Consuming a pill with nearly 100 times the recommended daily allowance of riboflavin has one definitive benefit: It will turn your urine ultra-yellow.
“This is as close as most people come to watching their money go down the toilet,” writes James Hamblin in response to the question, “Is there any harm in taking a multivitamin?”
The doctor-turned-journalist tackles dozens of such medical queries in “If Our Bodies Could Talk: A Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body.” In the book, Hamblin offers up a few quickies, like this one:
Q: If my mucus is green, it means I need antibiotics?
A: The color of mucus can’t tell us whether an infection is bacterial or viral. It can tell us only what color our mucus is.
But most of his replies take deep dives into science and history, with a mash-up of data, expert interviews, anecdotes and a healthy dose of humor. (That’s appropriate, because Hamblin considers laughter a form of medicine.)
For that multivitamin question, Hamblin sets the stage with a flashback to Sri Lanka in 1803. Thomas Christie, a surgeon in the British army, is baffled by a fatal illness, beriberi, that is causing people to lose control of and feeling in their feet.
Christie attempts to fix the problem by prescribing citrus fruit, which is already known to be a cure for scurvy. It doesn’t help.
But as beriberi appears in more countries, doctors discover a different food connection: People who moved away from a diet heavy on white rice recovered. Turns out the culprit is the lack of a compound called thiamine (which is found in brown rice), which metabolizes carbohydrates and amino acids.
And so thiamine became the first “vitamin,” a term coined by Polish chemist Casimir Funk in 1912.
Hamblin’s theory is that Funk’s catchy lingo is responsible for what he calls today’s “vitamania.” In the case of vitamin C, he writes, “Would people buy foods today because they were ‘fortified’ with ‘antiscurvy factor’? Would they believe that 30 times the necessary daily amount of antiscurvy factor is better than one?”
Certain populations stand to benefit from specific vitamins, Hamblin points out. For instance, folic acid is recommended to pregnant women because it plays a key role in preventing birth defects.
Hamblin’s main concerns are with supplements that combine a slew of stuff and with the idea that more is always better. Some vitamin compounds, such as riboflavin, are water-soluble, which means that overdoses are simply flushed away. But others pile up in our bodies, and the long-term effects are unknown, Hamblin writes. Also, you might end up with some unexpected extras: He notes that one vitamin company (that’s still in business) sold supplements containing anabolic steroids.
So, yes, it appears there can be harm in taking a multivitamin.