© Luke Lucas
Kendall Jenner hit the headlines this week as she was hospitalised for a ‘bad reaction’ to a vitamin drip. Here’s what happened when one WH staffer tried it.
How far would you go in pursuit of your healthiest self? Would you book yourself in for a vitamin drip? As I watch a nurse insert a cannula into my arm and see flecks of blood fall onto my inner elbow, I realise that I’ve probably hit my PB.
‘Just relax, I’ll be back shortly,’ a slender woman – clear-eyed and glossy haired – says, stilettos clicking out the door. A plastic tube snakes from my arm to a transparent sack on a tall metal stand. It’s filled with a lurid yellow liquid – an exclusive blend of vitamins, minerals and amino acids: this vitamin injection is essentially my VIP ticket to winter wellness.
WHAT IS INTRAVENOUS NUTRITIONAL THERAPY (IVNT)?
Sound a bit intense? That’s because it is. Having nutrients supplied directly into your bloodstream used to be the preserve of people who were actually sick. For patients with intestinal failure, it’s the only way to get their essential vitamins and minerals. Yet in 2016, the mechanism has been glossed up and is now marketed to perfectly healthy people as Intravenous Nutrient Therapy, the cash-rich, time-poor way to speed your path to optimal wellbeing.
At £200 a go, it’s no surprise that IVNT – or, vitamin drip therapy as it sometimes known – attracts hard-partying celebrities and six-figure salary types, but the trend is trickling down. In the past 12 months, global IVNT chain Reviv added 15 IV spots to its three existing clinics, and Essex-based pharmacy IntraVita has trained more than 200 doctors and nurses to administer IV therapy. If you can’t already drip ’n’ chill on your high street, it won’t be long. So what exactly are they promising?
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WHAT DOES IT HELP?
Various clinics claim:
Overweight: helps burn off stubborn body fat
Anxiety: drips are formulated to reduce depression and anxiety
Anti-aging: IV can soften, improve and possibly eradicate lines and wrinkles
Flu-prevention: one website offers a flu-free winter
STAGE ONE: MAKE THE CALL
It’s £200 – more than my monthly food budget. It’s the flu-free winter that reels me in, so I call and tell them I’m feeling run-down and enquire about which vitamin drip I need. ‘Our immunity drip would be perfect,’ the receptionist responds. I ask what results I can expect. There’s a pause. ‘It depends on how run-down you are,’ she says, adding: ‘I felt good for two weeks after I had mine.’ Pick apart the grand claims and the specifics of my return on investment seem hard to get at.
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STAGE TWO: CONSULTATION
Fast-forward a week and I arrive for my ‘full medical consultation’ with the clinic’s nurse. I’m feeling on the edge of a cold, exhausted and anxious. I input my medical history on an iPad. My blood pressure is measured. Oddly for a treatment involving vitamins and minerals, I’m asked little about my diet. I volunteer that I’ve never eaten meat. ‘You’re probably deficient in vitamin B12,’ says the nurse. ‘You might have anaemia because of it.’ She also puts my anxiety down to low magnesium.
The nurse shows me the clinic’s menu of vitamin drip cocktails, and confirms that I should opt for the immune- boosting mix of vitamins C, B12, B5, B6, B complex, calcium, selenium, magnesium, zinc, and various amino acids. I ask if this treatment will correct any deficiencies and stop my sore throat creeping into flu – she nods, and I’m game to try what their vitamin drips have to offer.
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STAGE THREE: WEIGH UP PROS AND CONS
Beneath the marketing spiel is little consensus on what happens when we intravenously inject nutrients that, if consumed in the right amount through food, are essential for health. But there is some evidence supporting the use of high-dose IV vitamin and mineral injections for genuine health problems.
In 2013, the Journal of Translational Medicine reported that IV vitamin C could reduce inflammation in cancer patients.
‘But the results shouldn’t be used as evidence backing IV vitamin C for healthy people,’ says Alan Shenkin, professor of biochemistry at the University of Liverpool. Relief from pain and depression associated with fibromyalgia (muscular pain) is an oft-reported benefit of IVNT, as are its claims to boost energy. Research published in Nutrition Journal saw IV vitamin C reduce office workers’ fatigue after two hours – with the effect lasting for one day. ‘But individuals’ self-reported “fatigue scores” only dropped by about 15%,’ says Shenkin.
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Many experts are concerned that vitamin drips could be harmful as well as ineffective. ‘When we digest food, the intestines regulate the amount of a nutrient that goes into the blood, but IVNT bypasses that mechanism,’ says Professor Hilary Powers, a nutritional biochemist at the University of Sheffield.
Then there’s the high dosage. The clinic won’t tell me the exact quantities of micronutrients in my vitamin drip (‘company policy’), but it’s not hard to estimate. Most IVNT cocktails are variants on the formula created by US doctor John Myers in the 60s: the so-called ‘Myers cocktail’, which contains 1,000 micrograms of vitamin B12. ‘The recommended nutrient intake for B12 is 1.5 micrograms,’ says Powers, so it arguably contains up to 700 times what the body would need.
The industry’s safety assurance is that they don’t use fat-soluble vitamins – A, C, E, D or K– which are stored in tissue and can reach toxic levels. ‘But from what we can see, this drip contains a very high concentration of many (water soluble) B vitamins,’ explains Powers.
‘And peer-reviewed evidence shows – for example – that vitamin B2 can cause kidney stones, so there is some risk.’
The gulf in opinions between professors and practitioners is alarming, so, before the treatment, I arranged to meet Rick Miller, performance nutritionist and spokesperson for the British Dietetics Association, and filled him in on my recommended treatment.
‘There’s absolutely no need for you to do that,’ is his response.
‘Your diet is balanced and you show no signs of vitamin deficiency. Given you don’t eat meat, I’d do blood tests for B12, vitamin D and calcium, but I wouldn’t even recommend supplements. Without a blood test, I can’t tell how much you need.’
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STAGE FOUR: PRE-IVNT VITAMIN CHECK
I head home afterwards via London’s Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth to measure my blood vitamin and mineral levels. Everything comes back normal, except vitamin D – in which I’m almost deficient, and Miller recommends correcting it with a daily oral supplement. My low levels of bilirubin (a compound produced in the liver) are revealing. ‘High amounts indicate your body is stressed, which can occur when people push too hard at work or in their training,’ explains Miller.
‘This suggests that your feeling mentally or physically tired has nothing to do with your vitamin levels or biochemistry.’
The message from the IVNT industry is the exact opposite. ‘Many of us are severely deficient in these essential nutrients,’ reads a glossy booklet I flick through. Not so, according to the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey, which only identifies the nation’s vitamin D levels as chronically low. ‘To be deficient, someone must to have physical evidence that their body is deprived of something,’ says Shenkin. Think scurvy for vitamin C, anaemia for vitamin B12.
IVNT is instead dealing with an intake that is ‘sub-optimal’ – but that doesn’t sound so urgent. Let’s be clear, you don’t have to be all-out deficient in a nutrient to benefit from supplementing. ‘Additional oral vitamin B supplements can help fight fatigue,’ says Miller. ‘But people should only take them orally after making every attempt to improve their diet – and there’s certainly no need for a megadose via IV.’
Despite employing nutritional deficiency speak, only one of the 12 clinics I contacted actually mentioned testing for any. Miller acknowledges blood tests aren’t perfect, but supplementing without them is ‘clinical negligence’.
STAGE FOUR: THE TREATMENT
This phrase loops in my head as I return to the clinic for my treatment. Ten minutes in, I trail off mid-sentence talking to the nurse (‘That’s the magnesium chilling you out,’ she says). Afterwards I head to the hospital for more blood tests, intrigued to see what all this has done to my blood levels.
STAGE FIVE: THE RESULTS
PHYSICAL SIDE EFFECTS
The results reveal a surge in vitamin B12 (way above the lab’s healthy range) and large spikes in vitamin C and zinc. ‘A vitamin drip cocktail with a high dose of vitamin B12 increases blood concentration levels,’ says Powers. ‘But that will likely exceed the amount your kidneys can handle and you’ll wee out the rest.
’In other words, such high doses are essentially pointless. As for vitamin C: ‘White blood cells are saturated after taking 100-200mg orally,’ says Shenkin. ‘The cells don’t work faster or harder because there is more of a vitamin or mineral.’ Fortunately for these clinics, they don’t have to answer scientists’ claims, as they fall outside the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency’s remit. Overt medical claims are policed, but promises to boost energy, immunity, weight loss or skin health are not.
Alongside the unsubstantiated claims are the tantalising anecdotes of vitamin drip converts. For Kelly Marks, 42, who works in public relations in London, her first IV experience made her really relax. ‘I went for a 45-minute drip and left feeling less bogged down by my worries,’ she says. Emily Porter, 32, a copywriter from Devon noted the difference while running: ‘I achieved a PB over 5K, which felt effortless.’
Then there are the medical professionals who, unswayed by the evidence, believe that vitamin drips do have something to offer.
I asked Dr Jane Leonard, a cosmetic doctor who administers IVNT independently, why IV vitamins are superior to oral supplements. ‘It’s the delivery,’ she says. ‘A capsule has to be broken down, but IV vitamins go straight into your bloodstream, at a dose where they can have a potent effect.’ Sure, but can you quantify if they’re worth it? ‘It’s impossible to measure feeling better,’ says Leonard, ‘the only thing you can monitor is how you feel afterwards.’
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MENTAL SIDE EFFECTS
But what if it is just a feeling? Multiple studies suggest IV therapy is primed for the placebo effect. The first clue is the cost, as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found a higher price increases the potency of a placebo. ‘The more invasive a placebo, the more effective it is, too,’ adds Dr Jeremy Howick, leading placebo researcher at the University of Oxford.
So what happens in your brain when you’re duped by a medical placebo?
‘Expect the treatment to work, and you’ll activate your brain’s neural reward mechanism, releasing [feel-good hormones] dopamine and endorphins,’ explains Howick.
These deliver the chemical kick attributed to the treatment.
My sore throat lingers for hours after the treatment and by 6pm, I’m so tired I cancel a spin class. ‘You had a “low necessity belief”,’ explains Robert Horne, a professor in behavioural medicine at University College London. ‘Because you were sceptical, the treatment probably didn’t work as a placebo.’ Does this idea put our IV newbies off? ‘If that’s the case, then I wouldn’t spend the money before a 5k park run, but I’d consider it for a marathon,’ says Porter.
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STAGE 6: TWO WEEK ON POST-IVNT CHECK
Two weeks later I return to the lab for a second round of tests. Readings show my vitamin C has dropped to within the lab’s healthy range, as expected. Both vitamin B12 and magnesium are slightly below pre-treatment levels. ‘Your body is returning to homoeostasis: the level it has genetically set as its normal range for micronutrients,’ says Miller. So what’s my body got out of it?
‘From these results, we can see little except a rise in some B vitamins, but it’s nothing you couldn’t have done through your diet in a safer and cheaper fashion.’
More concerning are my B6 levels, which, after dipping immediately following the treatment, are now over the lab’s healthy threshold. ‘We don’t know why this happened,’ says Miller – assuring me that, as a water-soluble vitamin, levels should drop down to within my normal range. My zinc levels spiked immediately and remain unusually high 10 days later.
So am I enjoying all the reported benefits associated with peaking zinc: supercharged energy; clear and glowing skin; a throat that doesn’t forecast looming lurgy? Honestly, I notice none of it. So what should I do now? Book another vitamin drip? A
‘You can book in for as many sessions as you like until you feel better,’ said the clinic’s receptionist when I first called. In consultation, I’m advised that six treatments are proven to be effective (no source listed), and that I should return within a fortnight for my second. ‘Don’t even consider it,’ says Nicola Lowe, professor in nutritional science at the University of Central Lancashire. ‘Your zinc levels are now out of physiological norms 10 days after just one treatment – having another could be dangerous.’
The bottom line? ‘Your body has its own sophisticated mechanisms for monitoring the levels of nutrients in your blood,’ says Lowe. ‘There’s no need for us to create expensive, overcomplicated ways to bypass them.’
I head home via the supermarket and fill my basket with brown rice, oats, green vegetables and eggs. All in all, my vitamin-B packed haul comes to £12. For now, I’ll continue to get my vitamins the budget way, not from a vitamin drip cocktail or multiple vitamin drips, thanks.
Want to know what happens to your body if you deprive it of vitamins? Read: Is vitamin A Deficiency Making You Gain Weight?