Wouldn’t you like to strengthen your immune system, detoxify your body from the inside out (!), reduce your stress levels, and be helped to recover and rehydrate quickly after exercise?

All these so-called benefits, and a lot more besides, are available – for a nice fat fee – at private clinics springing up in cities in the UK, USA, Asia, and elsewhere.

And how are these wonders achieved? By vitamin-laced salt water being infused into your bloodstream through a vein in your arm! It’s called IV (intravenous) drip therapy.

The word ‘therapy’ is from the Greek, therapeia, meaning service done to the sick, or the treatment of disease. But clinics administering such services go out of their way to emphasise they are not treating diseases: their IV drips are intended for people in ostensibly normal health.

I contacted the medical directors of three such clinics in the UK – I’ll spare their blushes by leaving them unnamed. They are all registered with the UK doctors’ regulatory body, the General Medical Council (GMC) and although they have a licence to practice, none is on the general practice or specialist register, meaning they cannot work in the NHS.

I asked them if they would be so kind as to tell me the evidence for the claims they make, as indicated in my first paragraph. Two responded and sent me, not what I had asked for – which is not surprising, for no such evidence exists – but a list of references to medical papers on the functions of vitamins and minerals in normal human metabolism.

For the immune system to function properly we need vitamins A, D, C, E, B6, and B12, as well as folate, zinc, iron, copper, and selenium. Sufficient amounts of these substances are normally obtained through an average western diet – they are, after all, micronutrients, meaning they are needed in only very small quantities. That is well understood and uncontroversial. But it does not follow, as these IV drip outfits imply, that if you take in more than the minimum of these substances needed for normal health you will do yourself any good. The body has limited capacity for storing them and any excess is excreted in the urine. Indeed, too much vitamin A or D can be toxic.

A simple analogy is the bicycle chain: it needs a certain amount of oil to run smoothly. But if you use more than the minimum required it will not enable you to pedal any faster – the surplus will merely drip onto the ground and be wasted.

How to avoid catching Covid-19
In these days of the Covid-19 pandemic it’s easy to prey on people’s insecurities and persuade them to believe they can ‘boost’ their immune system with IV drips. After all, no one wants to catch this potentially fatal disease which at the time of writing has already caused nearly 2.8 million deaths worldwide.

What can you do to avoid Covid-19? You can be vaccinated against this infection, and it’s well known that you should wear a mask in public, keep social distancing, and wash your hands frequently. Apart from that, you want to be as healthy as you can. And the way to achieve this is to follow a few well-known simple rules: don’t smoke, drink in moderation if at all, take regular exercise, control your weight, and eat a healthy diet.

A normal varied western diet will provide all that you need; it’s quite hard to end up deficient in essential nutrients. On rare occasions one may hear, for example, of elderly housebound people living on white bread and jam who develop scurvy from lack of vitamin C. And then there are patients with intestinal abnormalities, as well as other disorders, which make it difficult to absorb food properly, but that’s venturing into the realm of pathology which I don’t intend to discuss here.

Some people believe they can’t achieve optimum nutrition from ordinary food, so they chose to take supplementary vitamins and minerals by mouth. Although this is unnecessary for most people, it’s generally harmless and the cost is small, so there’s little objection to it.

What about this ‘boosting’ business?
If someone is seemingly in normal health, to talk of boosting (strengthening or enhancing) their immune system is meaningless, and it would be impossible anyway. One’s immune system is either normal or it isn’t, but in the latter case we are dealing with disease – there are immune deficiency states which may be found in sick people.

Yet these private clinics offering IV therapy claim or imply that for people in normal health they are able, indeed, to boost their immune system.  These claims, similarly to those made for the nonsensical idea of ‘detoxification’, are unproven or false.

If someone catches a lot of colds does that mean there is something wrong with their immune system? No, it means they have been in contact with many cold viruses and the immune system has been functioning as it is supposed to: by making the body’s defence systems go into top gear. You may not feel well while this is happening, with fever, aches and pains, runny nose, and cough. But these are signs that your immune system is in good order: it’s how your body is fighting the infection.

There is one London-based IV drip establishment which, since it’s not run by a doctor but by a layman, I shall identify. It goes by the peremptory name of ‘Get A Drip’ and it was set up by one Richard Chambers. Their website tells us:

The idea for Get A Drip first came to founder, Richard Chambers, after he found himself in intensive care in 2010 suffering with complications from his Type 1 Diabetes…where…as part of the treatment he would be hooked up to an IV Drip. Feeling the rejuvenating benefits, Richard decided that drips should be accessible to the general public, not just in hospitals or to the super wealthy.

This is misleading. There’s a world of difference between someone who is ill with the serious disease of type I diabetes being treated with an intravenous infusion (which as well as rehydrating fluid would contain insulin, potassium, and sodium bicarbonate), and members of the public who are in their normal state of health.

Hazards of IV treatment
It should be realised that IV treatment, though usually safe if administered by properly trained personel, is not without risk.

The risks, though uncommon or rare, include anaphylaxis (shock), fluid overload, electrolyte imbalance, air embolism, thrombophlebitis, inadvertent intra-arterial infusion, extra-venous infusion, brusing at the puncture site, infection at the puncture site, and general infection (sepsis).

A better way to spend your money
Rather than going to the pointless trouble and expense—and exposing yourself to the risks – of getting an IV drip, I would suggest you spend your money on good food, and if you feel you need rehydrating, drink a glass of water.

Text © Gabriel Symonds