Vitamin toxicity is a condition in which a person develops symptoms as side effects from taking massive doses of vitamins. Vitamins vary in the amounts that are required to cause toxicity and in the specific symptoms that result. Vitamin toxicity, which is also called hypervitaminosis or vitamin poisoning, is becoming more common in developed countries because of the popularity of vitamin supplements. Many people treat themselves for minor illnesses with large doses (megadoses) of vitamins.
Vitamins are organic molecules in food that are needed in small amounts for growth, reproduction, and the maintenance of good health. Some vitamins can be dissolved in oil or melted fat. These fat-soluble vitamins include vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin A (retinol), and vitamin K. Other vitamins can be dissolved in water. These water-soluble vitamins include folate (folic acid), vitamin B12, biotin, vitamin B6, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, and vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Taking too much of any vitamin can produce a toxic effect. Vitamin A and vitamin D are the most likely to produce hypervitaminosis in large doses, while riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin, and vitamin C appear to be the least likely to cause problems.
Vitamins in medical treatment
Vitamin supplements are used for the treatment of various diseases or for reducing the risk of certain diseases. For example, moderate supplements of folic acid appear to reduce the risk for certain birth defects (neural tube defects), and possibly reduce the risk of cancer. Therapy for diseases brings with it the risk for irreversible vitamin toxicity only in the case of vitamin D. This vitamin is toxic at levels which are only moderately greater than the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). Niacin is commonly used as a drug for the treatment of heart disease. Niacin is far less toxic than vitamin D. Vitamin toxicity is not a risk with medically supervised therapy using any of the other vitamins.
With the exception of folic acid supplements, the practice of taking vitamin supplements by healthy individuals has little or no relation to good health. Most adults in the United States can obtain enough vitamins by eating a well-balanced diet. It has, however, become increasingly common for people to take vitamins at levels far greater than the RDA. These high levels are sometimes called vitamin megadoses. Megadoses are harmless for most vitamins. But in the cases of a few of the vitamins—specifically vitamin D, vitamin A, and vitamin B6—megadoses can be harmful or fatal. Researchers have also started to look more closely at megadoses of vitamin C and of vitamin E, since indirect evidence suggests that these two vitamins may reduce the risks of cancer, heart disease, and aging. It is not yet clear whether megadoses of either of these vitamins has any influence on health. Some experts think that megadoses of vitamin C may protect people from cancer. On the other hand, other researchers have gathered indirect evidence that vitamin C megadoses may cause cancer.
Causes and symptoms
VITAMIN D. Vitamin D and vitamin A are the most toxic of the fat-soluble vitamins. The symptoms of vitamin D toxicity are nausea, vomiting, pain in the joints, and loss of appetite. The patient may experience constipation alternating with diarrhea, or have tingling sensations in the mouth. The toxic dose of vitamin D depends on its frequency. In infants, a single dose of 15 mg or greater may be toxic, but it is also the case that daily doses of 1.0 mg over a prolonged period may be toxic. In adults, a daily dose of 1.0-2.0 mg of vitamin D is toxic when consumed for a prolonged period. A single dose of about 50 mg or greater is toxic for adults. The immediate effect of an overdose of vitamin D is abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting. Toxic doses of vitamin D taken over a prolonged period of time result in irreversible deposits of calcium crystals in the soft tissues of the body that may damage the heart, lungs, and kidneys.
VITAMIN A. Vitamin A toxicity can occur with long-term consumption of 20 mg of retinol or more per day. The symptoms of vitamin A overdosing include accumulation of water in the brain (hydrocephalus), vomiting, tiredness, constipation, bone pain, and severe headaches. The skin may acquire a rough and dry appearance, with hair loss and brittle nails. Vitamin A toxicity is a special issue during pregnancy. Expectant mothers who take 10 mg vitamin A or more on a daily basis may have an infant with birth defects. These birth defects include abnormalities of the face, nervous system, heart, and thymus gland. It is possible to take in toxic levels of vitamin A by eating large quantities of certain foods. For example, about 30 grams of beef liver, 500 grams of eggs, or 2,500 grams of mackerel would supply 10 mg of retinol. The livers of polar bears and other arctic animals may contain especially high levels of vitamin A.
VITAMIN E. Megadoses of vitamin E may produce headaches, tiredness, double vision, and diarrhea in humans. Studies with animals fed large doses of vitamin E have revealed that this vitamin may interfere with the absorption of other fat-soluble vitamins. The term absorption means the transfer of the vitamin from the gut into the bloodstream. Thus, large doses of vitamin E consumed over many weeks or months might result in deficiencies of vitamin D, vitamin A, and vitamin K.
VITAMIN K. Prolonged consumption of megadoses of vitamin K (menadione) results in anemia, which is a reduced level of red blood cells in the bloodstream. When large doses of menadione are given to infants, they result in the deposit of pigments in the brain, nerve damage, the destruction of red blood cells (hemolysis), and death. A daily injection of 10 mg of menadione into an infant for three days can kill the child. This tragic fact was discovered during the early days of vitamin research, when newborn infants were injected with menadione to prevent a disease known as hemorrhagic disease of the newborn. Today a different form of vitamin K is used to protect infants against this disease.
FOLATE. Folate occurs in various forms in food. There are over a dozen related forms of folate. The folate in oral vitamin supplements occurs in only one form, however—folic acid. Large doses of folic acid (20 grams/day) can result in eventual kidney damage. Folate is considered, however, to be relatively nontoxic, except in cases where folate supplementation can lead to pernicious anemia.
VITAMIN B12. Vitamin B12 is important in the treatment of pernicious anemia. Pernicious anemia is more common among middle-aged and older adults; it is usually detected in patients between the ages of 40 and 80. The disease affects about 0.1% of all persons in the general population in the United States, and about 3% of the elderly population. Pernicious anemia is treated with large doses of vitamin B12. Typically, 0.1 mg of the vitamin is injected each week until the symptoms of pernicious anemia disappear. The patient then takes oral doses of vitamin B12 for the rest of his or her life. Although vitamin B12 toxicity is not an issue for patients being treated for pernicious anemia, treatment of these patients with folic acid may cause problems. Specifically, pernicious anemia is often first detected because the patient feels weak or tired. If the anemia is not treated, the patient may suffer irreversible nerve damage. The problem with folic acid supplements is that the folic acid treatment prevents the anemia from developing, but allows the eventual nerve damage to occur.
VITAMIN B6. Vitamin B6 is clearly toxic at doses about 1000 times the RDA. Daily doses of 2-5 grams of one specific form of this vitamin can produce difficulty in walking and tingling sensations in the legs and soles of the feet. Continued megadoses of vitamin B6 result in further unsteadiness, difficulty in handling small objects, and numbness in the hands. When the high doses are stopped, recovery begins after two months. Complete recovery may take two to three years.
VITAMIN C. The RDA for vitamin C in adults is 60 mg per day. Large doses of vitamin C are considered to be toxic in persons with a family history of or tendency to form kidney stones or gallbladder stones. Kidney and gallbladder stones usually consist of calcium oxalate. Oxalate occurs in high concentrations in foods such as cocoa, chocolate, rhubarb, and spinach. A fraction of the vitamin C in the body is normally broken down in the body to produce oxalate. A daily supplement of 3.0 grams of vitamin C has been found to double the level of oxalate that passes through the kidneys and is excreted into the urine.
NIACIN. The RDA for niacin is 15-19 mg per day in adults. Niacin comes in two forms, nicotinic acid and nicotinamide. Either form can satisfy the adult requirement for this vitamin. Nicotinic acid, however, is toxic at levels of 100 times the RDA. It can cause flushing of the skin, nausea, diarrhea, and liver damage. Flushing is an increase in blood passing through the veins in the skin, due to the dilation of arteries passing through deeper parts of the face or other parts of the body. In spite of the side effects, however, large doses of nicotinic acid are often used to lower blood cholesterol in order to prevent heart disease. Nicotinic acid results in a lowering of LDL-cholesterol ("bad cholesterol"), an increase in HDL-cholesterol ("good cholesterol"), and a decrease in plasma triglycerides. Treatment involves daily doses of 1.5-4.0 grams of nicotinic acid per day. Flushing of the skin occurs as a side effect when nicotinic acid therapy is started, but may disappear with continued therapy.
The diagnosis of vitamin toxicity is usually made on the basis of the patient's dietary or medical history. Questioning the patient about the use of vitamin supplements may shed light on some of his or her physical symptoms. With some vitamins, the doctor can confirm the diagnosis by ordering blood or urine tests for specific vitamins. When large amounts of the water-soluble vitamins are consumed, a large fraction of the vitamin is absorbed into the bloodstream and promptly excreted into the urine. The fat-soluble vitamins are more likely to be absorbed into the bloodstream and deposited in the fat and other tissues. In the cases of both water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins, any vitamin not absorbed by the intestines is excreted in the feces. Megadoses of many of the vitamins produce diarrhea, because the non-absorbed nutrient draws water out of the body and into the gut, resulting in the loss of this water from the body.
In all cases, treatment of vitamin toxicity requires discontinuing vitamin supplements. Vitamin D toxicity needs additional action to reduce the calcium levels in the bloodstream because it can cause abnormally high levels of plasma calcium (hypercalcemia). Severe hypercalcemia is a medical emergency and may be treated by infusing a solution of 0.9% sodium chloride into the patient's bloodstream. The infusion consists of two to three liters of salt water given over a period of one to two days.
The prognosis for reversing vitamin toxicity is excellent for most patients. Side effects usually go away as soon as overdoses are stopped. The exceptions are severe vitamin D toxicity, severe vitamin A toxicity, and severe vitamin B6 toxicity. Too much vitamin D leads to deposits of calcium salts in the soft tissue of the body, which cannot be reversed. Birth defects due to vitamin A toxicity cannot be reversed. Damage to the nervous system caused by megadoses of vitamin B6 can be reversed, but complete reversal may require a recovery period of over a year.
Vitamin toxicity can be prevented by minimizing the use of vitamin supplements. If vitamin D supplements are being used on a doctor's orders, vitamin toxicity can be prevented by monitoring the levels of plasma calcium. The development of hypercalcemia with vitamin D treatment indicates that the patient is at risk for vitamin D toxicity.
Brody, Tom. Nutritional Biochemistry. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998.
Absorption — The transfer of a vitamin from the digestive tract to the bloodstream.
Ascorbic acid — Another name for vitamin C.
Hypercalcemia — Hypercalcemia is a condition marked by abnormally high levels of calcium in the blood. It is an issue during vitamin D toxicity.
Hypervitaminosis — Another name for vitamin toxicity.
Megadose — A very large dose of a vitamin, taken by some people as a form of self-medication.
Menadione — A synthetic form of vitamin K. It is sometimes called vitamin K3.
Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) — The recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) are the quantities of nutrients in the diet that are needed for good health. RDAs are established by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences and may be revised every few years.
Retinol — Another name for vitamin A.