Dr. Saunders writes about everything you always wanted to know about vitamins and supplements (but were afraid to ask).

Too much of a good thing…

Hilda is an 80+ year old woman has a clean bill of health, free of major diseases. She came into my office with a list 2 pages long of vitamins and supplements she was taking. She gets a magazine – or should I say catalog – with promising advertising for long health if you take their supplements.  Turns out, she reads a convincing article each month about a supplement they are promoting with all the reasons why their product is better and why you need it for good health.  Hilda is a willing believer so she buys the recommended supplement almost every month. However, I was interested in how she passes her time each day.

“Either I’m reading about vitamins, buying vitamins, organizing vitamins or taking vitamins.  I take over a hundred pills every day!”

I was shocked at how many vitamins she was taking!  Plus, she didn’t even remember why she was taking certain ones.

Because vitamins and other nutrients are required for life and health, it’s easy to become anxious about which ones to take.

From A to Zinc

A common misconception people have, like Hilda, is to take as many vitamins as you can to be sure you are “covering all the bases.”  In today’s market, there are so many multi-vitamins available that promise to deliver every nutrient, “From A to Zinc.” Then, as Big Pharma convinces us the new and important nutrient we are deficient in and need to perform importance functions in the body, these vitamins or nutrients are added to the multi-vitamin.

For example, the colors of foods were studied for their nutritious value. The yellow and orange colors became known for their carotenes, part of the vitamin A family.  As a result, carotene was added to multi-vitamins.

Now, you can buy the red color of tomatoes or the purple color of berries and grapes as lycopene and xanthenes as supplements. You are led to believe by taking these vitamins you can prevent AMD (age-related macular degeneration) or blindness. So, of course, you are willing to buy these supplements when you learn about their value for your health.

Can vitamins do harm?  Yes, of course.

There are 2 basic forms of vitamins: water-soluble and fat-soluble.

Water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and B-vitamins) are very easily disposed of by the body . When these vitamins are in excess, the kidneys serve there purpose by excreting the surplus before they become toxic.  Some have said that vitamin C in large doses can cause diarrhea, but this is just a secretory diarrhea that happens if it isn’t fully absorbed in the small intestines – when the acid (ascorbic acid) gets in the colon it gets expelled quickly.

Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and K), however, can become toxic in excess because they are stored in the liver or the fat. For example, arctic animals contain surplus vitamin A in their liver and those who have eaten their livers have died from vitamin A toxicity.

The correct approach to taking vitamins is balance

Vitamins contain a wide spectrum of compounds that vary in function and composition. Each one of these compounds have the power to prevent deficiency disease, but to be healthy you require all of these.  For example,

  • Vitamin E is a beautiful spectrum of alpha, beta and gama tocopherols, as well as a series of tocotrienes.  It is NOT the synthetic form of dl-alpha-tocopherol manufactured for supplements.Vitamin E from whole foods will have the best variety and combination of the truest and purest forms best for your health.
  • Vitamin A is also a wonderful combination of carotenoids and retinoids.  But, it is NOT the chemically enhanced retinoic acid taken in supplement form.  Again, the best form of vitamin A should be ingested by whole foods.
  • Vitamin C isn’t just ascorbic acid, but rather this chemical with a group of flavanoids to potentiate it.

The complex compounds found in vitamins benefit our health are best found in natural forms.

Vitamin Overdose vs. Vitamin Balance

Smokers in Scandinavia participated in a study  where half took large amounts of beta-carotene in supplement form. Unfortunately, the study found that beta-carotene in large amounts increased the probability of lung cancer.

The results were so shocking that the same study was repeated – with the same horrifying results.

It is hard to determine all the possible reasons of such an outcome, but let me present some options:

  1. Synthetic forms of beta-carotene upset the natural vitamin A balance.
  2. Taking large amounts of beta-carotene doesn’t replicate the natural benefits of carotenoids and retinoids of vitamin A found in whole foods.
  3. Beta-carotene isn’t a major anti-oxidant in the lungs.

This study confirms that taking large amounts of a single form of vitamin supplement – practical overdosing – is harmful to your body.

This begs the question: should we take one of each vitamin like Hilda? (I hope you are not spending all day on your pills like she does!)


Let me tell you a good-better-best vitamin situation.

  • It’s good to take vitamins.
  • It’s better to take natural vitamins.
  • But it’s best to get your vitamins by eating good whole foods.

Taking a nutrient in a pill form should be reserved for a specific need, such as an illness, deficiency, or condition that requires it, or for prevention of specific illnesses or disease.


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Dr. Scott Saunders is the Health and Nutrition Advisor of Barton Publishing, a company that promotes natural health through teaching people how to cure themselves using alternative home remedies instead of expensive and harmful prescription drugs. Saunders is the director of The Integrative Medicine Center of Santa Barbara, which balances conventional medicine witfh alternative healing modalities to achieve optimal wellness.