Vitamins and minerals are crucial to the body for producing energy, fighting illnesses, allowing blood to clot, and countless other functions. For those with less-than-perfect diets, taking vitamins and supplements can seem like a sensible way to bridge the gaps between what their bodies need and what they take in through food.
The average American spends $56 per month on health supplements. In 2020, Americans spent nearly $60 billion on vitamins and supplements. According to one survey, four out of five adults reported taking supplements at least occasionally. Clearly, Americans are hooked on vitamins and the hope they provide for better health.
Promises of everything from weight loss and better sleep to shinier hair and more stable moods keep this industry booming. Supplements are readily available without a prescription from any grocery store or pharmacy. Well-known supplements such as melatonin, fish oil and collagen are produced in nature and sometimes in the body itself, and as a result, many feel confident that they’re safe to use on a regular basis without their doctor’s input.
At first glance, vitamins and supplements may seem like a wholesome alternative to medications, addressing the root of a health problem rather than just its symptoms. Unfortunately, for those who feel that if they’re not taking supplements regularly, they’re jeopardizing their health, supplements may become addictive.
How Safe Are Vitamins and Supplements?
While the health benefits of vitamins and supplements get a lot of publicity, people are generally less aware of the possible downsides. According to a decade-long study in the New England Journal of Medicine, about 23,000 emergency department visits and 2,000 hospitalizations every year are connected to adverse effects of dietary supplements. Among the most common causes of these visits were elevated blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, headache, dizziness and digestive issues.
Officially, the Food and Drug Administration oversees dietary supplements. However, new supplements aren’t required to undergo any testing for safety before hitting the market. Companies that sell them don’t have to list potential adverse effects, and they don’t need to have any medical credentials, herbalists, or doctors on staff to create or sell supplements in the United States.
In other words, these companies face very little in the way of regulations, letting them play fast and loose with everything from ingredient lists to the claims they make.
To complicate matters further, because of the lack of regulations, some supplements were found to be spiked with pharmaceutical drugs. While some tainted products were recalled upon this discovery, many more remained on the market.
Even so, most supplements and vitamins are safe to take. They can even play an important role for those who are at-risk for certain deficiencies. For example, those who are lactose-intolerant may benefit from a daily vitamin D and calcium supplement, and those who have difficulty absorbing nutrients due to a condition such as Crohn’s may need to take a multivitamin.
To help prevent adverse effects, individuals should make sure they take supplements that contain no more than the recommended daily value. It’s also a good idea for them to talk to their doctor about the vitamins and supplements they’re taking. This can help their doctor ensure the doses they take are within a safe range and that the supplements won’t interact with prescribed medications.
Is It Dangerous to Take too Many Supplements?
Supplements may be readily available, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re safe to take in any quantity. For the average person without any health problems, taking a regular multivitamin is highly unlikely to cause harm. The body is generally efficient in eliminating excess nutrients, so while taking extra vitamin C during flu season is unlikely to keep someone from getting sick, it also probably won’t hurt them.
However, people who have a more robust supplement regimen may want to be mindful of their doses. Those who regularly get more than the recommended dose of nutrients such as folic acid, vitamin D and calcium, which are routinely taken in supplement form and added to certain foods, may experience issues such as heart problems, kidney stones, permanent nerve damage and digestive issues. Similarly, too much selenium can cause hair loss and fatigue, and too much ginkgo biloba, a natural remedy for anxiety, has been linked to seizures.
Certain groups should be even more aware of the supplements they take. Beta carotene, which converts into vitamin A and is commonly used to support eye and immune health, is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in those who smoke. Those who take blood thinners may want to skip the vitamin K supplement, as it can interfere with the blood-clotting effects of their medication.
Talking to a doctor is the simplest way to avoid complications from too many supplements.
Can You Become Dependent on Vitamins and Supplements?
When most people think of an addiction, they think of substances such as alcohol or heroin. Compared to illicit drugs, supplements seem benign. Under normal circumstances, they have no impact on the individual’s mood or behavior, and they don’t directly affect work or school performance and personal relationships. Even so, some scientists argue that supplements, or at least the habit of taking supplements, can be addictive.
The American Psychiatry Association defines addiction as a condition in which a person uses a substance despite the harm it causes. In some cases, the chemical of choice changes the brain’s structure and functioning and eventually, the person is unable to function normally without it.
Many mental health professionals use a broader definition for addiction, characterizing it as a set of behaviors that the individual becomes dependent on. Currently, gambling is the only behavioral definition the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders recognizes. However, there are many behaviors and non-habit-forming substances that people have found addictive, including food, plastic surgery, gaming, working, risk-taking and shopping.
Those who rely heavily on dietary supplements may be vulnerable to developing a behavioral addiction. Marketing for supplements relies heavily on conveying the message that they’re necessary for health, and without the supplement, the individual’s health and quality of life are at risk. Taking daily supplements becomes a behavioral crutch the individual relies on. Without it, they may experience anxiety and fear that they’re jeopardizing their health.
The industry also has a track record of hiding habit-forming substances such as DMAA, which is a stimulant derived from amphetamines, and kratom, which contains a chemical similar to morphine, in certain supplements. The lack of transparency may mean that a behavioral addiction and a chemical addiction influence the individual.
How FHE Can Help Those with Behavioral Addictions
For those who routinely take supplements beyond recommended doses, stopping can be very difficult. Whether they’re experiencing a behavioral addiction or a chemical addiction, professional help is available. At FHE, we specialize in helping clients find freedom from supplement addiction. Contact us today to speak