A True Story And A Moral: I Tried Supplements And Then I Puked

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I was invited to write for the SCA blog with the intent of presenting the research behind products and ingredients. To help identify the ineffective, and possibly dangerous, snake oils that undermine the industry, if you will. Today, I’m going to switch gears and share a story.

To preface: I know very well that the vitamin and supplement industry is fraught with lies and exaggerations. I know that we are supposed to seek medical advice before starting supplements. And I know, ignoring all of the above, that I should at least do a little bit of research for myself before blindly following the advice of other Internet denizens. But, of course, I didn’t.

I had heard that zinc deficiency can cause breakouts and that zinc supplements might improve acne for some people who are deficient. For a while, I ignored this. I only break out periodically, I eat a fairly balanced diet, and I know to be careful of believing everything the Internet says. It didn’t seem relevant to me, so I kept my normal routine like any rational person might.

But then I heard this advice again, and this time it was framed in a context that felt relevant to me. Who needs facts when we have feelings, right?

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with another biologist who told me they had done their own research and were pretty convinced that copper IUDs were contributing to a zinc deficiency and influencing their break outs. I have a copper IUD, I thought, maybe I have low zinc. Maybe supplements will help my skin!

Looking back, this is the point where I should have looked up symptoms of zinc deficiency and dietary sources of zinc or actually made a doctor’s appointment to conclusively test my zinc levels. Instead, I promptly went to the pharmacy and grabbed the cheapest bottle of zinc citrate with the lowest concentration I could find.

I have to give myself some credit. I at least had the presence of mind to start small. I took half a pill every 4 or 5 days, although that was mostly because I kept forgetting about them. After a couple of weeks and following a few days of having, again, forgotten, I woke up one morning with a hankering to relax and pamper myself. I made my morning coffee, put on a clay mask, and remembered to take my zinc. Too lazy to cut it in half, I popped a full pill.

I finished my coffee and rinsed the clay off my face. Suddenly, alarmingly, I felt very nauseous. Since pretty much the only thing that makes me puke is a hard night of drinking and a nasty hangover, it was strange that I found myself flung face-first into a toilet bowl heaving out the non-existent contents of my stomach.

And as suddenly as it had started, I was fine again. I made more coffee and timidly ate breakfast, thoroughly perplexed as to why I had just been sick. It took a few hours to realise that the only thing unusual about my morning had been that zinc supplement. A quick Google search revealed that, yes, zinc supplements can upset stomachs, especially empty stomachs, a fact I would surly have encountered had I done my research when I should have.

I haven’t taken any more zinc. Not because I think it caused me harm, but because, lacking a proper medical examination, I have no evidence that I even need it. When faced with a skin problem, it’s easy to desperately try anything, especially when it can be difficult to find a solution that actually works. This experience reminded me that I shouldn’t blindly follow casual advice without educating myself about the subject first, whether through research or consulting with an expert. I think I learned my lesson.

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