You don't have to be a germaphobe or hypochondriac to worry about getting sick these days. The news is full of stories about national or global outbreaks that sound downright frightening. To protect ourselves and to get some peace of mind in the process, we may be tempted to reach for extra vitamins and supplements as a way of shoring up our immune systems — but medical experts say that may not be the right thing to do.
Food and health sites like Cooking Light are raising a warning flag on taking supplements, as it says these are not supposed to prevent — let alone treat or cure — any illness. They note that that under ideal conditions, supplements can and should only be used for a brief amount of time, simply because while vitamins and minerals are good for you, taking too many of them may actually have a negative impact on your health.
Supplements don't always behave the same way
It's often difficult to tell what kind of impact supplements might have on your body because they perform one way during trials, and another way when they are actually used in real life. "Often the enthusiasm for these vitamins and supplements outpaces the evidence," JoAnn Manson, a practicing doctor and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School says (via Harvard). "And when the rigorous evidence is available from randomized controlled trials, often the results are at odds with the findings of the observational studies."
"People who take supplements tend to be more health conscious, exercise more, eat healthier diets, and have a whole host of lifestyle factors that can be difficult to control for fully in the statistical models," she continues.
What happens when you overdose on vitamins?
In some cases, supplements which might have shown to have health benefits have not only failed to work, they actually demonstrated health risks. Harvard points to vitamin E, which researchers thought originally helped protect the heart, but was later seen to increase the risk of a bleeding stroke. Folic acid, which was originally seen as an effective deterrent against heart disease, could actually increase the risk of developing cancer. And if you take too many multivitamins, you could face problems that include frequent trips to the toilet, irregular heartbeat, joint pains, hair loss, nausea, or diarrhea (via LiveStrong).
As long as we eat in a way that is healthy and supports our bodies, doctors say we are better off relying on nutrition that we get from eating whole, fresh foods, including plenty of vegetables. And even if we're in the middle of flu season, if you think you need a vitamin and mineral top up, it may be good to talk to a health expert.