because of their confusion, while some just keep adding product after product to their regimen, not seeking advice on how the various ingredients may interact. A custom vitamin is probably the best way to meet individual needs (take our vitamin quiz).

Often people do not realize that vitamins are like any other medication and taking an improper dose can in fact cause an overdose.  In the case of my ICU patient, she had originally been fatigued and somewhat depressed, common signs of vitamin D deficiency. Her chiropractor, in an effort to help, had advised she take 5000 IUs of Vitamin D3 daily. This is a very large dose if taken consistently and without monitoring (as opposed to the more typical daily doses we recommend of between 800 and 1200 IUs daily). Following her chiropractor’s recommendation she initially felt better on her Vitamin D supplement. However, after several weeks she had become more fatigued, constipated and ultimately confused– so much so that her husband had called the paramedics.  Her blood calcium level was found to be dangerously high.  Ultimately it was determined that this was because of the huge doses of Vitamin D she was taking.

One of the many things Vitamin D does is help your body properly absorb calcium from your diet.  This is then crucial for building bones.  Vitamin D does a variety other things including help with mood, migraines, energy level and more.  Vitamin D is one of the important vitamins on which many of us fall short.  That is, we rarely get enough from our diet (the best source is beef liver or wild caught salmon- farm raised salmon does not contain significant amounts). Milk is “fortified” with D but in tiny amounts that don’t generally add up to much (50 IUs per serving when most of us need at least 800-1000 IUs daily) .

We mainly get Vitamin D from sunlight but this is hard to come by on a year round basis for those of us who live in temperate climates, and it gets harder for our body to process the D we get from the sun as we get older. Besides, we should be wearing sunscreen to avoid skin cancer, anyway!

So taking a Vitamin D supplement makes sense for most of us. However taking proper amount is key. This will not be the same for everyone. Those who live in colder climates may need more as will those who have certain GI conditions that impair Vitamin D absorption such as celiac disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease or who have had certain abdominal surgeries.  Getting a custom all in one vitamin based on your individual needs is likely a much safer way to obtain Vitamin D then taking arbitrary mega doses (take our vitamin quiz). You doctor can monitor blood levels to ensure you are at a safe level, but this can be costly and is not always necessary for everyone.

My patient was revived after intensive treatment with IV fluids and medications to reverse her toxic levels of calcium, and she ultimately survived the ordeal. However, this disaster could have been averted with a more thoughtful approach to vitamin dosing.  It is important to know that vitamins and supplements can play an essential role in good health, but like many other things, they need to be taken in proper amounts so that they do not cause toxicity. Stories like this are one of the many reasons we founded Vous Vitamin. Most people need some vitamins to complement even the healthiest of diets. We help provide the ideal blend for each individual, based on their diet, lifestyle and health concerns. Take our vitamin survey.


Romy Block specializes in Endocrinology and Metabolism and is mother to three active adolescent boys. Arielle Levitan is a Doctor of Internal Medicine with a special interest in Preventive Medicine and Women’s Health.  She is a mother of three teen agers. As professional women with active family lives, they recognize that people often neglect their own health needs and are uncertain about what vitamins to take. Each person is different in her diet, exercise and health history, and will benefit from different nutrients.  After years of advising their patients about the proper vitamins to take,  Drs. Block and Levitan created Vous Vitamin® to provide people everywhere with quality vitamins that are suited to their individual needs. They are authors of the award winning The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health (She Writes Press, 2015). Take your vitamin survey now to get exactly the right vitamins for your needs.

The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products offered by Vous Vitamin® are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Nothing contained herein is intended to be a diagnosis or constitute medical advice.  The symptoms described in this Blog may be a result of a serious medical condition which requires medical treatment.  You should consult with your doctor if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this Blog and before beginning any vitamin or supplement regimen.

photocredit: opendemocracy

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