Overuse Of Supplements Can Create Health Risks

The Dietary Supplement Health And Education Act of 1994 made it easier for people to acquire supplements and vitamins from health food stores. But since then there has been a proliferation of various products that are sold as supplements and not as drugs. It may give you the impression that all supplements are harmless, but this is not so. There are some supplements like vitamin A where you need to watch that you are not inadvertently overdosing, as toxicity is a problem; calcium supplements are also potentially toxic, if overdone. And amino acid supplements (protein supplements) can lead to an overdose of brain hormones. Here is a sample of some of the supplements that I would want you to watch.

1.Vitamin A toxicity:

Vitamin A is essential for normal night vision, for red blood cell production in the bone marrow and for the immune system. Here is a brief review about its metabolism. But while small amounts are beneficial for the body, high doses are toxic. In the 19th century the Arctic explorer Elisha Kane reported that consumption of polar bear liver caused severe headaches, drowsiness, irritability and vomiting within a few hours of ingesting it.

It is now known to be due to “pseudotumor cerebri”, a condition that mimics a brain tumor, but is caused by an acute overdose of vitamin A contained in liver (Ref. 1).

In the US where people eat enough meat, fish and dairy products, there is no overt vitamin A deficiency. Read this link to avoid overdosing with vitamin A in multiple supplements.

Overuse Of Supplements Can Create Health Risks

Overuse Of Supplements Can Create Health Risks

2. Vitamin C:

Vitamin C is an important antioxidant vitamin and is needed as a co-factor for many metabolic reactions. It is participating in the production of collagen and connective tissues, helps with fatty acid transport and is necessary for the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain (Ref.2). The lack of vitamin C is known as scurvy; symptoms include bleeding gums from fragile capillaries, delay in wound healing and impaired bone metabolism. Although in the earlier research it was hoped that vitamin C would prevent colds and cure cancer, more recent reevaluations found that it does not prevent you from getting colds, but it accelerates the recovery from colds by cutting down the recovery time by as much as 25 to 30% and it also does have some cancer protective effects (Ref.2). Higher doses seem to be more beneficial, but 1500 mg per day seems to now be the consensus of a reasonable upper dose limit per day.

What about kidney stones? Several studies in the past have warned about vitamin C being broken down in some people into calcium oxalate kidney stones. Here is a brief review of the literature with regard to kidney stone formation. A study regarding the DASH diet, which is used for people with high blood pressure, showed that the incidence of kidney stones is almost half for both men and women compared to controls on a normal North American diet.

There has been a concern among the medical community that vitamin C as a supplement would increase kidney stones (oxalate stones). However a 2014 study showed that when both vitamin C and vitamin E are taken as supplements, the kidney stone formation goes down.

Many inhabitants of industrialized countries including the population in the US and other countries are magnesium deficient and this can be a major factor for forming calcium oxalate stones. But it has been known for decades that those who develop kidney stones excrete more oxalates in their urine (so-called “oxalate excreters”). Here is a 1996 study that measured this in detail.

If you are taking in a lot of green smoothies from green leaf vegetables (spinach, kale, Swiss chard) that are high in water-soluble vitamins, you may not require any vitamin C supplements. In other words, think about what else you do and eat and add it up, so you do not exceed a total of 1500 mg to 2000 mg of vitamin C per day.

If you are taking in a lot of green smoothies from green leaf vegetables (spinach, kale, Swiss chard) that are high in water-soluble vitamins, you may not require any vitamin C supplements. In other words, think about what else you do and eat and add it up, so you do not exceed a total of 1500 mg of vitamin C per day.

3. Calcium supplements:

Calcium is a key mineral in the body, important not only for healthy bone structure, but also to balance the electrolytes within the blood, in the extra cellular fluid space and within our cells. If calcium is low, the brain is more prone to seizures and the heart can produce dangerously irregular heart beats. We definitely need a balance of calcium! Because calcium is so central to our wellbeing, several factors work together to keep our calcium levels stable: the kidneys, the thyroid, the parathyroid glands, the adrenal glands, the bone as a reservoir of calcium, the gastrointestinal tract for absorption and a good, balanced nutrition. The chapter on “Vitamins and Minerals” of Ref.3 points out that 4000 mg of calcium per day definitely causes toxicity (hypercalcemia and milk-alkali syndrome).

Absorption is dose dependent meaning that only 500mg of calcium carbonate is absorbed at a time. Vitamin D3 deficiency leads to reduced calcium absorption. But with high doses of vitamin D3, which is now often recommended, more calcium is absorbed, so it is important not to take too many calcium supplements. They can also interfere with iron and zinc absorption and when more than 2600 mg of calcium is taken magnesium absorption is inhibited as well. Calcium can interfere with thyroid hormone supplements (take 4 hours apart) and may reduce the effect of calcium channel blockers, drugs used for angina or high blood pressure.  There is a balance between calcium stored in bone (99% of total body calcium) and the circulating portion of 1% of calcium in the blood. The parathyroid hormone and calcitonin are also involved in this balance. Hypercalcemia is the condition when calcium is too high. Common causes are the improper use of diuretics (thiazide diuretics), overuse of calcium carbonate supplementation (often for osteoporosis) and overuse of vitamin D3, which increases the absorption of calcium (Ref.3). See your family doctor for blood tests and advice what to do in your case.

4. High protein diets and protein (amino acid) supplements:

Many protein supplements are available through health food stores and vitamin stores. The advertisers often state that our food would be substandard and these supplements would help “to regain strength”.  Athletes hope to get stronger muscles from amino acid supplements because they are the building block for protein that builds up muscles. Fact is that no supplements are needed when you eat balanced meals containing meat and fish and you exercise regularly. The protein in your food will be broken down into amino acids and your body metabolizes this into your own protein. Here is a website that reviews the subject of supplementation with amino acids.

It is clear from this that this is a rather complex problem. Vegetarians may require these supplements to replace protein for the missing meat intake. But the rest of us have to guard ourselves against overdosing with too much meat, amino acids supplements or protein supplements.

High protein diets (Atkins diet and others) have been glorified as being helpful for weight loss. But the long-term effect of such diets lead to chronic kidney damage in those with diabetes and high blood pressure as evidenced by protein leakage in the urine (called ”microalbuminuria”, Ref.4).

According to this reference the average protein requirement is 0.6 g of protein/kg body weight/day. This text comments that this would be compatible with the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation for protein intake. For a person weighing 140 lbs. this translates into about 50 grams of protein per day. Here is a website that explains the upper limit of meat intake with the example of an 8-ounce portion of top sirloin steak.

Protein supplements have become very popular, but you need to be careful when you supplement with this that you do not get an overdose of amino acids. Amino acid profiling has been useful for physicians and naturopaths to examine deficiencies in children or adults checking for essential amino acids in the blood.  However, in the industrialized countries such as the US, Canada and others the larger concern is now the overuse of meat in our food (e.g. Atkins-like diets) and protein supplements. The same amino acid screening tests will find several of the ingredients (amino acids) in these protein supplements to be too high. In this case it is imperative to stop the protein supplements to prevent amino acid toxicity.

This study warns that not enough is known how performance-enhancing supplements affect the metabolism of the body. There are discussions that perhaps upper limits for amino acid supplements need to be established:

5. Creatine supplementation:

Other supplements of concern are creatine supplementation in the sports-minded and in athletes who want to build up muscle mass. Creatine is synthesized by the liver form amino acids derived from fish and meat that is broken down into the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. So, there is no shortage, but athletes and sports minded people want to push the envelope and take in additional creatine that helps their energy metabolism (ATP production) in the muscles to increase their performance (Ref. 5) Creatine is vital for the brain, the heart, the kidneys and the eyes (retina). It is a buffer for lactic acid during anaerobic exercise. Some of the side effects are muscle cramps, diarrhea, fluid retention and kidney failure when exposed to high heat and dehydration. There are no long-term studies of the use of creatine supplements, yet some athletes are taking them long-term.


We are tempted by various merchants and infomercials to take in more and more vitamins and supplements including protein and amino acid supplements. But when you eat well-balanced meals, preferably organic food, you already have enough protein, nutrients, calcium, vitamin C and vitamin A contained in food. So you may be inadvertently putting a strain on your kidneys that have to eliminate whatever it is that is too much for your body to take. Your liver may also be quietly working overtime as well. Your brain gets overactive by the surplus of amino acids that are utilized by the brain to make brain hormones. Your system can only take so much; at one point a surplus of supplements will make you sick! So, be vigilant and think about what your regular food intake already provides. Do you really need that supplement or do you already get enough from your food intake? Are you falling for some marketing scheme? Remember, you are the steward of your own health!


1.Shannon: Chapter 69: The Vitamins. Haddad and Winchester’s Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose, 4th ed.© 2007 Saunders

2. Mandell: “Water-Soluble Vitamins”. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 7th ed. © 2009 Churchill Livingstone

3. Rakel: Chapter “Disturbances in Calcium and Phosphate” and chapter entitled “Vitamins and Minerals”. Textbook of Family Medicine, 8th ed. © 2011 Saunders

4. “High Dietary Protein Intake” in “Taal: Brenner and Rector’s The Kidney”, 9th ed. © 2011 Saunders

5. DeLee: DeLee and Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine, 3rd ed. © 2009 Saunders

Last edited April 30, 2014

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From Inflammation To Heart Attacks, Strokes And Arthritis

Have you ever wondered why people who limp from arthritis in their hip also often get heart attacks? And have you ever wondered why people with high blood pressure get strokes and/or heart attacks?

It is not that difficult to understand, although many people do not like to hear the truth.

After the holidays with lots of sweet presents and rich food it is a good time to reflect about the internal connections between our organs.

Let’s follow what foods can do to our system, then you will understand what to do to get out of a trap, where food is not friendly but damaging to your body.

1.    Sugar, omega-6 fatty acids and trans fats enter your system

When you opened the cheap chocolate bars, ate the pastas, the turkey gravy and the ice cream for dessert, your stomach faithfully digested all that food and broke it down into glucose (a simple sugar), omega-6 fatty acids and highly reactive trans fat with free radicals (from deep fried foods, margarine, shortening, pie crusts, cake mixes, frostings and non dairy coffee creamers just to mention a few).  Within ½ hour the sugar molecules from the digested meal will enter your blood stream.

2.    The metabolism sets in

We know from years and years of research that the glucose in the blood triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas, which facilitates absorption of sugar into your liver and muscles where it is stored as glycogen. This is meant to be a storage form of sugar, just in case you do not eat for a few hours, but need energy to burn for your physical activity. When you have saturated the glycogen storage in liver and muscles, your liver metabolizes sugar into fatty acids and triglycerides. There is the transport LDL cholesterol that is supposed to supply the brain and heart with healthy cholesterol for these organs to replace cell membranes. Instead, the LDL cholesterol that is supposed to be balanced by the protective HDL cholesterol gets oxidized from the extra sugar and from the free radicals of the TRANS fats that are now being outlawed by the FDA for exactly that reason. So, the oxidized LDL cholesterol turns into the vicious VDLDL particles, which can be measured as a special blood test by your doctor. The overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids start an internal fire by stimulating the arachidonic acid pathway, which causes inflammation in your arteries, your joints and your immune system.

From Inflammation To Heart Attacks, Strokes And Arthritis

From Inflammation To Heart Attacks, Strokes And Arthritis

3.    The consequences of eating foods which spike your blood sugar levels

The end result is hardening of your arteries and the beginning of arthritis in your joints. Mind you, this does not happen overnight, but when you eat this way decade after decade it takes its toll. Typically in your forties or fifties you will notice some swollen knuckles. Don’t just let this happen. Think that this is a sign that something is festering in you! If you don’t interfere, there could be one wrong move, when you play sports and a meniscal tear in your knee could put an end to the fun. Sure, you will find a reason that the angle of your jump was unfortunate and this was simply enough for your meniscus to tear. But could it be that there were inflammatory changes in your meniscus long before this incident, the meniscal material softened up, dried up because of a lack of proper nourishing synovial fluid? I found when I was in primary care practice that this was what caused the majority of meniscal tears. A normal meniscus does not tear easily, but decades of malnutrition will lead to these hidden changes, where a meniscus can be softened and is prone to damage without a warning.

Arthritis in your joints is similar to the process of what I described regarding meniscal degeneration. An imbalance of the omega-6/omega-3 ratio where people take in 12 to 16 times as much omega-6 fatty acids from processed food compared to omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil or fish consumed, causes inflammation of the joints via the arachidonic acid metabolism.

What about the arteries? It is no secret that many people in their 60’s have suddenly an episode of chest pain that leads to a referral to a cardiologist who will do a heart catheterization. A stent or two may have to be placed because of hardening and narrowing of the coronary arteries. In many trials where people with coronary artery disease were followed laboratory tests showed that these individuals had low 25-hydroxy-vitamin D levels in their blood and the calcium that was meant to make their bones strong, ended up in the arteries. Vitamin K2 is often also missing because of malnutrition.

People with high blood pressure often do not have enough nitric oxide production from their arteries, because they do not eat enough vegetables, they are too sessile and they eat too many sweets and starchy foods. As a result  the liver overproduces triglycerides and fat, and oxidized LDL cholesterol damages the lining of the arteries. Just treating high blood pressure with blood pressure lowering medications will not correct the underlying metabolic disbalance. This is why people who had 2 or three stents for coronary artery hardening will come back 5 or 10 years later and need more stents until they die of a full-blown heart attack. You must stop the underlying metabolic derangement, if you want to prevent further deterioration.

4.    Inflammation takes its toll

But what do the lining of the arteries, the inflamed joints, a degenerative meniscus and heart attacks and strokes have in common? It is the INFLAMMATION that changes the body chemistry. It gets even more complicated, because the extra calories that we consume get stored as visceral fat. This is done automatically when you eat too much sugar and starchy foods as you may have done over the holidays. Remember, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, and our genetic make-up is still the same. So, when the glycogen stores are full, any surplus sugar gets metabolized by the liver into triglycerides, fatty acids and LDL cholesterol and gets stored as body fat. The most active fat is the visceral fat between our guts and around our body organs. This produces interleukins and other inflammatory cytokines that circulate in the blood causing inflammation in all our arteries.

This is the link between the various manifestations of inflammatory conditions in our bodies. We rarely think of all of these various conditions as being linked. We concentrate on each disaster as it strikes, but think that it is only a one-point-in-time event. We do not see the years of abuse of our bodies that have preceded any of these events.

5.    Disaster strikes in different ways

We usually hear about a person who just got a heart attack. Now it is an emergency!  Nobody thinks about the years of inappropriate food intake and the lack of exercise that led up to this heart attack event.

The same is true for a sudden stroke. The patient arrives at the hospital in an ambulance and cannot move one arm and one leg. Initially the patient may be unconscious. There is too much action required by the emergency personnel to ask the question why it had to come to this. The truth though is that the blood vessel deterioration in the brain vessels that led to the stroke have quietly happened years before the acute event.

And then there is the aging 75-year-old man with a stiffening hip and arthritis in the hands. The inflammation has been quietly developing in the synovial membranes of the joints for more than a decade. The patient probably swallowed anti-inflammatory medications for years for arthritis symptoms, which as you guessed has not changed the underlying biochemistry. But now it has come to the point where a total hip replacement is required, just to be able to continue to walk. I have experienced that scenario in the hospital setting many times. Many patients went through the total hip replacement surgery with no problems. But other patients had their total hip replacement done and they developed a heart attack under the general anesthetic, because unbeknown to the orthopedic surgeon the patient also had severe hardening of the arteries that had not shown up on the pre-surgical electrocardiogram. A stress test or a Thallium heart scan when the patient still could exercise would have shown this hidden cardiac condition before the surgery, so that a cardiologist could have addressed this condition before the surgery. After that the total hip replacement would most likely have been uneventful.

6.Prevention is the key

The lesson to be learned from all of this is: prevent these disasters from happening in the first place. Do the following:

1) Good, balanced nutrition

2) Regular exercise.

3) Take vitamins and mineral supplements for bone health.

4) As you age, have your hormones measured and replace what is missing.

5) Avoid toxins. Use detoxification.

6) Avoid junk foods.

I have covered these topics in many blogs before as indicated in the above links.


Health disasters are mostly not accidental, but are rather caused by not paying attention to the silent metabolic changes based on improper nutrition and a lack of exercise, which could also be termed as a lack of prevention. It takes some time, often even some suffering to understand the deeper meaning of what I discussed above (that prevention is much more powerful on the long-term than curative medicine). I speak from experience having worked in the medical field for more than 30 years. Curative medicine will take care of an emergency, but the underlying inflammation and metabolic derangement will persist, if this is not changed through the steps mentioned above. Treat inflammation and LDL oxidation by modifying your lifestyle. Think prevention!

More information on inflammation medicine: https://www.askdrray.com/chronic-inflammation-causes-cancer-heart-attacks-and-more/

Last edited Nov. 7, 2014


Being SAD in Fall (Seasonal Affective Disorders)

Any general practitioner knows that fall and winter are the time when patients come in with a variety of complaints like a lack of energy, problems sleeping, inability to cope with stress, but often there may be non-specific pains like muscle spasm in the back, the shoulders, or indigestion. These symptoms can all be part of seasonal affective disorders (SAD) like depression, the winter blues, often coupled with anxiety.

Emotional health does not fit easily into our health care model. The receptionist will warn the doctor that this is going to be a “difficult” patient. If the doctor has only time for a 5 or 10-minute visit, where only one or two problems can be dealt with, then this does not fit when a patient with SAD has a problem concentrating, falling asleep, and presents with a long list of other complaints. Even 20 minutes or 30 minutes may not be enough to deal with this patient adequately. It is easier to send the patient for tests and to prescribe an antidepressant and a sleeping pill and reschedule for a follow-up appointment. But this likely will result in normal blood tests and investigations, added health care costs, but no solution to the patient’s problem when he  or she simply states “doctor, I feel so sick”.

I thought it would be interesting to review how our emotions can get out of balance and review an integrative approach to SAD.

Definition of SAD

Seasonal depression (also called seasonal affective disorder) occurs during fall (autumn) and winter, but this alternates with no depressive episodes during spring and summer. A person defined to suffer from SAD would have suffered from two major depressive episodes during the past 2 years with no depressive episodes in the intervening seasons of spring and summer (Ref.1). Alternative names for SAD are winter depression and wintertime blues. Typically SAD lasts about 5 months.

Brain hormone disbalance

Around 2002 it was detected that in mice there was a second light sensitive pathway from ganglion cells in the retina that were responsible for circadian hormone rhythms. This was later confirmed to be true also in humans, where photosensitive retinal ganglion cells buried deep in the retina and containing the pigment melanopsin absorb blue light in the visible light spectrum. The electrical signals are sent along the retinohypothalamic tract, so that light from the retina regulates the hormone circadian rhythm (daily hormone fluctuations including the sleep/wake cycle) in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is one of the major hormone centers in the center of the brain. As this publication shows there are minor genetic sequence changes for the retinal photopigment, melanopsin in patients with SAD. This affects about 1 to 2% of the American population. Many more have probably partial defects in the function of this pigment.

Being SAD in Fall (Seasonal Affective Disorders)

Being SAD in Fall (Seasonal Affective Disorders)

Many hormones in our brain experience a circadian rhythm.

When the sun goes down, melatonin is produced making us sleepy. In the morning serotonin production goes up and stays up all day, which normally prevents depression. There are other hormones that cycle during the course of the day. Cortisol is highest in the morning and low in the evening and at night. Growth hormone and prolactin are highest during sleep.

There is a lack of serotonin in the brains of patients with SAD and depression.

Symptoms of SAD

A person affected by SAD or any other patient with ordinary depression will present with symptoms of lack of energy, with tearfulness, negative thought patterns, sleep disturbances, lack of appetite and weight loss and possible suicidal thoughts. On the other hand symptoms may be more atypical presenting with irritability and overindulging in food with weight gain. Some patients somaticize as already mentioned in the beginning of this review experiencing a multitude of functional symptoms without any demonstrable underlying disease. It is estimated that up to 30 to 40% of patients attending a general practitioner’s office have some form of depression and in the fall and winter season a large percentage of them are due to SAD.

Treatment approaches to SAD

There are several natural approaches to SAD. However, before deciding to go this route, a psychiatrist should assess the patient to determine the risk for suicide. When a patient is not suicidal, light therapy can be utilized.

1. Light therapy: According to Ref. 2 a light box from Sun Box or Northern Light Technologies should be used for 30 minutes every morning during the fall and winter months. The box should emit at least 10,000 lux. Improvement can occur within 2 to 4 days of starting light therapy, but often takes up to 4 weeks to reach its full benefit (Ref.2).

2. Exercise reduces the amount of depression. The more exercise is done the less depression remains. A regular gym workout, dancing, walking, aerobics and involvement in sports are all useful.

3. Folate and vitamin B12: Up to 1/3 of depressed people have folate deficiency. Supplementation with 400 mcg to 1 mg of folic acid is recommended. Vitamin B12 should also be taken to not mask a B12 deficiency (Ref.3). Folate and vitamin B12 are methyl donors for several brain neuropeptides.

4. Vitamin D3 supplementation: A large Dutch study showed that a high percentage of depressed patients above the age of 65 were deficient for vitamin D3. Supplementation with vitamin D3 is recommended. (Ref.3). Take 3000 to 4000 IU per day, particularly during the winter time.

5. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been found useful for minor to moderate depression. It is superior in terms of having fewer side effects than standard antidepressant therapy (Ref.3).

6. Standard antidepressants (bupropion, fluoxetine, sertraline and paroxetine) are the treatment of choice by psychiatrists and treating physicians when a faster onset of the antidepressant effect is needed (Ref.3).

7. Electro acupuncture has been shown in many studies to be effective in ameliorating the symptoms of depression and seems to work through the release of neurotransmitters in the brain (Ref.4).

8. A balanced nutrition (Mediterranean type diet) including multiple vitamins and supplements (particularly the vitamin B group and omega-3 fatty acids) also stabilize a person’s mood (Ref.3). Pay particular attention to hidden sugar intake, as sugar consumption is responsible for a lot of depression found in the general population.

9. Restore sleep deprivation by adding melatonin 3 to 6 mg at bedtime. This helps also to restore the circadian hormone rhythm.


Seasonal affective disorder is triggered by a lack of light exposure in a sensitive subpopulation. An integrative approach as described can reduce the amount of antidepressants that would have been used in the past in treating this condition. This will reduce the amount of side effects. The use of a light box can reduce the symptoms of this type of depression within a few days. But the addition of electro acupuncture and St. John’s Wort may be all that is required for treatment of many SAD cases. Regular exercise and a balanced nutrition (with no sugar) and including vitamin supplements complete this treatment. If the depression gets worse, seek the advice of a psychiatrist and make sure your doctor has ordered thyroid tests and hormone tests to rule out other causes where depression is merely a secondary symptom.

More information on depression: http://nethealthbook.com/mental-illness-mental-disorders/mood-disorders/depression/


  1. Ferri: Ferri’s Clinical Advisor 2014, 1st ed. © 2013 Mosby.
  2. Cleveland Clinic: Current Clinical Medicine, 2nd ed. © 2010 Saunders.
  3. Rakel: Integrative Medicine, 3rd ed. © 2012 Saunders.
  4. George A. Ulett, M.D., Ph.D. and SongPing Han, B.M., Ph.D.: “The Biology of Acupuncture”, copyright 2002, Warren H. Green Inc., Saint Louis, Missouri, 63132 USA

Last edited Nov. 7, 2014