New Health Trend: IV Vitamin Therapy

The latest must-have procedure of wellness-obsessed body buffs: customized intravenous vitamin cocktails. But do they really work?

iv vitamin
(Image credit: Richard Pierce)

When it comes to matters of health and fitness, I am president of the New York chapter of Unrepentant Skeptics. I was practically born with an arched brow for so-called curatives like acai berries (nature's very own Skittles) and FitFlops (about as effective as Hula-hoops for bum-toning). So naturally, I couldn't help but roll my eyes when I heard about customized intravenous vitamin therapy, the latest craze among wellness zealots who swear that the procedure, which delivers nutrients directly into the bloodstream, boosts immune systems and turbocharges energy levels.

While IV vitamin therapy isn't new — 50 years ago, Baltimore doc John Myers treated fatigue and depression with his injectable "Myers' Cocktail" of, among other things, B6, B12, and magnesium — the practice is enjoying a resurgence of late, thanks to customized, tailor-made-for-you IV drips designed to treat whatever ails you. Can't sleep? Flood your veins with vitamin D! Suffer from digestive problems? Mainline folic acid! Problem is, there's scant medical evidence to prove it works. Earlier this year, the FDA limited the distribution of injectable vitamin C, which could be an ominous sign about the agency's position on IV vitamin therapy in general. This though some doctors have for years been prescribing megadoses of vitamin C to alleviate symptoms of multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, even cancer.

I'd dismissed IV vitamin therapy to my brain's "fringe file" until I heard that the procedure was the secret antiaging weapon of reed-thin models and celebs. (Apparently, IV drips are so ubiquitous in L.A., you can order one with your facial.) That clinched it for me because, let's face it, who among us hasn't tried something we read about in Us Weekly? So I loaded up a few episodes of Modern Family on my iPad and headed over to Patients Medical, a bustling East-meets-West medical practice in midtown Manhattan, where I unloaded my postpartum maladies — monster fatigue; chronic postnasal drip; and dry, itchy skin — on Dr. Rashmi Gulati, a 48-year-old internist who runs the practice.

I half expected Gulati to greet me wearing Tevas and a batik tunic. But her practice is decidedly high-tech, outfitted with equipment for ultrasounds, bone density measurements, and EKGs. During our initial visit, she articulated her problems with Western medicine, which tends to look at the body as a collection of parts rather than as a total machine. I was particularly moved when she told me that, just four years earlier, her scrip-pushing doctors had declared her perimenopausal and told her to abandon any hope of having children. She abandoned the doctors instead, and embarked on an Eastern-based regimen of vitamins and hormone replacement therapy that she credits with helping her conceive twin girls. Then, as if to seal the deal, she said that thanks to figures like Dr. Mehmet Oz, who endorses her practice, holistic medicine was finally gaining traction in the U.S. (A call to Oz's office confirmed that he has, in fact, referred patients to her.) "When can we get started?" I asked, rolling up my sleeve.

"I can't just give you an IV without knowing what's going on!" she chortled. Turns out, Gulati is one of those principled physicians who likes to get a comprehensive picture of her patients before doling out prescriptions. For an hour she quizzed me on everything from my family medical history to my sex life. Suspecting a thyroid problem ("Your skin looks very pale — I bet you get bloated easily," she said, as I nodded in awe), she ordered tests to check my vitamin and hormone levels, then suggested a complete allergy workup. Be forewarned: Gulati's services aren't cheap. Without good insurance, you'll likely pick up the bulk of the $400 initial visit, plus most of the blood work. The IV cocktail itself — Gulati recommended I get weekly injections for three months — costs $100.

Until Gulati could pinpoint my problem areas, my first injection would be a standard Myers' Cocktail. A nurse escorted me to a long, plain room lined with cozy recliners where several well-dressed middle-aged women kicked back with magazines and BlackBerrys as their IV drips worked their magic. The place looked like a cross between your standard doctor's office waiting room and a local nail salon. I sidled into a chair, propped up my legs, extended my arm, and drifted off to sleep while translucent drops of vitamin goodness circulated in my veins. When I awoke about an hour later, I sat still for a moment, anticipating a near-electric surge of energy to eject me from the chair.

Only nothing happened. I felt groggy (a common side effect, I'd been warned), thirsty, and ultimately disappointed as I trudged back to work. A couple of hours later, I dragged myself to Spin class, so exhausted I actually considered filling my water bottle with iced espresso. And then, a funny thing happened. Ten minutes into class, about the time my muscles begin to curse me, they didn't. Instead, they loosened up as though Lance Armstrong himself had given them a pep talk. I'd never felt so pumped. It may have been the best workout of my life.

Needless to say, I was eager for another hit.

"I've been waiting for this appointment all week," Gulati declared excitedly when I returned to her office a week later. (When's the last time your doctor said that?) She was waving the results of my blood work. My vitamins D and E and iron counts were in the basement, probably a by-product of my son's birth, and were likely contributing to my massive lethargy. I also tested positive for a spate of household allergies, from dust mites to birch and oak. ("You might want to consider new furniture," Gulati cheerfully suggested. Yeah, I'll get right on that.) These sensitivities also seemed to play a role in my overall fatigue.

And while the blood tests weren't entirely conclusive, Gulati suspected that my T3 thyroid hormones were too low, which might explain not only the cinder blocks weighing down my eyelids, but my history of cold hands, dry skin, irritability, and difficulty losing weight. So she ordered another pricey blood test ($245) just to be sure. Finally, she prescribed an IV bag, mixed on-site within minutes, loaded with high concentrations of B2 and L-carnitine (for fatigue), and I was back on the cozy recliner.

You know how when you play the lottery, you mentally spend your winnings even before the numbers are drawn? That was me, as I received my customized IV, devising my "Welcome back, Energy!" to-do list: I'll cook salmon tonight, maybe even squeeze in a run beforehand. Wait — I should run the marathon! Only this time, several hours later, I was still waiting for the big bang. By 10 p.m., my limbs were as heavy as lampposts as I crawled into bed. For days, I held out hope that I'd wake up juiced for the day, but that never happened. To be fair, I received several compliments on my shiny hair and glowing complexion, an inevitable result of the B12. ("Did you have Botox?" one friend asked.) But I'd trade a great mane for lasting mojo any day of the week.

I've since rationalized that my peak performance in Spin class was a psychosomatic event — in other words, wishful thinking. But I haven't given up on Gulati and, if I can figure out how to finance it, may even make her my primary doctor. During our second visit, after she'd reviewed my blood work, she advised a regimen of pure-grade vitamins, "not the junk they sell in the drugstore," to supplement the IV. I've been taking them for a few weeks now and already notice a difference: I'm more alert at work and, damned if I don't say, a bit more energized at home. Who knows if these small improvements are because of Gulati and her holistic approach to medicine, but for the first time, I'm open to finding out.