Can you cheat your way to a boosted immune system? IV vitamin drips explained

One of the many things the pandemic has forced us to reflect on is the importance of our internal health. From which supplements we should be taking, to an understanding of the vitamin and mineral deficiencies that have become a commonplace in our lifestyles, our average individual awareness of the importance of keeping our immune systems in check has never been greater.

But with the return of a back-to-office schedule, and the onset of flu season approaching as inevitably as the turning of the autumn leaves, our ongoing Covid conversations have been interrupted by a new virus strain: the "super cold". In a bid to outmanoeuvre this unwelcome variant of the common cold, people have been turning to alternative methods. While searches for vitamin D supplements might have soared over the past 18 months, the re-opening of clinics has seen the demand for Intravenous Nutrient Therapy, or IV vitamin drips as they're more commonly known, soar.

In order to explore this 'trending' treatment and its effectiveness, Bazaar asked a handful of medical experts to weigh in on the topic.

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What is an IV vitamin drip?

While the IV vitamin drip might not be new to the wellness scene, its marked increase in demand is a reflection of contemporary attitudes towards health. "We’ve noticed more awareness of certain vitamins in our clinics," says Bianca Estelle, IVNT specialist and founder of Vitamin Injections London. "For example, we’ve known for years that the population is low in vitamin D, but this knowledge is now more widely circulated."

At-home beauty service Ruuby reported a 300 per cent rise in bookings for IV drips post-lockdown. "It's a trend that will continue to rise," says clinical nutritionist Dr Claudia Gravaghi. As she's seen, the pre-Covid Instagrammable draw of IV drips has been overtaken by a shift in attitude. "Even in my career I've had so many clients asking for boosters and active vitamins. People are scared and they want to boost their immunity."

The abbreviation IV stands for "intravenous", meaning administered through the veins. Operating in a similar way to the IV drips previously reserved for hospital in-patients, in saline solution, a cocktail of nutrients are administered into the bloodstream via a cannula. Only this time, hospital gowns and linoleum floors are replaced by sleek white clinics, or for those looking to maximise efficiency, conducted from the comfort of your own home or office.

"IV vitamin drips inject vitamins, minerals and other substances such as glutathione directly into the blood stream, bypassing the normal process of digestion and absorption through the gastrointestinal tract," explains Anne de la Hunty, senior nutrition scientist for the British Nutrition Foundation.

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What do IV vitamin drips do?

"When food or supplements are taken orally, they must pass through the gastrointestinal tract where they are absorbed. The food matrix and the presence of other substances in the gut at the same time can influence the extent of the nutrients’ absorption, both positively and negatively," says Hunty.

"As the vitamins and minerals are not completely absorbed by this route, IV drips leads to higher blood levels of these substances than would be achieved by taking them orally."

In short, IV vitamin drips deliver a higher concentration of certain vitamins and minerals into your bloodstream and at a much quicker rate than taking something orally, hence their reputation between the A-lister and jet-set world as a speedy (and pricey) hangover cure.

"Generally intravenously is the more efficient way to administer something," agrees Dr Gravaghi."It can be different for vitamin C or vitamin D for example, but generally if you take 1g of something orally, about 40-to-60 per cent will get absorbed. Using an IV method will mean 80-to-100 per cent of that 1g will be easily absorbed."

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Can you cheat your way to a boosted immune system? IV vitamin drips explained

What do IV vitamin drips contain?

Clinics and IV drip companies offer a pick 'n' mix of vitamins and minerals to supplement your nutrition levels. Vitamin B12, magnesium, and vitamin C are some of the most popular nutrients clients opt for when feeling like they need an energy hit.

An IV drip 'menu' can differ from clinic to clinic, but on average you can expect to find an array of treatments which claim to offer anything from immune system boosts to giving your skin a more youthful glow. However, some nutritionists remain sceptical about their effectiveness. "Blood tests ought to be done before administration to ensure people do not already have high blood levels of the micronutrients which the IV drips would exacerbate," says Hunty.

Ruuby is offering just this, having partnered with one of the only doctor-led IV drip companies in the UK which is certified by the Care Quality Commission (CQC; the independent regulator of all health and social care services in England). The beauty and wellness 'concierge' offers a Well Woman Profile service – at-home blood testing for deficiencies as well as blood cell levels, among other things. The samples are analysed by a senior doctor and you're issued a report, which can then be used to design a bespoke, IV drip regimen for you.

While higher-end clinics also offer bespoke drips, making recommendations from preliminary blood tests where deficiencies in certain vitamins are shown, as with much of the dialogue around IVNT, there's contention as to the reliability blood tests can offer. "Testing water soluble vitamins in blood test is not 100 per cent accurate," says clinical nutritionist Dr Gravaghi.

"Firstly, when you get a normal blood test, you can’t measure vitamin B1 and B3 easily, though you can do it in the UK through private companies. Secondly, let's say the night before you have a large dinner and have a test the next day, some vitamins are going to have sky rocketed but will not indicative of your normal levels."

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Another variable is whether your body is then able to take up these vitamins to the right place. "If your body needs it you won’t flush it out but it depends on the vitamins, and your kidneys have to be in a very good shape to process all of that," says Dr Gravaghi.

What evidence is there for the effectiveness of IV vitamin drips?

While various clinical studies on the effectiveness of IV vitamin drips have found little-to-no evidence of significant improvements when measured against placebo, anecdotally the high volume of repeat clientele and climbing demand must mean some individuals are feeling the positive benefits. "We have seen a significant increase in our Under the Weather and Immunity IV’s in the last six weeks," says chief medical advisor and anaesthetic consultant at Effect Doctors, Dr Will Buxton.

"Post-lockdown with people mingling again, respiratory and gastrointestinal bacterial and viral infectious have soared in the UK. We have seen repeat clients booking up monthly immunity IVs for the entire winter season in advance, as well as having six-monthly Well Person blood tests to check their iron, vitamin D and B12 levels."

How do I know if IV vitamin drips are for me?

If you find yourself situated at the cash-rich, time-poor end of the scale, it's likely these treatments will pique your interest. However, both Hunty and Dr Gravaghi point out there are very few times where a person needs an IV vitamin infusion.

"Generally speaking, it's good once in a while when you’re extremely dehydrated after an infection or a huge hangover," says Dr Gravaghi. "When you drink a lot of alcohol it acts as a strong dioritic so you lose the water soluble vitamins like vitamin B and C. That's the reason you haveterrible hangover afterwards. To do it systematically, you run the risk of the infection andit's a little bit intense. You don’t need a huge amount of vitamins all the time."

"A plant-based, varied diet including some animal products such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs, is by far the best approach to getting good nutrition," adds Hunty.

What side effects can IV vitamin drips cause?

As with any tweakment or treatment where needles are inserted under the skin, possible risks and side effects come with the territory. "We ask for a complete medical history before we treat any new client as there’s a range of conditions which could affect their suitability," says Estelle. "We don’t treat anyone with renal conditions (kidney diseases) or those needing dialysis."

There remains a clear divide in opinions from medical professionals when it comes to the benefits versus the possible issues, usually split between those sitting on either side of the fence. "Injecting anything into the blood stream comes with risks such as air bubbles in the syringe that can transfer to the blood stream, allergic reactions and infection, which are more likely to occur if the person administering the injection is not properly qualified," says Hunty.

She cites areviewpublished in 2020 which looked at the effects of high dose IV vitamin C therapy, which reported various adverse effects for both the IV and placebo group and which they said "warranted specific monitoring".

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How much regulation exists around IV drips?

While various IVNT treatments claim to tackle the effects of everything from visible signs of ageing to jetlag, the regulation around these statements has become tighter over recent years, increasingly so following the pandemic.

"A claim to be able to prevent or treat a disease is classed as a medicinal claim and any product making such a claim must be licensed by the MHRA as a medicinal product. TheASA issued an enforcement noticelast year to prevent any claims that IV drips could treat or prevent COVID-19," explains Hunty.

"The enforcement notice also prevents any implied or indirect claims that IV drips can treat or prevent viral infections such as flu and said that references to boost the immune system or to provide nutrients necessary to maintain a normally functioning immune system in the context of general references to the pandemic would be a problem."

As with booking any treatment of this kind, it's of the upmost importance to ensure the person administering the IV drip is medically qualified. Specialist IVNT companies such as Effect Doctor, whose directors come from backgrounds as consultant anaesthetists, only hire qualified nurses to deliver their treatments and can therefore give specialist consultations to their clients.

Always remember to thoroughly check out clinics and consult your doctor before undergoing any treatments.

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