Take your vitamins – while you still can!
Can regular dietary supplement use overstress the liver?
In more specific terms, here’s how an HSI member named Bill put the question in a recent e-mail.
“In the e-Alert ‘Flick of the Wrist’ you mentioned how the liver is a workhorse performing over 400 separate functions per day and the possible overloading by excessive acetaminophen use. Then it occurred to me that I have never seen any article addressing the stress we might place on our livers by taking too many vitamins and supplements. We are constantly being informed of helpful things to take, and over time these add up to a relatively large volume. Could you please address this issue?”
When I put Bill’s question to HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., he started off by describing nutrient supplements as a “luxury” for the body. More to the point, the ways that nutrients affect the body are completely different than the effects of drugs. As Dr. Spreen puts it, the body is actually tricked into putting supplements to use as “super-nutrient-dense food.”
Dr. Spreen: “Of course, it would be better to get those nutrients totally naturally from foods alone. But today’s ‘civilized’ diet of highly processed, unripe-picked, distance-shipped, quick-frozen, ethylene-gassed, pesticide-ridden, herbicide-ridden, hormone-laden, genetically modified (and what-have-you) foods completely assures us that the foods will be deficient and the body’s nutrient needs will be increased to handle the chemical stresses of all the additives that are consumed in the typical diet.
Dr. Spreen explained that the real task actually occurs in the kidneys first, not the liver: “The body throws out everything into the urine (good or bad), then selects back into the bloodstream the things that it would like to actually have on board. That way, it doesn’t have to be programmed to know how to throw away each unique toxin – the body just dumps it all (or tries to, assuming the toxins aren’t so serious as to damage the kidney first); that way it only has to know what ‘the good stuff’ is for reacquisition via the distal tubules of the kidney back into the bloodstream.
“If the ‘smorgasbord’ of nutrients is stacked really high, then the kidney has an easier time of getting higher amounts of nutrients that the body can use to better handle the stresses constantly challenging the body.”
Dr. Spreen told me that when he was in med school, he was taught a narrow concept of supplement usage, in which each supplement supposedly had only one purpose: vitamin C to address scurvy, vitamin D to treat rickets, etc. As you might suspect, he calls this concept “hogwash.”
Dr. Spreen: “When the body is permitted to ‘luxuriate’ in large doses of nutrients, spontaneously picking out whatever amounts it can use, that’s when neat things start to happen. For instance, the vitamin C gets used in forming more collagen (the number one repair protein in the body), and in larger doses starts hyping up the immune system; the B-vitamins, as a complex, start branching out into all sorts of biochemical reactions that they could not adequately participate in before, due to having to prioritize the nutrient use because amounts on hand were inadequate.
“That’s where things get nice for the liver, as it has to work less to get usable amounts of nutrients for better carrying out the needs of the body. At least, that’s my non-biochemist explanation. As I’ve seen from personal experience, the body responds that way when you give the bigger doses, and most problems at least get better.
“So, the bottom line is that nutrients are rarely handled like pharmaceuticals, which by definition are unnatural molecules or they couldn’t be patented and subsequently sold as drugs (for a fortune).”
Dr. Spreen also noted that you can take too much of anything, placing undue stress on the body. But that’s much less likely to happen with natural agents, compared to pharmaceuticals. And he adds: “Of course, you’d still want to check with your health care practitioner before pumping high-dose nutrients into yourself, as each person’s health situation is unique.”