Overdose of vitamin D in supplements can similarly cause kidney stones and kidney damage in severe cases, as well as constipation and nausea in mild situations.”
While the world is waiting for a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, many people have turned to food supplements, aka vitamins, to boost their immune system and help prevent infection.
Several posts on social media promote multivitamins as personal protection against the virus and there are studies that recommend vitamins C and D as a “safe, effective, and low-cost” way of helping the immune system fight the virus.
Having enough vitamins is especially essential for maintaining a healthy immune function and protects against infections. Vitamins are organic compounds that the body requires in small quantities to survive; they are derived from food as the body produces too little of them and doesn’t produce some at all.
The average person gets sufficient vitamins from food; food supplements are prescribed for people who are deficient in vitamins. The 11 most essential vitamins are derived from non-processed foods, especially fruits and vegetables.
But since the advent of the new coronavirus pandemic, people all over the world are seeking to fortify themselves with additional vitamins derived from food supplements. Even those that would ordinarily get enough vitamins by eating fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables are increasingly taking in doses of dietary supplements.
A Covid-19-focused consumer survey released in August by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) shows that more than two in five (43%) of dietary supplement users in America are using them in new ways. Out of this, 91% increased their supplement intake, including adding new supplements to their existing routines (46%); taking the same supplements more regularly (25 percent%); or increasing doses (22%). Similar trends were reported in China, France, and Italy. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is true for Nigerians too.
Medical experts, most of whom do not think healthy people with a normal natural supply of vitamins require food supplements, are worried by the trend. This is because many supplements contain extremely high amounts of vitamins that can cause undesirable side effects and lasting damage to people’s health.
“Vitamin C is generally safe for most people if you get it from foods, instead of supplements,” notes Shola Adebowale, a nutritionist at Edmac Hospital Oshodi. “People that take the vitamin in supplement form are at greater risk of consuming too much of it and experiencing side effects.”
These side effects range from common digestive symptoms to more serious consequences, such as kidney stones. Taking doses of higher-than-recommended vitamin C can increase the amount of oxalate – a bodily waste product – in the kidney, thus increasing the risk of developing kidney stones, studies show.
Overdose of vitamin D in supplements can similarly cause kidney stones and kidney damage in severe cases, as well as constipation and nausea in mild situations. In April, a 54-year-old man was diagnosed with kidney damage due to an excessive dosage of vitamin D supplements. The patient showed increased levels of creatine and calcium in his blood, indicating kidney damage and malfunction.
“There’s nothing like eating good food. Dietary supplements induce renal dysfunction and are too toxic to the kidney. Over time, the kidney will fail,” said Dr. Segun Peters, a medical doctor at Ikoyi-based Lagoon Hospital. “Most of the people being taken in for dialysis have been using supplements, including herbal ones. Many people are walking corpses. The food supplements industry is a billion-dollar industry that’s why it has not fallen under regulation.” He says many studies have found that “overdosing” on vitamin d increases the risk of developing kidney problems.
A pharmacist who wishes to remain anonymous at a neighbourhood pharmacy in Victoria Island confirms that many more people are coming in to buy food supplements.
She is worried that some of these people demand higher strength packs, saying “the higher IU (international units) the better. People walk in and demand high strength vitamins that should be used only when you are suffering from a severe deficiency.”
According to the lady pharmacist, most Nigerians are not aware of the potential harm that concentrated vitamins could do when used for a prolonged period.
She accepts that some multivitamins do some good but have to be used with only medical advice. She cited instances of people using grapeseed extract while also taking hypertension drugs, unaware that it neutralises antihypertensive drugs.
Doctors Against Vitamins
Most of the doctors we spoke to do not believe food supplements do much good except for people who have been medically diagnosed to be suffering from vitamin deficiency.
One of them said about an expensively widely marketed food supplement that claims to have antioxidant properties, “It is a scam. If it does what they say it does, all the tales about it reversing arthritis and back pain, they wouldn’t need to be marketing it so much. The doctors are in on the scam. a lot of doctors have made money.”
“It’s easy to prevent these potential side effects that could land you in the hospital. Just avoid vitamin supplements unless you have a deficiency. But that rarely occurs in healthy people,” Shola Adebowale said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused more than 1.34 million deaths with over 55.6 million cases reported worldwide, according to data compiled by John Hopkins University. As of Saturday, November 21, Nigeria had recorded almost 66,000 infections with more than 1,100 deaths.
Now that a vaccine has hopefully been found, people should at least consult their doctors before ramping up does of multivitamins so that the country does not confront an epidemic of damaged organs after the threat of the new coronavirus recedes.