Here are some of the key vitamins and minerals that are important for senior health:
- Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth. It also helps to prevent osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, and fortified foods.
- Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, so it is important for bone health as well. It also plays a role in the immune system and helps to protect against some types of cancer. Good sources of vitamin D include sunlight, oily fish, and fortified foods.
- Vitamin B12 is important for energy production, nerve function, and red blood cell production. A deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause fatigue, weakness, and memory problems. Good sources of vitamin B12 include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
- Folate is important for cell growth and development. It is also needed for the production of red blood cells. A deficiency in folate can cause anemia, fatigue, and other health problems. Good sources of folate include leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, and beans.
- Potassium is an important mineral for heart health. It helps to regulate blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke. Good sources of potassium include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Magnesium is a mineral that helps to regulate muscle and nerve function. It is also involved in energy production and the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Good sources of magnesium include leafy green vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
In addition to these vitamins and minerals, there are a number of other nutrients that are important for senior health. These include zinc, selenium, vitamin C, and antioxidants. It is important to talk to your doctor about your individual needs so that you can get the right balance of nutrients in your diet. The long list of vitamins and minerals are as follows:
Vitamin A. Food Sources: Vitamin A can be found in products such as eggs and milk. It can also be found in vegetables and fruits, like carrots and mangoes.
- Men Age 51+: Most men 51 and older should aim for 900 mcg RAE.
- Women Age 51+: Most women 51 and older should aim for 700 mcg RAE each day.
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin). Food Sources: You can find vitamin B1 in meat – especially pork – and fish. It’s also in whole grains and some fortified breads, cereals, and pastas.
- Men Age 51+: Most men 51 and older should aim for 1.2 mg each day.
- Women Age 51+: Most women 51 and older should aim for 1.1 mg each day.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin). Food Sources: You can find vitamin B2 in eggs and organ meat, such as liver and kidneys, and lean meat. You can also find it in green vegetables, like asparagus and broccoli.
- Men Age 51+: Most men 51 and older should aim for 1.3 mg each day.
- Women Age 51+: Most women 51 and older should aim for 1.1 mg each day.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin). Food Sources: Vitamin B3 can be found in some types of nuts, legumes, and grains. It can also be found in poultry, beef, and fish.
- Men Age 51+: Most men 51 and older should aim for 16 mg each day.
- Women Age 51+: Most women 51 and older should aim for 14 mg each day.
Vitamin B6. Food Sources: Vitamin B6 is found in a wide variety of foods. The richest sources of vitamin B6 include fish, beef liver, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, and fruit (other than citrus).
- Men Age 51+: Most men 51 and older should aim for 1.7 mg each day.
- Women Age 51+: Most women 51 and older should aim for 1.5 mg each day.
Vitamin B12. Food Sources: You can get this vitamin from meat, fish, poultry, milk, and fortified breakfast cereals. Some people over age 50 have trouble absorbing the vitamin B12 found naturally in foods. They may need to take vitamin B12 supplements and eat foods fortified with this vitamin.
- Men Age 51+: 2.4 mcg every day
- Women Age 51+: 2.4 mcg every day
Vitamin C. Food Sources: Fruits and vegetables are some of the best sources of vitamin C. Citrus fruits, tomatoes, and potatoes can be a large source of vitamin C.
- Men Age 51+: Most men 51 and older should aim for 90 mg each day.
- Women Age 51+: Most women 51 and older should aim for 75 mg each day.
Calcium. Food Sources: Calcium is a mineral that is important for strong bones and teeth, so there are special recommendations for older people who are at risk for bone loss. You can get calcium from milk and other dairy, some forms of tofu, dark-green leafy vegetables, soybeans, canned sardines and salmon with bones, and calcium-fortified foods.
- Men Age 51+: Men age 51-70 need 1,000 mg each day. Men age 71 need 1,200 mg each day. Don’t consume more than 2,000 mg each day.
- Women Age 51+: 1,200 mg each day. Don’t consume more than 2,000 mg each day.
Vitamin D. Food Sources: You can get vitamin D from fatty fish, fish liver oils, fortified milk and milk products, and fortified cereals.
- Men Age 51+: If you are age 51–70, you need at least 15 mcg (600 IU) each day, but not more than 100 mcg (4,000 IU). If you are over age 70, you need at least 20 mcg (800 IU), but not more than 100 mcg (4,000 IU).
- Women Age 51+: If you are age 51–70, you need at least 15 mcg (600 IU) each day, but not more than 100 mcg (4,000 IU). If you are over age 70, you need at least 20 mcg (800 IU), but not more than 100 mcg (4,000 IU).
Vitamin E. Food Sources: Vitamin E can be found in nuts like peanuts and almonds and can be found in vegetable oils, too. It can also be found in green vegetables, like broccoli and spinach.
- Men Age 51+: Most men age 51 and older should aim for 15 mg each day.
- Women Age 51+: Most women age 51 and older should aim for 15 mg each day.
Folate. Food Sources: Folate can be found in vegetables and fruit, such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, spinach, and oranges. It can also be found in nuts, beans, and peas.
- Men Age 51+: Most men age 51 and older should aim for 400 mcg DFE each day.
- Women Age 51+: Most women age 51 and older should aim for 400 mcg DFE each day.
Vitamin K. Food Sources: Vitamin K can be found in many foods including green leafy vegetables, like spinach and kale and in some fruits, such as blueberries and figs. It can also be found in cheese, eggs, and different meats.
- Men Age 51+: Most men 51 and older should aim for 120 mcg each day.
- Women Age 51+: Most women should aim for 90 mcg each day.
Magnesium. Food Sources: This mineral, generally, is found in foods containing dietary fiber, such as green leafy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds. Breakfast cereals and other fortified foods often have added magnesium. Magnesium is also present in tap, mineral, or bottled drinking water.
- Men Age 51+: 420 mg each day
- Women Age 51+: 320 mg each day
Potassium. Food Sources: Many different fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy foods contain potassium. Foods high in potassium include dried apricots, lentils, and potatoes. Adults get a lot of their potassium from milk, coffee, tea, and other nonalcoholic beverages.
- Men Age 51+: Men need 3,400 mg each day.
- Women Age 51+: Most women age 51 and older need 2,600 mg each day
Sodium. Food Sources: Preparing your own meals at home without using a lot of processed foods or salt will allow you to control how much sodium you get.
- Men Age 51+: Men 51 and older should reduce their sodium intake to 2,300 mg each day. That is about 1 teaspoon of salt and includes sodium added during manufacturing or cooking as well as at the table when eating. If you have high blood pressure or prehypertension, limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day, about 2/3 teaspoon of salt, may be helpful.
- Women Age 51+: Women 51 and older should reduce their sodium intake to 2,300 mg each day. That is about 1 teaspoon of salt and includes sodium added during manufacturing or cooking as well as at the table when eating. If you have high blood pressure or prehypertension, limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day, about 2/3 teaspoon of salt, may be helpful.
Surely you have heard the saying, “too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.” The same applies to vitamin supplements, as taking an excess of vitamins can be harmful to your health. This may seem contradictory because vitamins are often encouraged to supplement nutrients that may be lacking in our diets. Physicians or nutritionists may suggest vitamins once it is confirmed that you have a nutrient deficiency and highly advise that the daily recommended doses are followed.
The Institute of Medicine has established guidelines such as the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) and DV (Daily Value) to help people understand the daily suggested dose of vitamins.
Vitamin overdose occurs when a person ingests far more than the daily recommendation, for an extended period of time. Although the body can excrete excessive amounts of water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C, it can retain fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, which can be toxic.
Here are a few vitamins that are proven to be toxic if taken in excess, as well as their symptoms of overdose:
- Iron- Nausea, bloody stools, diarrhea, dizziness, headache, fluid build-up in the lungs and fever.
- Vitamin A-Hair loss, liver damage, severe headaches, bone pain, blurred vision, dry skin and vomiting
- Vitamin D- Abnormal heart rhythm, constipation, frequent urination, muscle weakness and confusion.
- Vitamin E- Interferes with the body’s ability to clot blood, which can be harmful for those on blood thinning medication
- B Vitamins-B6 in excess can cause nerve damage; while B3 can cause jaundice, elevated liver enzyme levels and nausea.
If you have decided to purchase vitamins, always follow the daily recommended dose to avoid excessive intake. Before purchasing it is recommended that you consult a physician or nutritionist to receive an assessment.
All content of this newsletter is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon any content of this newsletter. PROMPTLY CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN OR CALL 911 IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY.
Taking vitamins is part of the daily routine of millions of people worldwide.
Though directions for safe dosing are listed on most supplement bottles, it’s common practice to take more than what’s recommended.
Consumers are bombarded with health information telling them that taking high doses of certain vitamins can benefit their health in many ways. However, taking too much of some nutrients can be dangerous.
This article reviews the safety of taking vitamins, as well as the side effects and potential risks associated with consuming high doses.
Fat-soluble vs. water-soluble vitamins
The 13 known vitamins are divided into 2 categories — fat-soluble and water-soluble (1Trusted Source).
Water-soluble vitamins are readily excreted from the body and not easily stored in tissues. There are more water-soluble vitamins than there are fat-soluble ones (2Trusted Source).
Water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C, plus eight B vitamins:
- Vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
- Vitamin B3 (niacin)
- Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)
- Vitamin B7 (biotin)
- Vitamin B9 (folate)
- Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
Because water-soluble vitamins aren’t stored but rather excreted through urine, they’re less likely to cause issues even when taken in high doses.
However, taking megadoses of some water-soluble vitamins can lead to potentially dangerous side effects.
For example, taking very high doses of vitamin B6 can lead to potentially irreversible nerve damage over time, while taking large amounts of niacin — typically in excess of 2 grams per day — can cause liver damage (3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
Unlike water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins do not dissolve in water and are easily stored in your body’s tissues (2Trusted Source).
There are four fat-soluble vitamins:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
Given that fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate in the body, these nutrients are more likely to lead to toxicity than water-soluble vitamins.
While rare, taking too much vitamin A, D, or E can lead to potentially harmful side effects (5Trusted Source).
Alternatively, taking high doses of non-synthetic vitamin K seems to be relatively harmless, which is why an upper intake level (UL) has not been set for this nutrient (6Trusted Source).
Upper intake levels are set to indicate the maximum dose of a nutrient that’s unlikely to cause harm for nearly all people in a general population (7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source).
SUMMARYWater-soluble vitamins are readily excreted from the body, while fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in tissues. Fat-soluble vitamins are more likely to cause toxicity, although water-soluble vitamins can do so as well.
Potential risks of taking too many vitamins
When consumed naturally through foods, these nutrients are unlikely to cause harm, even when consumed in large amounts.
Yet, when taken in concentrated doses in supplement form, it’s easy to take too much, and doing so can lead to negative health outcomes.
Side effects of overconsuming water-soluble vitamins
When taken in excess, some water-soluble vitamins can cause adverse effects, some of which can be dangerous.
However, similarly to vitamin K, certain water-soluble vitamins have no observable toxicity and hence no set UL.
These vitamins include vitamin B1 (thiamine), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin B7 (biotin), and vitamin B12 (cobalamin) (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source).
It’s important to note that while these vitamins have no observable toxicity, some of them may interact with medications and interfere with blood testing results. Therefore, caution should be taken with all nutritional supplements.
The following water-soluble vitamins have set ULs, as they can cause adverse side effects when taken in high doses:
- Vitamin C. Although vitamin C has relatively low toxicity, high doses of it can cause gastrointestinal disturbances, including diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and vomiting. Migraines can occur at doses of 6 grams per day (14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source).
- Vitamin B3 (niacin). When taken in the form of nicotinic acid, niacin can lead to high blood pressure, abdominal pain, impaired vision, and liver damage when consumed in high doses of 1–3 grams per day (16Trusted Source).
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). Long-term overconsumption of B6 can cause severe neurological symptoms, skin lesions, sensitivity to light, nausea, and heartburn, with some of these symptoms occurring at intakes of 1–6 grams per day (17Trusted Source).
- Vitamin B9 (folate). Taking too much folate or folic acid in supplement form may affect mental function, negatively impact the immune system, and mask a potentially severe vitamin B12 deficiency (18Trusted Source).
Note that these are side effects that healthy people may experience when taking large doses of these vitamins. Individuals with health conditions can experience even more serious reactions to taking too much of a vitamin.
For example, though vitamin C is unlikely to cause toxicity in healthy people, it can lead to tissue damage and fatal heart abnormalities in those with hemochromatosis, an iron storage disorder (19Trusted Source).
Side effects related to overconsuming fat-soluble vitamins
Because fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate in your body’s tissues, they can cause much more harm when taken at high doses, especially over long periods.
Aside from vitamin K, which has a low potential for toxicity, the remaining three fat-soluble vitamins have a set UL due to their potential to cause harm at high doses.
Here are some side effects related to the overconsumption of fat-soluble vitamins:
- Vitamin A. While vitamin A toxicity, or hypervitaminosis A, can occur from eating vitamin-A-rich foods, it’s mostly associated with supplements. Symptoms include nausea, increased intracranial pressure, coma, and even death (20Trusted Source).
- Vitamin D. Toxicity from taking high doses of vitamin D supplements can lead to dangerous symptoms, including weight loss, appetite loss, and irregular heartbeat. It can also raise blood calcium levels, which can lead to organ damage (21Trusted Source).
- Vitamin E. High-dose vitamin E supplements may interfere with blood clotting, cause hemorrhages, and lead to hemorrhagic stroke (22Trusted Source).
Although vitamin K has a low potential for toxicity, it can interact with certain medications, such as warfarin and antibiotics (6Trusted Source).
SUMMARYBoth water- and fat-soluble vitamins can cause side effects when taken in high doses, with some causing more severe symptoms than others.
Can taking too many vitamins be deadly?
Although it’s extremely rare to die from a vitamin overdose, there have been reported instances of death related to vitamin toxicity.
For example, hypervitaminosis A can be caused by taking one large dose of over 200 mg of vitamin A, or chronic use of more than 10 times the recommended daily intake (23Trusted Source).
Vitamin A toxicity may lead to serious complications, such as increased spinal fluid pressure, coma, and potentially fatal organ damage (23Trusted Source).
Additionally, taking megadoses of vitamin D — more than 50,000 IU daily — over long periods can lead to high blood levels of calcium (hypercalcemia), which can lead to death (24Trusted Source).
Overdosing on other vitamins can likewise cause potentially fatal side effects, such as liver damage.
A case report found that taking very high doses of over 5 grams of extended-release niacin can lead to metabolic acidosis, a buildup of acid in body fluids, as well as acute liver failure — both of which can be fatal (25Trusted Source).
Keep in mind that these potentially deadly side effects are associated with taking exceptionally high doses of vitamins. Even so, caution should always be taken when consuming any dietary supplement.
SUMMARYIn rare cases, taking extremely high doses of certain vitamins may lead to fatal complications.
How to safely take vitamins
The best way to get the nutrients you need is by consuming a well-rounded diet. However, many people need to supplement with vitamins for a variety of reasons.
Age, genetic disorders, medical conditions, and diet are all factors that can increase the need for certain nutrients.
Fortunately, vitamins are typically safe to take as long as they are used responsibly.
The following chart outlines both the recommended daily intake (RDI) and tolerable upper intake levels (UL) for fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins (6Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source, 21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source):
Due to potential toxicity, it’s not recommended to consume more than the tolerable upper intake levels set for the nutrients listed above.
Keep in mind that in certain circumstances, your healthcare provider may recommend that you take more than the UL for certain nutrients to correct a deficiency.
For example, vitamin D deficiencies are often treated with high-dose vitamin D injections or supplements that deliver over 50,000 IU of vitamin D, which is much more than the UL (26Trusted Source).
Though most supplement bottles provide recommendations regarding how much of a vitamin to take per day, needs can vary from person to person.
If you have questions regarding vitamin dosing, it’s best to consult a medical professional.
SUMMARYSome vitamins have set ULs to prevent potential toxicity. It’s best to consult your healthcare provider if have questions regarding proper vitamin dosing.
Although vitamin supplements are safely consumed by many people on a daily basis, it’s possible to take too high of a dose, which can result in adverse side effects.
Overdosing on certain vitamins can lead to serious complications and, in rare circumstances, even death.
For these reasons, it’s important to use vitamins responsibly and consult a trusted health professional if you have questions about proper dosing.
Many adults and children in the United States take one or more vitamins or other dietary supplements. In addition to vitamins, dietary supplements can contain minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and many other ingredients. Dietary supplements come in a variety of forms, including tablets, capsules, gummies, and powders, as well as drinks and energy bars. Popular supplements include vitamins D and B12; minerals like calcium and iron; herbs such as echinacea and garlic; and products like glucosamine, probiotics, and fish oils.
The Dietary Supplement Label
Products sold as dietary supplements come with a Supplement Facts label that lists the active ingredients, the amount per serving (dose), as well as other ingredients, such as fillers, binders, and flavorings. The manufacturer suggests the serving size, but your health care provider might decide a different amount is more appropriate for you.
Some dietary supplements can help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients if you don’t eat a nutritious variety of foods. However, supplements can’t take the place of the variety of foods that are important to a healthy eating routine. To learn more about what makes a healthy eating routine, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate are good sources of information.
Some dietary supplements can improve overall health and help manage some health conditions. For example:
Many other supplements need more study to determine if they have value. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not determine whether dietary supplements are effective before they are marketed.
Safety and Risk
Many supplements contain active ingredients that can have strong effects in the body. Always be alert to the possibility of a bad reaction, especially when taking a new product.
You are most likely to have side effects from dietary supplements if you take them at high doses or instead of prescribed medicines, or if you take many different supplements. Some supplements can increase the risk of bleeding or, if taken before surgery, can change your response to anesthesia. Supplements can also interact with some medicines in ways that might cause problems. Here are a few examples:
- Vitamin K can reduce the ability of the blood thinner warfarin to prevent blood from clotting.
- St. John’s wort can speed the breakdown of many medicines and reduce their effectiveness (including some antidepressants, birth control pills, heart medications, anti-HIV medications, and transplant drugs).
- Antioxidant supplements, such as vitamins C and E, might reduce the effectiveness of some types of cancer chemotherapy.
Manufacturers may add vitamins, minerals, and other supplement ingredients to foods you eat, especially breakfast cereals and beverages. As a result, you may get more of these ingredients than you think, and more might not be better. Taking more than you need costs more and might also raise your risk of side effects. For example, too much vitamin A can cause headaches and liver damage, reduce bone strength, and cause birth defects. Excess iron causes nausea and vomiting and may damage the liver and other organs.
Be cautious about taking dietary supplements, beyond a standard prenatal supplement, if you are pregnant or nursing. Also, be careful about giving supplements to a child, unless recommended by their health care provider. Many supplements have not been well tested for safety in children and in those who are pregnant or nursing.
If you think that you have had a bad reaction to a dietary supplement, let your health care provider know. They may report your experience to the FDA. You may also submit a report directly to the FDA by calling 800-FDA-1088 or completing an online form. You should also report your reaction to the manufacturer by using the contact information on the product label.
The FDA has established good manufacturing practices (GMPs) that companies must follow to help ensure the identity, purity, strength, and composition of their dietary supplements. These GMPs can prevent adding the wrong ingredient (or too much or too little of the correct ingredient) and reduce the chance of contamination or improper packaging and labeling of a product. The FDA periodically inspects facilities that manufacture supplements.
Several independent organizations offer quality testing and allow products that pass these tests to display a seal of quality assurance that indicates the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants. These seals do not guarantee that a product is safe or effective. Organizations that offer quality testing include:*
- NSF International
- U.S. Pharmacopeia
* Any mention of a specific company, organization, or service does not represent an endorsement by ODS.
Talk with Your Health Care Providers
Tell your health care providers (including doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and dietitians) about any dietary supplements you’re taking. They can help you determine which supplements, if any, might be valuable for you.
Keep a complete record of any dietary supplements and medicines you take. The Office of Dietary Supplements website has a useful form, ”My Dietary Supplement and Medicine Record,” that you can print and fill out at home. For each product, note the name, the dose you take, how often you take it, and the reason for use. You can share this record with your health care providers to discuss what’s best for your overall health.
Keep in Mind
- Consult your health care provider before taking dietary supplements to treat a health condition.
- Get your health care provider’s approval before taking dietary supplements in place of, or in combination with, prescribed medicines.
- If you are scheduled to have any type of surgical procedure, talk with your health care provider about any supplements you take.
- Keep in mind the term “natural” doesn’t always mean safe. Some all-natural botanical products, for example, like comfrey and kava, can harm the liver. A dietary supplement’s safety depends on many things, such as its chemical makeup, how it works in the body, how it is prepared, and the amount you take.
- Before taking any dietary supplement, use the information sources listed in this brochure and talk to your health care providers to answer these questions:
- What are its potential benefits for me?
- Does it have any safety risks?
- What is the proper dose to take?
- How, when, and for how long should I take it?
Federal Regulation of Dietary Supplements
Dietary supplements are products intended to supplement the diet. They are not medicines and are not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure diseases. The FDA is the federal agency that oversees both supplements and medicines, but the FDA regulations for dietary supplements are different from those for prescription or over-the-counter medicines.
Medicines must be approved by the FDA before they can be sold or marketed. Supplements do not require this approval. Supplement companies are responsible for having evidence that their products are safe, and the label claims are truthful and not misleading. However, as long as the product does not contain a “new dietary ingredient” (one introduced since October 15, 1994), the company does not have to provide this safety evidence to the FDA before the product is marketed.
Dietary supplement labels may include certain types of health-related claims. Manufacturers are permitted to say, for example, that a supplement promotes health or supports a body part or function (like heart health or the immune system). These claims must be followed by the words, “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
Manufacturers must follow good manufacturing practices (GMPs) to ensure the identity, purity, strength, and composition of their products. If the FDA finds a dietary supplement to be unsafe, it may remove the product from the marketplace or ask the manufacturer to voluntarily recall the product.
The FDA monitors the marketplace for potential illegal products that may be unsafe or make false or misleading claims. The Federal Trade Commission, which monitors product advertising, also requires information about a supplement product to be truthful and not misleading.
The federal government can take legal action against companies and websites that sell dietary supplements when the companies make false or deceptive statements about their products, if they promote them as treatments or cures for diseases, or if their products are unsafe.
Federal Government Information Sources on Dietary Supplements
NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH (NIH)
NIH supports research and provides educational materials on dietary supplements.
U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION (FDA)
FDA issues rules and regulations and oversees dietary supplement labeling, marketing, and safety. Recall notices are also posted on the FDA webpage or you can subscribe to receive FDA notices of recalls, market withdrawals, and safety alerts.
FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION (FTC)
FTC regulates health and safety claims made in advertising for dietary supplements.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (USDA)
USDA provides information on a variety of food and nutrition topics.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES (HHS)
HHS provides wellness information, personal health tools, and health news.
This fact sheet by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) provides information that should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your health care providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health. Any mention in this publication of a specific product or service, or recommendation from an organization or professional society, does not represent an endorsement by ODS of that product, service, or expert advice.
Have you ever seen research questioning the value of vitamin and mineral supplements and wondered what the whole story was? Yes, ideally, we’d get all our holistic nutrition from food. But since most soils are deficient in nutrients, (especially minerals) due to industrial food production practices, getting all our nutrition from food is not realistic. So most of us pop vitamins and other dietary supplements to ensure we’re getting optimal levels of necessary micronutrients. Some of us pop more than others. And we’re getting handed them, just like this packet of samples my doctor recently gave me. [See photos below.]
But what if dangerous ingredients are lurking in your vitamin and mineral supplement? “No”, you exclaim. “Surely not! Those knights in shining armor at the FDA would spring into action to protect us…”
Sigh. Yet again, the political powers that should be protecting us are letting us down. And the industrial powers that be are tossing lots of lovely toxic fillers into your vitamin pills.
Here are the 5 worst (or most dangerous) things to look for in your dietary supplements. If you find them, don’t buy those supplements. Seriously. It’s best to avoid a side of carcinogen with your micronutrients. Maybe it’s all the junk in vitamins and minerals that leads to the studies questioning whether they actually help us. B vitamins with a side of Red #40 probably aren’t going to lead to an optimal health outcome.
Dangerous Ingredient #1: Artificial Colors
Take a look at ingredient lists for any of the following synthetic (artificial) food colorings, all approved by the FDA:
– FD&C Blue No. 1
– FD&C Blue No. 2
– FD&C Green No. 3
– FD&C Red No. 3
– FD&C Red No. 40
– FD&C Yellow No. 5
– FD&C Yellow No. 6
Why, oh why are there artificial colors in your vitamins?
The FDA states that these artificial colors in your vitamins are added to: “Offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; enhance colors that occur naturally; provide color to colorless and ‘fun’ foods.”
Do we really care if our vitamin pill has a lovely shade of red? Especially considering the FDA itself has “probed” into the connection between artificial food dyes and children’s behavior! Red #40 has been linked to hyperactivity and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, among others, wants the FDA to ban artificial food colors. After all, artificial colors in your vitamins serve no function other than making food look more “fun”, or even worse, cover up the fact that the active ingredients in the vitamin has been degraded by exposure to light, air, moisture, heat, or poor storage conditions.
Additionally, European lawmakers now require a warning label on foods that contain artificial dyes. The label must state: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
Dangerous Ingredient #2: Hydrogenated Oils
Here you thought you were avoiding hydrogenated fats by passing on the margarine. Did you know that your dietary supplement may also have these little toxic nasties? And, to make matters worse, its often partially hydrogenated soybean oil—one of the major fillers in the majority of vitamins today. Unless soy is organic, you can pretty much guarantee it’s genetically modified. So you’re getting a dose of franken-soy with your vitamins.
The FDA knows that hydrogenated fats are bad for us. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans specifically states: “Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.”
The CDC chimed in, posting in January 2014 that:
Consuming trans fat increases low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or ‘bad’) cholesterol. This risk factor contributes to the leading cause of death in the U.S. – coronary heart disease (CHD). Trans fat may also have other adverse health effects like decreasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or ‘good’) cholesterol. Further reducing trans fat consumption by avoiding artificial trans fat could prevent 10,000-20,000 heart attacks and 3,000-7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year in the U.S.
So why does the FDA allow these dangerous ingredients in your supplements? They’re cheap fillers. People still have this idea that bigger is better. Until we realize that smaller can be just as good, manufacturers will use cheap nasty fillers to give us bigger horse sized pills.
It’s up to you to avoid them, folks.
Dangerous Ingredients #3: Lead, Mercury, & PCBs
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are on everyone’s mind lately. They’ve been shown to be particularly important for pregnancy women, babies, and toddlers, as well as for brain and heart health. But not all brands are created equal. Since fish high on the food chain can accumulate mercury, lead, and other contaminants, those metals can make their way into your fish oil supplements. Yuck! Maybe these contaminants are the reason some research showed that fish oil supplements increased prostate cancer risk?
The high levels of PCBs in fish oils led to a lawsuit in California in 2010 claiming that supplement manufacturers should have placed warning labels stating the cancer risk on their fish oil supplements. Testing by Consumer Reports in 2011 showed 1/3 of the fish oils tested had high PCB levels.
What? You don’t want a toxic heavy metal or some PCBs with your EFAs today? Then you’d better be careful of what brand of Omega-3 or EFAs you buy. This is not the time to choose the cheap option—make sure that you choose a variety that has been meticulously tested for lead or mercury contaminants. Your best choices should state that they are “Molecularly distilled and 3rd party tested to ensure PCBs, dioxins, mercury, lead and other contaminants are below acceptable limits set by the Council for Responsible Nutrition and other advisory agencies,” or something similar.
Here’s an even better option: choose wild fish, pasture raised eggs, or greens for a good dose of Omega-3s!
Dangerous Ingredient #4: Talc or Magnesium Silicate
Yes, it’s true. The same powder your grandmother used as deodorant can be found in many supplements as a cheap filler and anti-caking agent. Nasty!
Magnesium silicate is similar in composition to asbestos and can cause lung problems when inhaled (bad news for the workers who have to mine it). It is also often contaminated with asbestos in the mining process and is suspected to cause problems when ingested. For example, the Japanese prefer rice that has been treated with talc (it’s whiter) and this has been linked to the high rate of stomach cancer in Japan.
Talc is not currently considered food grade by the FDA. Although they were considering setting upper limits for asbestos fibers and adding it to the GRAS list way back in 1979, I couldn’t find whether any upper limits have yet been set. (Mind you, the FDA website is pretty impossible to navigate!) But talc is still found in supplements. Yuck!
Dangerous Ingredient #5: Titanium Dioxide
Titanium dioxide is yet another one of the nasty and dangerous ingredients in your vitamins or supplements; it is used as a colorant (it’s also used in many cosmetics). Titanium dioxide has a raft of health implications.
Titanium dioxide has been shown to cause lung inflammation and damage, so it’s yet another substance that has impact on workers at the production level. It has also been implicated in immune system function, with some studies showing DNA damage by Titanium dioxide nanoparticles, albeit marginal damage. Just a wee bit of DNA damage with your vitamins.
Taken internally, it has been shown to cause kidney damage in mice and to induce small intestine inflammation. This is scary considering how many people suffering from Chrohn’s and gluten sensitivity are probably taking supplements containing Titanium dioxide.
Yet again, our health is risked so our vitamins can be a pretty color. Very disturbing. Avoid it.
The big picture solution is to have an FDA that actually prevents toxic materials getting into our food supply (and dietary supplements are a part of that food supply). But since that seems unlikely any time soon, we have to take matters into our own hands:
- The best solution: Eat certified organic whole foods and take food-based supplements that are tested for heavy metal contamination.
- Read labels. If you spot any of these nasties in vitamins, take a photo of the label and Tweet it. Tag the manufacturer and store where you found it.
- Go post your photo on the manufacturer’s Facebook page asking why those toxic ingredients are there.
- Start a petition to get these ingredients out of our food supply.
- Write to the FDA asking that they follow the same cautions as Europe, such as their warning labels on foods containing artificial coloring.
- Research these ingredients at pubmed.com (the National Institute of Health) so you can answer anyone who comments (ignorantly) that these things must be safe if they’re in our food and not banned.
- Buy M&Ms in Europe
If we all kick up a bit of a ruckus, manufacturers will take these dangerous ingredients out.
Now that you’re aware of all these nasty ingredients in your supplements, go check your cupboard and let us know if you find anything scary!
Editors Note: This blog post was originally published in May 2014 and has been updated for accuracy. (December 2016)
Disclosure of Material Connection: I am the CIO of American College of Healthcare Sciences, the Institution that publishes this blog. However, all opinions are my own. This blog may contain affiliate links. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.
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