Health

Yes, You Really Can Overdose On Vitamins. Here’s What You Should Know About Supplement Poisoning

By Andrea Mew
·  8 min read
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I don’t know who needs to hear this, but your supplement stack probably shouldn’t take up multiple shelves.

Trying to detox your body and balance your hormones? Have you fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole of supplement stacks and find empty space decreasing in your medicine cabinet? The sheer volume of people on social media sharing their elaborate lineups of pill capsules and powders puts a lot of pressure on casual viewers to take a wide range of vitamins if they want to achieve optimal health.

Pills and potions can help you feel more comfortable in your body and realign imbalances you may be experiencing in connection with hormonal birth control, poor diet, or infertility. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to achieve better bodily health, but addressing micronutrient deficiencies can often help people feel restored and full of life.

That said, too much of a good thing can actually be a bad thing. Americans love over-the-counter dietary supplements. Over half of us take dietary or herbal supplements daily, lining the pockets of vitamin and supplement manufacturers to the tune of a $151.9 billion global market valuation in 2021 alone. Over-reliance on vitamins and supplements can not only give you a false sense of confidence about your personal health by masking symptoms or providing a placebo effect, but they can also completely backfire on you, worsening your health when all you’re trying to do is get better.

Side Effects May Include…

Some side effects of vitamin overdosing can just be mildly unpleasant, while others can cause serious health complications. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Hair Loss

Have you been taking collagen and biotin in hopes that your hair grows longer and stronger? Well, if you’re simultaneously taking too much vitamin A, you’re counteracting any progress made on achieving luscious locks.

Since vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin (rather than a water-soluble vitamin that can be expelled through urination or sweating), any excess amounts you take in are stored within your body fat. It’s worth noting that vitamins D, E, and K are also fat-soluble, and too much of them can be toxic. 

Upset Stomach

Though many women experience gastrointestinal disturbances from their menstrual cycles, your stomach quickly becoming upset is actually one of the most common signs that you’ve taken too many vitamins. Between stomach gurgling, cramping, nausea, and more serious disturbances, ingesting too many vitamins either on an empty stomach or in general can lead to major tummy trouble.

Nausea is one of the most common signs that you’ve taken too many vitamins.

Gastroenterologists also warn that overdosing on vitamins and supplements can worsen irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, gastritis, and other conditions that irritate your stomach lining. The most common culprits are vitamin C, iron, and calcium.

Neurological Issues

Numbness, a.k.a. neuropathy, and tingling are common symptoms of vitamin overdosage, particularly from vitamin B6. Though vitamin B6 is a water-soluble vitamin (so it can be expelled through urination or sweat), it’s pretty easy to accidentally take in too much if you’re eating commercially produced foods.

Natural occurrences of vitamin B6 are found in organ meats and are incredible for you, but in America, most people get their vitamin B6 overdosed to them through meats and fortified cereals and starches.

Blood Thinning

If you’re consuming too much vitamin E, you run the risk of vitamin E toxicity which can thin your blood. Therefore, if you get a minor cut or have any amount of internal bleeding, things can get serious…fast.

Though vitamin E is critical for sight, reproductive health, and providing antioxidants to protect your body from free radicals, ingesting more than 15 milligrams a day is not recommended. The worst culprits of excess vitamin E are seed oils like canola oil, margarine, meat, leafy greens and fortified cereals. 

High Risk of Disease

Both cardiovascular disease and cancer risks go up when you abuse vitamin E and beta-carotene supplementation, according to the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force. Supplementing with too much vitamin K? You increase your chances of blood clots that can lead to strokes and/or heart attacks. Lastly, vitamin C overdosage can cause complications for diabetics by falsely elevating blood glucose readings.

Don’t Overlook the Ingredient Label

Okay, okay, I’m not trying to totally freak you out. Vitamin and supplement consumption at a reasonable dosage won’t cause your hair to fall out or thin your blood. That said, an unassuming dosage of vitamins can still do some damage. If you’re not careful with checking the labels on your supplement stack, you might be getting a side of toxins with your micronutrients.

Many vitamins, whether marketed to children or not, contain artificial food colorings. The FDA asserts that, aside from providing color to “colorless and ‘fun’ foods,” synthetic colors are added to “offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions.” Is it worth taking pretty pills if we know that artificial food dyes have been associated with behavioral issues? Can’t we just be cool with ugly supplements since those colors are just added to hide quality issues with the active ingredients?

We’re cool with taking ugly vitamins and skipping the potential of biological harm from dyes.

Perhaps you’ve been cooking with coconut oil, ghee, grass-fed butter, or lard instead of seed oils. Did you ever check your vitamins to make sure they don’t contain cheap fillers like hydrogenated soybean oil? Many commercial vitamins contain this filler, a.k.a. the bad fats that worsen cholesterol and lead to coronary heart disease, America’s leading cause of death.

Whether you’re looking to get pregnant or you’re trying to protect your heart and brain health, increasing fatty acids through fish oil supplements may have crossed your mind. That said, some fish oils and omega-3s actually contain toxic heavy metals. Prescription varieties tend to be cleaner, while over-the-counter choices could contain higher levels of PCBs, mercury, and lead. Instead, you might want to look for oils sourced from wild fish.

Another common additive in vitamins and supplements is magnesium silicate to prevent caking. This filler, often found in the form of talc, is similar to asbestos. Japanese styles of rice use talc to make the grain whiter, and researchers have found connections between this additive and the rise in stomach cancers in Japan. Other than magnesium silicate, many vitamin manufacturers also add in titanium dioxide, a colorant that can cause lung and kidney inflammation and damage. Again, do we need our vitamins to be beautiful in order to take them? I’ll sacrifice the aesthetic quality of my supplements if it means passing on the potential of biological harm.

Fortification and Supplementation Is a Dangerous Duo

As I’ve written before, excess vitamin intake through fortified foods can actually widen our waistlines. Though most of us aren’t mega-dosing all day long on vitamins and risking our physical health, it’s worth questioning the fortified breakfast cereals, energy bars, or enriched pastas, breads, and other grains many Americans regularly consume. If we’re already overdoing it through diet alone, taking supplements on top of that can only worsen how much we’re overcompensating with micronutrients.

Overfortification is a bigger concern than the number of people accidentally overdosing on vitamins.

Director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center Dr. David Katz believes that overfortification is a bigger concern than the number of people accidentally taking toxic doses of vitamins and supplements. In his research, he has observed that food manufacturers aren’t necessarily hyperfocused on taking “bad ingredients” out of food like they used to be (such as fat, salt, or sugar) and now they spring for adding in whichever nutrient is fashionable at the time. Sometimes that’s extra probiotics, omega-3 fats, or vitamin D. And oftentimes, it’s unnecessary.

Where do we see this most often? Many dairy alternative “milks” and yogurts are fortified in calcium, but if we exceed the 2,000-2,5000 mg of calcium per day as recommended, we increase our risk of hardened arteries and even heart disease. Many enriched grains (pasta, cereal, bread, white flour) are rife with folic acid. Folic acid can be integral in preventing birth defects and is often touted as a must-have supplement for pregnant women. That said, if you go over the 1,000 microgram recommendation of folic acid per day through a fortified diet and supplementation, you can accidentally mask a B12 deficiency and give yourself unintended, permanent nerve damage.

Closing Thoughts

The good news is, if you follow a micronutrient-rich diet from cleaner sourced products, you can get many of your vitamins and minerals without additional supplementation. I get that it’s not all that easy to eat perfectly clean. Trust me, I consume my fair share of fortified products and have tried out plenty of supplements that I probably didn’t need to be taking. 

The best practices you can follow on the daily (aside from simply not ingesting more vitamin products than recommended on the packaging) is to prioritize eating quality, whole foods, and if you want to take supplements, doing your due diligence by reading labels for sneaky ingredients and choosing natural, food-based options. While you likely won’t overdose on vitamins, it’s certainly worth understanding what it is you take as part of your daily routine.

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