Too much of anything is never good

April 29, 2008

By Dr. Norman Brown
UTU Medical Consultant

I occasionally try to get a patient to “lighten up” about some aspect of his or her health by explaining, with a smile, that I spend half of my time encouraging patients to do something, and the other half of my time encouraging them not to do something else.

This split-personality approach especially applies to items we put into our mouths day in and day out. Take your vitamins. Don’t use Chinese toothpaste (which was found to contain traces of diethylene glycol, which more properly goes into your car’s radiator.)

What is a vitamin, anyway? We humans manufacture our energy and internal- construction needs from our diets — namely, carbohydrates, proteins and fats. However, in addition, we also need some 11 particular chemical molecules, which we are unable to make ourselves. These molecules are called vitamins, and if any of us go long enough without just one of these, a specific disease will develop.

Problems with our skin, bone, vision and blood production are just a few examples of vitamin-deficiency diseases. But these deficiency diseases are downright rare in the U.S., with so much good food available, often with vitamins added.

A broad diet, including fruits and vegetables, will include these vitamins most of the time. But, just to be sure, a daily multiple vitamin will more than cover our daily needs.

So, if a daily vitamin were good for us, wouldn’t two be better than one — or, maybe three? Current thinking is, “no.” Extra vitamins probably do not change our internal chemistry for the better — and, a few vitamins, those soluble in fat such as A, D, E and K, when taken in excess, can build up and hurt us.

Admittedly, there are a few uncommon conditions leading to poor absorption of a normal amount of a vitamin — B-12 would be an example — but, do I dare say it: ask your doctor if you are such a person.

Nutritional supplements have grown in popularity in America in recent years. There is a lot of advertising out there recommending supplements for improved strength, losing weight, better sex life and on and on.

How does one choose to take such products, or stay away from them?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with the responsibility of watching for harmful substances in these products, but it cannot cover the huge number of them, so please: if you do take one, study the labels and consider primarily reputable companies.

Imported products, especially herbs, may contain unknown ingredients, so be extra careful. Not long ago, I saw a woman complaining of abdominal pain. Her liver tests were abnormal. When she stopped taking an imported Chinese herb preparation, the symptoms and the liver tests resolved.

What do I do myself? Aw, come on. I don’t have to tell you, do I, really? Okay, okay: I take one daily multi-vitamin when my wife puts it on my place mat. She buys them with her own money.