After several bouts of cold and fever, 32-year-old Shalini Ravindranath learnt that her immunity level was very low Doc- tors asked her to up her intake of Vitamin C help her cope with her repeated illnesses.
She did exactly that. A year later when the shivering and sneezing continued, Shalini couldn't figure out why she felt constantly nauseous and had an upset tummy "Little did I know that I was not supposed to take that prescribed dosage of Vitamin C for an entire yeal: instead of just three months," she says.
"My doctor asked me to stop taking it immediately and get on to a balanced diet." Graphic designer Abhinav Murthy faced a similar experience when he broke out into a severe case of adult acne. He decided to selfmedicate and began popping VitaminE for almost six months.
While his skin did get better, his eyesight seemed to be getting weaker "It was not until that my vision started getting blurry and I had a constant headache that I thought I should get my eyes checked," he says.
A visit to the doctor revealed that he had been overdosing on Vitamin E. While the recommended dosage was 500 milligrams a week, Abhinav had been popping the same everyday "I was shocked to realise that vitamins could actually do damage," he says.
"And if there's one thing that I have learnt, it's not to self-medicate." We all pop multivitamins often. We drink that extra glass of orange juice and even massage vitamin oils into our skin. So where exactly did Shalini and Abhinav go wrong?
Food for thought
"Too much of anything is bad news. And the same holds for vitamins as well," says nutritionist Dr Shikha Sharma.
"Supplements and additional doses of vitamins should be limited and not be taken unless under supervision as they can have side effects that range from liver malfunetions, joint pains to severe diarrhoea."
She goes on to add that only under three circumstances should you increase your intake of vitamin through supplements:
1) If you're pregnant, especially if you have low haemoglobin levels.
2) If you've been through a severe illness and your doctor has prescribed certain vitamins for a certain period of time
3) If there is a malnourished child you come across, who does not have access to proper nutrition (this too only under a doctor's supervision)
"For the rest, it's important to eat right and not pop pills as and when you feel like it," adds Dr Sharma.
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and meat are well-known sources of vitamins, but it's the way these vitamins are absorbed in the body that makes the difference.
Vitamins can be divided into two categones: M Fat-soluble vitamins - that includes Vitamins A, D, E and K that are absorbed by the fat tissues and are mostly found in fatty foods and fish-liver oils M Water-soluble vitamins - that includes Vitamins B and C that are not stored in the body and must be replaced everyday.
They can be found in grains, poultry and citrus fruits. While an excess of water soluble vitamins do not do very much damage to the body, an increased intake of fat soluble vitamins can lead to a number of local diseases which include: Vitamin A - Headache, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, liver damage, loss of hair and menstrual irregularities Vitamin D - Weight loss, pallor, constipation, fever, and calcium deposits throughout the body (may be mistaken for cancer), deafness, nausea, kidney stones, fragile bones, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, nausea, diarrhoea and excessive thirst Vitamin E - Weakness, fatigue, exacerbation and hypertension Vitamin K - Can lead to liver enlargement In case of an excess of water soluble vitamins too, there are certain side effects that can expunge all the good they are meant to do.
An excess of Vitamin B leads to transient flushing, headache, cramps, nausea, vomiting, and anorexia while extreme Vitamin C can cause an increase in the uric acid levels, kidney and bladder stones and urinary tract irritation.
"Most vitamins and supplements are easily available over the counter and so they are easy to access," says Bangalore-based nutritionist Dr K R Anandamani.
"But nothing, absolutely nothing can beat the fact that eating natural and whole food is the best and most effective way of allowing your body access to vitamins."
She goes on to add that self-medicating or binging on vitamin pills has a placebo effect. "It's only right to do it if, say, you're travelling and don't have the time to eat right."
While there are a number of studies that insist that a multivitamin a day is essential to fulfil the daily requirement of nutrients, there are newer ones that refute the claim.
A report in the Journal of American Medical Association in February 2007 claimed that taking antioxidant vitamins actually increased a person's risk of dying to up to 16 per cent.
Another research by the University of Washington in 2007 stated that high doses Vitamin E taken over 10 years slightly elevates lung cancer risks in smokers. While doctors in India do not go as far as this, most of them feel that supplements should be taken only if there is a case of bad nutrition. And that the pill-popping culture is purely western. "
As Indians we don't live on a diet of potatoes and bread everyday, so vitamin supplements are hardly needed unless the case is severe," says Dr Sharma.
"Moreover, we do include a lot of green leafy vegetables and fruits in our diet, which keeps our balance intact." Although there may be some people who need more than the standard recommended amounts of certain vitamins, there are a number of ways to get the nutrients.
While there are no perfect diets to follow, doctors definitely feel that there are plenty of options out there for people who want to take just a little bit of care of their health. One things is for certain: getting vitamins from pills is not as effective as getting them from food.