Vitamin infusions have become popular among those seeking hydration or an extra boost of energy, but some doctors question if there is any real health benefit. (Ulysses Muñoz, Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun video)
Once a month Kristen Curtin gets vitamins pumped into her bloodstream through an IV.
The Mount Airy mother of three started getting the intravenous vitamins a few years ago as a way to boost her energy. Taking care of small children often leaves her tired and drained.
Her go-to cocktail of vitamins is one from Nava Health Vitality & Wellness Center in Bethesda that contains magnesium, vitamin C and other nutrients. When she feels a cold coming on, she gets a mix with extra vitamin C to strengthen her immune system. Curtin said she has felt more vibrant since starting the infusions.
“My overall health has gotten better,” Curtin said. “I am not as tired and I don’t get sick as often.”
Curtin and many others swear by the infusions, which are touted as getting vitamins into the body more quickly than a pill can. Madonna, Rihanna, Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebrities have hailed the benefits of the infusions, which take 30 minutes to an hour to administer and have a starting cost of $100. Clinics and medical spas offering the infusions have popped up throughout the country, including in Maryland.
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No one tracks the number of people who get the vitamin IVs, but some medical spas and health centers say they are popular. Among local providers: Nava Health Vitality & Wellness does about 350 IVs a month total at its facilities, including in Chevy Chase, Columbia and Washington. Sullivan Surgery & Spa in Annapolis began providing the infusions three years ago. New Paradigm Wellness in Timonium also offers the IVs.
The infusions are said to slow the aging process, help athletes recover quickly from strenuous workouts and help people get over a hangover more quickly. “Take too many shots? Call me in the morning,” says the website of one company that says its infusions are perfect for the day after a wedding or bachelor or bachelorette party.
Some doctors have used the infusions to treat chronic conditions, such as asthma attacks, migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, acute muscle spasm, sinusitis and allergies.
But the health benefits of the procedure are up for debate. Some studies have shown the infusions have no more than a placebo effect and are medically unnecessary. Too much of some vitamins can be harmful to the body, doctors say. The infusions are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat any disease.
Dr. Marc I. Leavey, a Timonium primary care physician, remembers a patient’s telling him a couple of years ago that he was headed to New York for a vitamin infusion. Leavey, who practices at Mercy Personal Physicians at Lutherville, talked the patient out of going.
People who get vitamin infusions probably do feel better afterward, Leavey said. But that may be because the infusions hydrate them and they are sitting in a calm environment while getting the procedure. Some medspas even pamper patients, seating them in reclining chairs and playing soft music.
“Although there are many clinics that do it, the vitamin infusions show no demonstrable medical benefit,” Leavey said.
The late Dr. John Meyers, a Johns Hopkins internist, pioneered intravenous vitamin treatments with the creation of the Meyers cocktail. The ingredients included vitamin C, magnesium, calcium and B vitamins. The mix is still used by doctors today, but many variations also exist.
Meyers and others who treat patients with vitamin IVs have said the increased concentration of nutrients in the blood allows quicker access to the body’s cells. They claim patients start to get healthier as the blood gets the high doses of nutrients more times. The process also bypasses the digestive system, which some doctors say can’t fully absorb the nutrients when taken in pill form.
“When you have higher nutrient levels in the blood, that creates more of a tendency for the nutrients to be able to get inside the cell where they are better able to be utilized,” said Dr. William Rollow, director of clinical services at the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine and an assistant professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Rollow said clinical research involving a large number of people that looks at the safety and effectiveness of vitamin IVs is limited. Vitamin C infusions are the most studied, he said. Some doctors are using the vitamins as a part of cancer treatment because they can kill some cancer cells, he said. But not everyone agrees with this; others argue that there is no well-done clinical research to back this assertion. The National Cancer Institute notes that some studies of high-dose vitamin C combined with traditional therapy for patients with cancer have shown improved quality of life for cancer patients and fewer side effects. But the agency points out that the FDA has not approved its use for cancer treatments.
Much of the other research on vitamin IVs is based on case research, or looking at individual cases. Some case research has found that the nutrient glutathione, when given by IV, has helped improve the symptoms of musculoskeletal conditions such as Parkinson’s, Rollow said. Case studies have found the Meyers cocktail can help with pain, fatigue and depression, said Rollow, who has used IVs to treat patients for years and thinks they are safe if given by a professional.
Leavey from Mercy said it is possible for someone to get too much of a vitamin through an IV. Water-soluble vitamins, including A and B vitamins, will leave the body when somebody urinates. Fat-soluble vitamins — A,D,E,K — don’t leave the body and can build up. Too many vitamins can lead to the condition hypervitaminosis, which can cause dizziness, fatigue, blurry vision and other toxic symptoms.
“One needs to be careful with these fat-soluble vitamins,” Leavey said.
Other studies have shown the infusions are simply not needed. A team of researchers from the Yale School of Medicine looked at the effect of the Myers cocktail on people with fibromyalgia, which causes fatigue and debilitating muscle soreness, and found a placebo effect. Half of the patients got the cocktail and half got a solution with no vitamins. Everyone felt better after their infusions, whether they had vitamins or not.
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Kristen Noel, a nurse who administers vitamin IVs at Sullivan Surgery & Spa, said getting too many vitamins from an IV would be difficult.
“All of our vitamin infusions are appropriately dosed by our physicians so that patients achieve maximum absorption,” she said via email. “We collect a detailed health history from every patient before infusions and are able to consult with our physicians if clients have any questions or concerns. It is very hard to get too many vitamins via IV infusion. Any additional vitamins are often excreted and would not provide any additional benefit.”
Anyone is a candidate for vitamin infusions, but people who are feeling run down or sick this time of year during cold and flu season are good candidates, Noel said. She said frequent travelers or those who are planning a trip by airplane can benefit as well; the spa also has many athletes who come for vitamin infusions after marathons and triathlons.
Dr. LaKeischa McMillan treats patients with vitamin IVs at Nava Health. The health and vitality center offers 10 variations of infusion cocktails to help with detoxing, cold and flu, immunity and hydration, among other “conditions.” She has heard the criticism of the procedures.
“There are some people who feel like it doesn’t make a difference,” she said. “Some people say you are throwing away hundreds of dollars — flushing it down the toilet. I believe there is benefit because of the way the body works.”