23rd December 2014
What is intravenous (IV) vitamin therapy?
Receiving vitamins intravenously has become an increasingly popular trend, especially among celebrities. Intravenous (IV) vitamin therapy is a method of administering vitamins and minerals directly into the bloodstream. ‘Alternative therapy’ clinics recommend this for a wide range of conditions including cancer, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asthma, fibromyalgia (widespread pain), chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, hepatitis, depression, Parkinson’s disease and macular degeneration. Some clinics also claim vitamin injections boost energy levels and stimulate the immune system, as well as helping with stress, jetlag and sleep problems. The providers of these injections apparently customise the formula of vitamins depending on the needs of the patient. But a popular formula is the ‘Myer’s Cocktail’ which consists of high doses of magnesium (not a vitamin), B vitamins and vitamin C, and is purported to treat a wide range of clinical conditions, from acute asthma attacks to cardiovascular disease. The clinics inform their clients that: “By directly administering nutrients to the body higher than normal blood levels can be achieved. These increased levels can provide an immediate therapeutic response by correcting deficiencies that may arise from a disease state.” (The Rothfield Center 2014).
The important point to emphasise is that there have been no clinical studies to show that vitamin injections of this type offer any health benefit or are necessary for good health, therefore the short- or long-term impact on health is unknown. If someone’s nutrient status is inadequate in a number of respects, this often points to an inappropriate overall diet, which should be the starting point. With a few exceptions mentioned below, for the vast majority the quantities of vitamins and minerals needed for good health can be provided by a healthy diet that comprises a wide range of foods and food groups. However, some population groups may in some situations benefit from a supplement of modest amounts of specific nutrients. Examples include pregnant women, or those trying to conceive, who are recommended to take 400 µg /day of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects; children under 5 who are recommended to take vitamins A, C and D; and the over 65s who are recommended to take 10 µg/day of vitamin D. Such supplements are always given orally.
Does it have any health benefits?
Vitamins and minerals are naturally found in food and are generally consumed alongside other nutrients in a food matrix. The matrix can influence the extent of the nutrients’ absorption, both positively and negatively. In a healthy individual, the digestion and absorption of food is finely regulated to release nutrients into the bloodstream from the gut and from the liver. If nutrients bypass this process and enter directly into the bloodstream in high doses, this could potentially cause harm and to date the medium- and long-term effects are unknown. In an alternative therapy journal, Alternative Medicine Review, IV nutrient therapy has been reported to be more effective and better tolerated than conventional medical therapies for conditions such as asthma attacks, migraines, fatigue (including chronic fatigue syndrome), fibromyalgia, acute muscle spasm, upper respiratory tract infections, chronic sinusitis, seasonal allergic rhinitis, cardiovascular disease and other disorders; however this is based on anecdotal evidence (Gaby 2002). To date there is no robust evidence from human clinical trials showing any positive health effects,. Indeed, the only published trial on their use (in fibromyalgia) showed no benefit. So people buying these injections should do so with caution and moreover they may well be wasting their money. All the excess vitamins will be excreted in the urine.
Intravenous nutrients are used in hospitals for patients who are too sick to eat or in the treatment of a severe nutrient deficiency involving a particular nutrient. The requirement for such infusions and the amount given needs to be carefully assessed and monitored by use of appropriate blood tests. In these instances nutrient injections are vital to help keep people alive or to correct the adverse effects of deficiencies.
Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia, which is purported to be treated or prevented by intravenous infusions, is usually treated with intramuscular ( not intravenous) injections of vitamin B12 (NHS Choices 2014). Intravenous therapy is unnecessary.
Are there any risks?
It is well established that vitamins and minerals can be harmful in excess, especially fat soluble vitamins that are stored rather than excreted by the body. For example, large amounts of vitamin A can cause liver and bone damage and at very high doses vitamin E may interfere with the absorption of other vitamins. Also of concern is that the clinics providing these injections don’t have access to their clients’ medical records so they would be unaware of any pre-existing conditions that may be adversely affected by these injections or any other contraindications. People using IV vitamin therapy could be unknowingly receiving excess nutrients which could have health implications, particularly if someone were to have these intravenous nutrient injections on a regular basis. It is possible to have ‘too much of a good thing’ and it is for this reason, that safe levels for oral intake of vitamins and minerals have been established, which take into account the proportion that is absorbed, recognising that this can vary between individuals. However, it is known that some people cope with excess nutrients less well than others- for example, excess iron can be stored with subsequent adverse effects in a condition known as haemochromatosis. Compared to the dietary route, far less is known about appropriate dose levels or combinations and about the potential toxic effects if the gut is bypassed.
Injecting anything into the blood stream also comes with risks such as ‘air bubbles’ in the syringe that can transfer to the blood stream, allergic reactions and infection, which are more likely to occur if the person administering the injection is not properly qualified. At present, there are no regulatory processes governing safety in such clinics. Vitamins should only be administered via the veins by qualified health professionals, to people who are too ill to feed themselves or those that have been diagnosed by their GP or medical specialist as having severe (typically single nutrient) nutritional deficiencies.
Gaby AR (2002) Intravenous Nutrient Therapy: the “Myers’ Cocktail”. Alternative Medicine Review 7 (5): 389 – 403
NHS Choices (2014) Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia – Treatment. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Anaemia-vitamin-B12-and-folate-deficiency/Pages/Treatment.aspx
The Rothfield Centre (2014) IV Nutrient Infusion Therapy. Available at: http://rothfeldcenter.com/about/vitamin-infusion-therapy/