Mainlining Vitamins Is Silly and Harmful

The high-priced hangover treatment takes life-saving nutrients from those who need them most.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

You were up late drinking with clients. Your head is pounding, and all you want to do is to take an Advil and go back to bed. But you’re on a deadline. If you’re a believer in modern-day elixirs, it’s time to press the “whoops button” and get your day back with IV vitamins.

Celebrities have been touting them for years, citing vague life affirming and energy-boosting effects. “We got nuffffin but love & vittys in our veinzzzz #vitaminpush,” reads Miley Cyrus’s Instagram caption for a photo of the cringing singer with tubes taped to her tattooed arm. Now registered nurses from boutique clinics will show up at your office, home, or hotel room and hook you up to an IV bag full of fluids and nutrients for around $500. In a number of cities, IV vitamin clinic buses trawl the streets for clients.

The trouble is, there’s no evidence it works.

With names like The Hangover Club, VitaSquad, and The Drip Room, dozens of IV vitamin providers fall into the high-end alternative medicine sector, with no support from peer-reviewed studies. They all use Lactated Ringer’s Injection, a solution for fluid and electrolyte recovery, and various cocktails containing trace elements and an alphabet of vitamins.

Some even include the local anesthetic lidocaine, which can provoke life-threatening reactions, as well as the anti-oxidant glutathione, which has not been approved by the FDA as an IV product. Treatments last anywhere between 30 minutes and two hours depending on the volume of the cocktail and the size of your veins.

The moment a nutrient like magnesium or Vitamin C is formulated for injection, it becomes a prescription drug, because of all the ways it could go wrong. Done incorrectly the IV can cause a severe bloodstream infection, and any undissolved crystals can clog up capillaries in the lungs.

If these were the only drawbacks to vitamin IVs, it might be worth letting individuals make their own decisions about whether to use them. But these treatments have another cost. Some people with damaged intestines and preterm babies—whose digestive systems are not yet developed—receive all of their nutrition from intravenous drips.

"It's not a free ride. We see lots of infections, but people have been kept alive for decades that way," says Dr. David Seres, director of medical nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center’s Institute of Human Nutrition.

Unfortunately the United States suffers from a shortage of the very IV drugs and nutrients sold in vitamin therapy clinics. Since 2011, 90% of American hospitals have reported shortages in these products, and nutrients like calcium, fat, and vitamins have often been omitted from nutrition products for intravenously fed patients.

In that time, there has not been a single period when every nutritional component was readily available at once. In 2014, the FDA even temporarily allowed the import of saline from Europe to alleviate the constricted supply.

Unless you have some sort of intestinal problem that prevents you from absorbing nutrients, all of this water and all of these vitamins are just as easily taken up as part of your diet. And even then, the balance of evidence suggests taking vitamin supplements is a bad idea.

“I don’t think there’s a single vitamin that doesn’t have some toxicity associated with too much,” says Seres. “Just because something is a nutrient—a vitamin or an antioxidant—doesn’t mean that more is better.”

Indeed, randomized controlled studies show the wrong kind of correlation between vitamin supplements and some diseases, such as Beta-Carotene and lung cancer, calcium and heart disease, or vitamin E and prostate cancer. The “goldilocks rule” applies to most aspects of nutrition, and the recommended doses are a happy medium for healthy people.

It may come as a disappointment to fans of radical intervention, but the best cure for hangovers is temperance and the best source of vitamins is food.