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Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

Is It Possible to Overdose on Vitamins?

Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

Too much of anything, even a helpful or healthy thing, can hurt you. Medication? Definitely. Water? Absolutely. Exercise? You bet. Vitamins? Quite possibly. 

Scientifically speaking, a vitamin is any one of a number of chemical compounds that help organisms stay healthy and grow. They may appear naturally in our bodies or in our food, or we may get them in the form of a pill, chewable cartoon-character-shaped tablet, or gummy.

We all need vitamins to survive—but that doesn’t mean we need to take vitamins. In fact, just about everyone (with a few exceptions, including pregnant women and people with absorption issues) can get all the vitamins they need by eating a balanced diet. Fruits and vegetables are naturally rich in vitamins, as are nuts, dairy products, eggs, and meat. On top of that, many of the foods on our supermarket shelves have been fortified with additional vitamins. 

Vitamin deficiencies do occur, and they can cause health problems. But these deficiencies are far less common than vitamin peddlers would have us believe. Today, more than half of Americans take at least one vitamin or supplement, and most of us don’t actually need them. 

If you’re eating a varied and healthy diet and consuming fortified foods and taking a vitamin, you could be overdoing it. This might seem like a good thing—if having enough vitamin D is good, having more must be better, right?—but it really isn’t. Your body requires a set quantity of each vitamin. Exceeding that quantity won’t make you healthier, but it could make you sick

Over-consuming vitamin C could lead to nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. Too much vitamin D can cause vomiting, a loss of appetite, and kidney problems. An excess of B vitamins may cause nerve damage. You get the idea.

Still, to reach dangerous levels of any vitamin, you’d need to be hitting it pretty hard. A lethal overdose of vitamins is highly unlikely, but it is technically possible, the same way a lethal overdose of orange juice is possible. 

Still not sure if you’re getting enough? Check out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s table of Reference Daily Intake (formerly Recommended Daily Allowance, or RDA) recommendations. Like most FDA guidelines, the RDIs are based on a 2000-calorie diet, so you may need a little more or a little less. If you’re really concerned, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian for more personalized recommendations.

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Big Questions
Why Is Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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