What's the best way to take your vitamins: IV, pills or just eat healthy food?
Posted March 1
Updated March 2
Grammy Award winner Adele says she gets some of her sparkle from an infusion of vitamins delivered through an IV. Intravenous vitamins are a relatively new twist in America's love affair with nutritional supplements, but are they any different from those that come in a bottle?
Probably not, some health experts are saying, and others say we don't need supplements at all. But that's not stopping Adele and other celebrities from submitting to the needle, turning IV vitamins into the latest wellness trend by their glittering example.
The appeal of IV vitamins is that of other supplements: the promise of beauty, health and zest, delivered faster than food, absorbed more fully than a pill.
In recent years, however, the Food and Drug Administration has warned that a vitamin C solution administered by IV is not a high-tech vitamin, but an unapproved drug that can be dangerous. And it's definitely not for children. Here's what you and your family should know about the craze.
A drip of wellness?
The Hollywood Reporter says that Adele, the British singer who swept the Grammy Awards in February, goes to a wellness spa in Los Angeles that charges $220 for an IV energy infusion called "Limitless." The spa — Drip Doctors — and others that offer vitamin infusions say that 95 percent of liquid vitamins injected into a vein are absorbed into the body, compared to 20 percent of vitamins taken orally.
There's something to this reasoning, but for increased absorption, you don't have to use an IV. Taking vitamins or medicine in liquid form makes them available to the body faster than taking a pill, which has to be broken down by the body.
A person who gets vitamins by IV, however, risks complications ranging from dizziness, nausea or death if the dosing is wrong, Kathryn Romeyn wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, which is why it's important that the drip be administered by a doctor. Even in hospitals, one in five patients hooked to an IV suffered complications or died because of "inappropriate administration," a 2013 British study concluded.
Dr. Svetlana Kogan, a New York physician, told Romeyn that she recommends intravenous vitamins only for people who have an ongoing medical problem such as chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, or if they are frequently sick or need to boost their immune system before traveling.
"People should not be using IV therapy frivolously," Kogan said.
Two board-certified anesthesiologists are part of the staff at The Vitamin Bar, an intravenous vitamin spa with offices in Salt Lake City and Park City. Its website promises 100 percent absorption and says vitamin therapy will leave you with an "overall feeling of health and wellness."
The business recommends that clients have two to four "drips" each month, and offers special formulas for hangovers, jet lag and altitude sickness, as well as pregnancy, skin hydration, memory and hair and nail health. Clients must be 18 or older.
"At the end of a drip, most of our clients say they feel invigorated, full of life, and ready to tackle the rest of their day," The Vitamin Bar website says.
Treatments that cost $139 include "The Hippocrates," for people recovering from "a paper cut or major surgery," and "The Centennial," for people who want to live past 100.
Getting life-boosting fluids from IV lines, despite the current craze, is nothing new. As early as the 1600s, doctors knew that medicine could be injected into the vein, and an Oxford scientist of that time period created an intravenous device using a pig bladder and a quill, and he practiced on a dog that was given opium, according to an article in the British Journal of Anaesthesia.
Today, the IV is the most common procedure done in emergency rooms, with one-quarter of patients receiving IV fluids, according to the CDC. And commercial IV clinics for hydration have been around for several years; one opened in Chicago in 2012, and it was soon followed by at-home IV hydration and mobile IV hydration offered to runners at road races. Runner's World magazine examined the service, and while the article quoted runners who said they felt "amazing" after getting fluid intravenously, the writer cited studies that said the difference between getting an IV and drinking fluid was "negligible."
The company mentioned in the Runner's World article, Onus IV Hydration, is based in Denver, and it credits the late Dr. John Myers, a Baltimore physician, with inventing a nutritious IV cocktail of magnesium, calcium and B and C vitamins 30 years ago. Its treatments range from $65 for simple saline hydration to $145 for Myers' original concoction, said to "supercharge the system and enhance overall wellness."
The treatment can be delivered to your home or office by a nurse with a duffel bag, or, at larger events, in a Mercedes Sprinter van, and the procedure takes 30-45 minutes, with effects felt within an hour. A doctor is not usually present, but is available by phone for questions, the company's website says.
In search of evidence
Critics of nutritional IVs are not just people who raise questions about the risks of the procedures, but those who doubt vitamins and other supplements are useful at all. In an article in STAT, Megan Thielking skeptically examined the Manhattan IV clinic run by Dr. Erika Schwartz and said there isn’t any "robust evidence" that shows infusions have any effect beyond that of a placebo.
Thielking quoted Dr. Pete Miller, a clinician and nutrition researcher at Johns Hopkins, who said, "Supplements don’t fix anything and they don’t prevent anything. It’s simple."
The American Academy of Pediatrics says healthy children who eat a "normal, well-balanced diet" do not need vitamin supplementation and that megadoses can be toxic.
If children are finicky eaters, doctors often recommend a multivitamin, and certain health conditions might require supplements — for example, a new study from the University of Massachusetts Medical School recommends vitamin D supplementation for children with irritable bowel syndrome.
For adults, the advice is similar. In its dietary guidelines, the U.S. Department of Agriculture urges people to get their vitamins through food and beverages, but the Food and Drug Administration says that people may need them if they have health problems, eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Most spas, however, market IV vitamins not to sick people, but to people seeking extreme health.
Schwartz, the author of "Don't Let Your Doctor Kill You," treats celebrities and jet-setters who pay from $325 to $875 for a treatment at her clinic, Evolved Science. Results, the website says, include increased energy, improved mood, diminished jet lag and improved athletic performance.
“We put together the ideal combination for them to obtain the results they want: clearer skin, clearer mind, better hair, better nails,” Schwartz told Thielking.
Another clinic, this one in Los Angeles, offered a special infusion for Valentine's Day, touting its aphrodisiac effects.
For people who don't like shots and needles, or sitting around for a half-hour or more to take their vitamins, there are always gummies, capsules or pills. And an Arizona company has developed vitamins you spray in your mouth.
Or, you could just eat things. As the celebrated food writer Michael Pollan says, for optimal health, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
Water helps, too.