By Corey Lewis, CPT, CSCS
The health-conscious often use vitamin supplements in conjunction with diet and exercise. But be careful; too many fat-soluble vitamins can cause bad side effects and toxicity. An excess of water-soluble vitamins can be excreted by the kidneys. By contrast, fat-soluble vitamins can only be removed from the body through metabolism. So, if you take too many they can build up to toxic levels.
Here’s what you need to know about the proper use of these supplements. Follow these steps, and you might just get the most out of them while minimizing potentially dangerous side effects.
First, vitamins are essential nutrients, composed of organic molecules. They are required in small amounts and not easily synthesized by the body. All of the vitamins and nutrients people need can be found in fresh produce and other foods. In addition, healthy sources like vitamin supplements, and when combined with regular exercise, can help ensure a happy and healthy life. The fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, and K. All other vitamins are water-soluble.
Vitamins A, D, E, and K do not mix well in water. This is because they have similar properties to fats and oils. As a result, they behave like oil and vinegar salad dressing, and will spontaneously separate when mixed.
The body already has effective ways to absorb fat. So, if you eat these vitamins with foods that are high in fat, they will combine with the fat. In other words, they hitch a ride into the fat cells of your body. This is why it’s good to eat a moderate amount of foods high in healthy fats. Food like avocado benefits your overall health, partly because of the fat it contains. These fats pick up any fat-soluble vitamins for easier absorption into your body.
Fat-soluble vitamins are necessary for a healthy life, but they are only needed in very small amounts. If you use supplements with fat-soluble vitamins, you run the risk of building up your vitamin intake to toxic levels. This is because your body stores them in your fatty tissue for later use if they are not utilized immediately.
Too much of a fat-soluble vitamin will lead to toxicity, but too little will also lead to negative health effects. In the wealthier regions of the world, like the United States, Japan, and Western Europe, vitamin deficiencies are rare. They can occasionally happen with people who have very poor diets. This may also happen for people dealing with medical conditions, especially those that affect fat absorption. These include cystic fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and chronic pancreatitis. As an athlete, you may gain some benefits from taking megadoses of certain vitamins. But, be careful about your intake of fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin supplements can improve your health and performance when used responsibly. Overdoing it, however, can have negative effects on your health and well-being.
Fat-soluble vitamins serve a variety of purposes:
Retinol, or vitamin A, is commonly known to help eyesight, but it is important throughout the body. It impacts skeletal and dental health, reproductive health, DNA, and many other vital metabolic functions. Foods with vitamin A include orange and dark green vegetables. While these vegetables don’t actually contain retinol, they are a good source of beta-carotene. This is converted by the body into retinol. Dairy and fish are primary sources of retinol and contain large amounts per serving. Too much retinol can hurt bone health and delay growth in children. Too little can lead to immune system and vision problems.
Vitamin D helps with biological functions like the immune system and blood pressure. It also interacts with calcium and phosphorus to assist with bone development. However, you need to consume the right amount. Too much vitamin D can lead to impaired mental and physical growth, and excess calcium in the blood. By contrast, a vitamin D deficiency can lead to the skeletal disorder, rickets.
Foods with vitamin D include fortified dairy products and oily fish. That said, exposure to sunlight is one of the best ways to get more vitamin D. Be sure to use sunblock if you get a lot of sun. Fair-skinned people require about 20 minutes of direct exposure to sunlight each week for adequate vitamin D synthesis. Dark-skinned people may require as much as six times that amount. And, when you spend a lot of time indoors or cover your body from head to toe, particularly during the colder winter months, you need to expose your skin to sunlight for even longer periods of time. Vitamin D deficiencies are common, so be mindful that you’re getting enough sunlight.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant also known as tocopherol. It acts to protect other vitamins and red blood cells. Foods with vitamin E include vegetable oil, nuts, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Vitamin E deficiencies are almost exclusively found in people with fat absorption problems and are easily treated with water-soluble forms. Excess vitamin E doesn’t seem to have much of an effect except in people using blood thinners, who need to be careful not to get too much.
Vitamin K is essential for blood and bone health. It is primarily produced by bacteria in the intestines, but foods with vitamin K include green, leafy vegetables, soybean oil, and canola oil. Deficiencies in vitamin K lead to blood clotting disorders, and excess vitamin K can lead to liver damage.
Over-indulging in your vitamins is never the secret to good health. While vitamins are vital, there can be too much of a good thing. Too much of the fat-soluble variety can be toxic.
Don’t overdo it with supplements. Instead, take in more of your vitamins by eating lots of fresh produce and moderate amounts of healthy fats. Then, supplement responsibly. You’ll find your diet will complement your fitness regime and help you live a long and happy life.