It’s crazy how intravenous (or IV; meaning “within a vein”) injections that one would dread and associate with illness are currently being promoted as so-called exclusive IV nutrition therapy experiences. Nowadays, it’s a wellness regimen must-do. Health and wellness centres are offering a wide range of infusions accompanied with Netflix and popcorn and named after those much sought after and talked about ‘magical’ words like immunity, gut, detox, energy, followed by words like booster, healer, supporter, and so on. Now, is this a deal breaker for your health, or a farce?
IV nutrition is touted by many influencers and A-list celebs as a quick way to make you feel better, support your immune system, hydrate you, prevent disease, cure jet lag, brighten your skin, improve your mood and all sorts of other health benefits. Interestingly, it’s also pretty popular in Las Vegas, Bali, Ibiza and other party spots as a hangover cure. And now with Covid-19, there are marketing campaigns prompting everybody to get IV infusions, especially vitamin C because, you know, ‘immunity.’
IV infusions are also a part of multi-level marketing and training courses offered within the medical aesthetic industry – cleverly pushed as supporting optimum health and wellbeing through ‘transformative innovation.’ there’s a lot of hype, as can be seen with the fancy words used.
What Are IV Infusions, Exactly?
Traditionally, people who aren’t able to eat enough food, have a severe deficiency or an illness that interferes with nutrient absorption from their gut are good candidates for receiving nutrients via IV infusion, or perhaps a pregnant woman going through a case of severe morning sickness (hyperemesis gravidarum), or even someone severely dehydrated after extreme exercise.
Keeping aside the possibly life threatening situations which need IV support, the first IV vitamin drips for aesthetics and wellness were developed by Dr. John Myers in the 1970s. His research led to the popular Myers’ Cocktail, a version of which is a fav with actor Brad Pitt.
Though not specifically related to vitamin and mineral infusions, it’s interesting to note that IV infusions are included in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s List of Prohibited Substances and Methods, with certain specific exceptions. This might be a good thing to keep in mind especially if you are a professional athlete who’s competing, or a trainer who’s clients include such professionals. IV infusions are on the list mainly because some athletes could use this prohibited method to enhance performance by increasing the volume of plasma (the colourless fluid part of blood) as well as to mask the use of a prohibited substance.
How Does IV Infusion Therapy Work?
A vitamin that’s taken by mouth gets broken down in the stomach and digestive tract, and there’s a limit (at times, only about 50 per cent) on how much can be absorbed. This is because several factors like age, health status, genetics, other medications or supplements, the type of diet can all affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the stomach.
If, however, the vitamin is given through an IV drip, it is absorbed quickly and directly into the bloodstream and at a much higher percentage (around 90 percent) and releases higher levels of the nutrients into the body than if we got them from food or supplements. Higher levels in the bloodstream will lead to greater uptake into cells, which theoretically will use the nutrients to provide all the benefits touted. Sounds legit right? And yes, this part is not entirely wrong. Let’s dig in further before drawing conclusions.
What’s The Process?
IV nutrition therapy involves administering a direct infusion through an intravenous drip. These types of infusions generally take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, and the procedure can take place within a medical office with a licensed medical professional observing the infusion. The usual norm is for a pharmacist to mix the solution as per the doctor’s orders. A qualified nurse or healthcare professional will need to access a vein and secure the needle in place. The nurse or healthcare professional will then monitor the drip to ensure the rates are administered properly.
The whole thing sounds sensible, right? Vitamins are good for you, we need them, they are ‘natural,’ so they are probably harmless and having more should be better. Plus they are given in some clinics by doctors and nurses; it seems backed by medicine and must be legit, right?
Sadly, that’s not the case, and here’s why.
The Risks of IV Nutrition Therapy
First off, the places giving these therapies often aren’t checking your blood to see if you really need them. Many of them recommend a vitamin cocktail based only on a lifestyle questionnaire. This means that you don’t know if you are deficient in any of the vitamins and minerals they are advising you take. Since many clinics don’t test your levels beforehand, in some cases the doses they are giving you could be quite risky — especially as many clinics advise you to have a ‘course’ of mega doses, which could leave you with very high levels outside of the normal range for some minerals.
The usual nutrients given via this therapy are vitamin C, B vitamins, magnesium, and calcium. IV vitamin drips may also contain amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and antioxidants. The IV vitamin infusions are likely to be water-soluble vitamins (Vitamin C and B-complex), the excess which your perfectly functioning kidneys will just filter out. Basically, it’s just a recipe for very expensive pee (in the range of AED600 to AED 4,000+).
This practice also carries an unnecessary risk of infection. You see, any time you have an IV needle inserted, it creates a direct path into your bloodstream and bypasses your body’s first defense mechanism against bacteria, which is your skin. If your gut is fully functioning, there is no reason to take this risk, as oral vitamin supplements are known to be effective for correcting deficiencies.
Then there’s the risk of getting too much with IV vitamin drips. It is possible to receive too much of a specific vitamin or mineral, which can increase the risk of adverse effects. For example, people with kidney disease cannot remove certain electrolytes and minerals from the body very quickly. Adding too much potassium too quickly could potentially lead to a heart attack. People with certain heart or blood pressure conditions can also be at risk of fluid overload from the infusion. In general, excessive levels of vitamins and minerals can be hard on the organs and should be avoided.
Speaking of extreme scenarios, risks associated with the infusion in general include blood clots, vein irritation, and inflammation, which could be painful. Air embolisms can also be introduced through an IV line, which could prove fatal. If the infusions aren’t carefully monitored and the fluid drips too quickly, there’s a risk of fluid overload, which could affect electrolyte balances and may damage the kidneys, brain, and heart.
How to Keep Yourself Safe
Look for a reputable doctor who will be monitoring and providing the infusions. They should get your comprehensive and thorough medical history, which should include any health concerns you may have encountered over the course of your life, any medications you are currently taking, or have recently taken. It’s also important to include details of over-the-counter medications, dietary supplements, and herbal teas that you drink regularly. Always make sure that the doctor is board-certified and licenced under relevant governing organisations and is aware of all your health conditions and concerns.
Be sure the clinic is reputable because, often, these clinics need not be closely regulated, based on the country you are in. Do your due diligence — ask around or look for Google reviews, for example. Once you’re there, observe the cleanliness of the clinic and whether staff are well groomed; hand washing and wearing of gloves and safety gear are all cues you can look for in matters of basic hygiene and safety. The clinic should be clean, the hands of those administering the IV should be washed, and gloves worn by the specialist. Don’t be afraid to ask for credentials if you’re in doubt. Better be wary.
Verdict: Does IV Nutrition Therapy Really Work?
The marketing for IV nbutrition therapy is strong and there is a massive placebo effect (stemming from the self-care aspect) from people who report feeling ‘so much better, so good’ considering they were just hooked up to a drip after dishing out a good amount of money. These treatments are usually not covered by insurance and are pretty pricey per session — so clients are likely to want the therapy to work since they just paid a lot of money for it.
For someone who is regularly taking care of their health in terms of eating well, engaging in daily movement, managing their stress, getting their beauty sleep, hydrating themselves sufficiently and so on, there’s no harm in going for a one off session when they feel the need to pamper themselves (which is an option that comes with being financially privileged). You don’t have to go for it, but if you can find a safe provider that’s not putting your safety at risk, then go ahead.
Do take an informed decision based on your need. Personally, if I suspect a deficiency or am at risk of missing a specific nutrient, I would meet my doctor, do a few blood tests, and then go with my doctor’s recommendation based on the medical report. Let’s not forget that scientists have consistently found that supplements are no replacement for a healthy, balanced diet, and getting nutrients from whole foods is the ideal option.