The Korea Herald


[Weekender] IV drips: A quick energy shot for overworked Koreans

When excessive work and exhaustion leave them drained, intravenous vitamin infusions become lifeline for relief

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : June 15, 2024 - 16:01

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“Feeling burnt out? You’ve come to the right place,” the doctor said during my consultation at a clinic in Yeouido, Seoul's financial district, before prescribing what he called a “garlic injection.”

As an average South Korean national, I am used to eating tons of garlic, but I wasn’t quite ready to have it injected into my veins. It turned out that the “garlic injection” wasn't actually a shot of garlic extract or anything similar. It's a colloquial expression for an intravenous infusion therapy of vitamins that has a hint of a garlic scent.

The prescription for me was a mix of B vitamins, vitamin C and an antioxidant called glutathione, which he said should help boost my energy and reduce fatigue.

When asked how long the fatigue treatment would last, the doctor said that it would depend on my workload. “For people who have a lot of work, the effect may disappear in two to three days, and for others, it could last for as long as a week.”

He added that his clinic has regulars who come in twice a week.

After the consultation, which lasted over 10 minutes because I asked multiple questions, a nurse escorted me to the IV room, where luxurious recliners replaced hospital beds, each partitioned for privacy. The atmosphere was posh and relaxing, with soft piano music playing in the background.

I was provided with an armrest pillow, a microfiber blanket and a warm eye mask. The nurse then administered the IV to a vein in my arm. Whether it was the blindfold, the soothing music, the comfortable chair or the IV itself, I fell asleep and took a nap for about 40 minutes until the nurse returned to remove the IV.

I came out of the clinic feeling rejuvenated, not knowing if it was the nap or the IV that helped. The treatment cost 110,000 won ($80).

If you have ever wondered where Koreans find the energy for their long work hours, late-night socializing and binge drinking, my visit to this Yeouido clinic may offer an answer.

In South Korea, where medical care is highly accessible and affordable, primary care clinics offer IV therapy consisting of diverse nutrient cocktails, billing them as “Cinderella" shots, “placenta” shots, and “white jade” shots for anti-aging, curing hangovers, boosting immunity or even promoting glowing skin.

A typical IV drip is primarily composed of glucose and saline solution, with a mix of vitamins, antioxidants, proteins and minerals. Since it is administered intravenously or subcutaneously, its effect is rapid.

Pediatric clinics promote IV infusions tailored for teens preparing for school exams or the annual national college entrance exam.

The garlic shot, typically used as a fatigue treatment, is among these therapies, targeted mainly at workers seeking a quick boost in stamina.

There’s no published data available on the country’s spending on this significant supplement industry. But insurance payouts to cover policy holders’ claims for hydration therapies have increased significantly over the past years, industry data shows.

The total the country's five major insurers paid out for such therapies rose from 120 billion won in 2018 to 414 billion won in 2023, marking more than a threefold increase.

Yoo In-ha (pseudonym), a journalist in her 40s working for a major TV network, used to get an IV infusion almost every month until last year, while covering domestic politics.

“I worked day and night. Even if I wasn’t feeling well, didn’t get any sleep or had no energy to work, I still had to keep going,” said Yoo who has now moved to a different beat that is not as physically demanding as before. "When I was extremely exhausted, I would get an IV twice a week. I had no other choice."

The effect would last for about a week and cost between 60,000 won and 70,000 won each time, she shared.

One day, she went to a clinic near her daily beat location to get an IV after returning from a tightly-packed overseas trip. There, she found familiar faces lying with their arms also attached to IVs. “They were from the same trip.”

Her male junior colleague, whom she considers a workaholic, also gets one every month.

“He said he maintains his health through regular IVs instead of taking 'hanyak' (traditional Korean medicine),” Yoo said. “I thought that was a good idea.”

Traditionally, Koreans take hanyak when they have low energy, chronic health issues or in need of supplements or healing.

Lee Yena has received IV drips three times in her 26 years.

The first time was when she was preparing for her college graduation and struggling with sleep deprivation and fatigue. A visit to a neurologist resulted in a recommendation for an IV that cost 90,000 won. Lee said that the effect was “very good.”

A few years later when she contracted the coronavirus, she went to get another IV at a hospital, which she believed facilitated a quick recovery. “It might have just been psychological, but I really felt good,” she noted.

A few months ago, as a newcomer to the video production industry, Lee received her third IV. She was exhausted from working on a new project at her firm for several months while also attending graduate school classes in the evenings and completing assignments on weekends.

"I slept for almost 36 hours straight, but was still feeling worn out, so I went in for IV therapy," she said. "After napping for an hour with my arm hooked up to an IV, I felt refreshed. I had strength for about three weeks."

The use of IV infusions for various supplementary benefits is not confined to Korea; it is an approach known in North America as Myers' cocktail, named after the US physician who introduced it decades ago. But there is a general understanding that apart from anecdotal evidence, there is no scientific evidence backing up the stated health claims of taking such IV vitamin infusions.

Local health experts, too, warn against the tendency to look for quick fixes for overwork, stress, excessive drinking and other issues.

"Instead of relying on nutrient IVs or energy drinks, it is best to consume fresh vegetables and fruit rich in various nutrients, vitamins and minerals and ensure sufficient relaxation time," said Bae Woo-kyung, a professor of family medicine at Seoul National University College of Medicine.

"Additionally, you should eliminate harmful habits such as heavy drinking, smoking and eating late at night, which can cause sleep disorders," he stressed, adding that doing regular exercise and simply resting are healthier ways to combat fatigue and burnout symptoms.