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Supplement Toxicity: What It Is And How To Avoid It

Posted on January 11, 2023 by Henry Ford Health Staff
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The cold winter months are prime time for colds and flu. To ensure coughs and sniffles don’t sidetrack you for weeks, you might try to bolster your immune system by loading up on vitamins and minerals.

“Unfortunately, what many people don’t realize is that you can get too much of a good thing, particularly if you’re taking high doses of certain nutrients on top of fortified foods,” says Sarah Hutchinson, RDN, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health.

What Are The Consequences Of Over-Supplementation?

At the peak of COVID-19, doctors often recommended using supplements such as zinc to help ward off illness. And while supplements are helpful if you’re deficient in specific nutrients, such as vitamin D and zinc, taking too much or misusing supplements can negatively affect your body. Two of the most common concerns:

  • Nutrient imbalances: Certain nutrients, especially minerals, compete for absorption in the body. For example, taking calcium decreases the body’s ability to absorb iron. So taking calcium and iron together compromises the effectiveness of both.
  • Nutrient toxicities: “Certain supplements, especially the fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K, can produce toxicities in the body,” Hutchinson says. For example, too much vitamin E can lead to blood thinning and too much vitamin A can cause liver problems.

How To Avoid Vitamin And Mineral Toxicity

By design, supplements are intended to replace (supplement) the vitamins and minerals that you’re not getting from dietary sources. For example, many people are deficient in vitamin D, since it’s a tough nutrient to get from food alone.

“But taking supplements on top of eating fortified cereals, protein shakes and energy bars can cause problems,” Hutchinson says. The good news: It’s easy to avoid dangerous supplement toxicities with these three strategies:

  1. Pay attention to daily values. Many of today’s preferred foods boast more than 100% of the recommended dietary allowance for select vitamins and minerals. If you’re eating those foods, back off the supplements.
  2. Read labels. Herbal products, even herbal teas, often contain vitamins and minerals. “Many people take elderberry supplements during cold and flu season, and some of these products contain high levels of zinc,” Hutchinson says. Overdoing it on zinc, or any other nutrient, could have unintended downstream consequences.
  3. Supplement only for deficiencies. Supplements are meant to fill the gaps of a diet that is lacking in specific nutrients. If you know you’re deficient in vitamin D, for example, or if you’re struggling to get enough calcium after menopause to support your bones, work with your doctor to determine which supplements, and at what doses, are right for you.

Supplement Safely

Vitamin and mineral deficiency is a very real concern, particularly during certain stages of life, such as pregnancy and old age. But the vast majority of people get most of the nutrients they need through their diet.

“If you think you’re deficient in a specific nutrient, it’s important to talk to your doctor, or make an appointment with a dietitian rather than self-diagnosing your problem,” Hutchinson says. “It turns out that what may appear to be a vitamin or mineral deficiency could actually be a vitamin toxicity. So it’s always best to get help from a professional.”

In every case, food first is the best prescription for needed nutrients. Still feel the need to pop a supplement? Tell your doctor about everything you’re taking. Many vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements can interact with each other and with medications. And some, can cause other problems, such as muscle weakness and stomach upset.


To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Sarah Hutchinson is a registered dietitian for the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Categories : FeelWell
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