The Nuance

The Shaky Science of IV Vitamin ‘Drips’

There may be perks, but you’re rolling the dice

Credit: Nicholas Eveleigh/DigitalVision/Getty

Every week, the Nuance will go beyond the basics, offering a deep and researched look at the latest science and expert insights on a buzzed-about health topic.

SSince at least the 1950s, intravenous (IV) vitamin therapy has been a thing. Back then, a New York physician named Max Jacobson — nicknamed “Dr. Feelgood” — famously injected cocktails of B12 and amphetamines into his celebrity clients, including, by many accounts, John F. Kennedy.

Later, during the 1960s and 1970s, a Baltimore doctor named John Myers popularized his “Myers’ cocktail” — an IV-administered combination of magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, and vitamin C — that has since been used to treat everything from migraines and fatigue to fibromyalgia.

Today IV vitamin “drips” seem more popular than ever. Celebrities still dig them (and post about them on social media). And across the U.S., both traditional doctors and complementary medicine practitioners offer a range of IV treatments to their clients. One company called Vitamindrip makes 14 different proprietary concoctions — some of which contain nearly 20 different ingredients — with names like “Libido Enhancer” and “Diet and Detox.” And recently, a New York City wellness center offered clients a “sip and drip brunch” that paired mimosas with IV therapy, served in a “Himalayan Salt Room.”

Why would anyone want an IV hookup when they could get these nutrients from foods or pills? Compared to swallowing vitamins, you achieve much higher blood concentrations with IV drips, says Anitra Carr, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Otago in New Zealand who has studied IV vitamin C therapy for cancer patients. “This is because oral uptake is limited by the intestinal nutrient transporters, which can only take up a certain amount of ingested vitamin,” Carr explains.

While this may seem like a benefit (more vitamins!), it should give you pause.

“With vitamins and micronutrients, you only need a small amount,” says Dr. Zhaoping Li, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. While many people approach vitamin supplementation with a more-equals-better ethos, Li says that’s misguided. Your body has built-in systems to regulate your nutrient intakes and levels — systems you bypass by injecting these nutrients into your blood. And even with things like a daily multivitamin pill or other oral supplements, there’s little evidence that upping your intake does you any good, unless you have a specific deficiency.

“We all want to make ourselves better or healthier, and we all want a shortcut.”

Li says that IV nutrient administration is common in hospitals as a treatment for some medical conditions — like the kind of severe nutrient shortages a person experiences just after gastric bypass surgery. “But in healthy people, there’s really no scientific evidence to prove this has substantial benefits,” she says.

She says the most common nutrients included in consumer IV drips are vitamin B12 and vitamin C, both of which are water soluble. Unlike the major fat-soluble vitamins (those would be A, D, E, and K) which can accumulate in your body and cause problems, “water-soluble vitamins, if you’re taking in too much, your body can get rid of it in the urine,” she explains.

Why are B12 and C used most often?

“People report feeling more energy after a B12 drip,” Li says. But, she adds, there seems to be a large placebo effect associated with these injections. Some experiments have found that people report a surge of energy whether they’re injected with a mixture of B12 and saline water or just with saline water alone.

When it comes to vitamin C, there’s a little more evidence, albeit inconsistent, of a therapeutic effect from IV therapy. “It is primarily used for patients with cancer or severe infections,” Carr says. “These patients have higher requirements for vitamin C, which often cannot be met by oral intakes.” There’s also some evidence that IV vitamin C administration may help treat severe fatigue, she says. “However, healthy adults do not need IV vitamin C administration because their vitamin C status should already be adequate,” she adds.

These uncertain benefits aside, IV therapy may come with considerable risk. “Severe infection or allergic reactions are possible,” Li says. (There are some reports of celebs being hospitalized after having bad reactions to IV drips.)

Li also points out that many commercial IV drips contain untested cocktails of a dozen or more ingredients. While the most likely outcome is that you’ll just pee all this out, no one really knows what taking such high doses — sometimes 1,000 times or more what you’d get form an oral supplement — could do in the long run. A 2017 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology linked long-term B-vitamin supplementation with elevated risk for lung cancer among men. More research has linked beta-carotene supplementation, which your body converts into vitamin A, with an increased risk for some forms of cancer.

Li explains that supplement-makers and vendors — whether they’re selling IV drips, pills, or powders — don’t have to prove their products are safe or effective unless they make claims that they can cure or treat a specific disease. And while each individual vitamin or nutrient included in an IV drip may be approved for medical use, putting a bunch together and injecting them into someone “really is in the gray zone of practicing sound medicine,” she says.

“We all want to make ourselves better or healthier, and we all want a shortcut,” Li adds. But if you’re hooking up to an IV drip, she says, you need to understand that while the rewards are questionable, the risks are real.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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