Many Supplements Worse Than Useless
Even when we’re given good advice at health food stores, the recommended dietary supplements may not contain what they say on the label. In my last Care2 column, Bad Health Food Store Advice, I run through some of the studies suggesting that health food store employees do not appear sufficiently trained or knowledgeable to be dishing out medical advice. One of the studies I detail in my 2-min. video Bad Advice From Health Food Store Employees found at least some uniformity in their recommendations. Researchers went into health food stores feigning depression and most were given St. John’s wort supplements (though at widely varying doses and without mentioning the significant drug reactions and side-effects such as photosensitivity). Still, at least they were vaguely consistent with their advice. What was not consistent was the level of the active ingredient, hypericin, promised on the labels. Ninety percent were wildly off, and 2 of the 13 they tested had none at all.
In the United States, dietary supplements are a $22 billion industry. That’s 10 times less than what we spend on prescription drugs, but still—$22 billion is no small potatoes. Many of us rightly rail against the political influence and commercial bias of the pharmaceutical industry, but are we to assume gazillion dollar supplement corporations are any less self-interested?
In my NutritionFacts.org video pick today, shown above, a supplement industry representative attempts to rebut a mea culpa editorial in an alternative medicine journal decrying the predatory nature of dietary supplement marketing.
As I note in the video, adverse reactions to prescription drugs far exceed those ascribed to dietary supplements. The best way to avoid such side effects is to stay healthy enough to avoid both altogether. See Dr. Ornish’s editorial Convergence of Evidence and Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants. There are also a number of natural remedies that may work as well, but have fewer side effects such as Saffron for Alzheimer’s, Flax Seeds for Prostate Enlargement, and Amla for Diabetes. Plants are powerful—check out my 3-min video Power Plants.
People taking dietary supplements may, in some cases, be paying to make themselves sick. In one minute I cover folic acid, beta-carotene, and green tea supplements in Some Dietary Supplements May Be More Than A Waste Of Money. For background on the folic acid versus folate story (which may explain any multivitamin breast cancer connection), see Can Folic Acid Be Harmful? Note, I still recommend folic acid supplements immediately prior to and during pregnancy. For more on avoiding the esophageal cancer I mention in the video, see Poultry and Penis Cancer, Coffee and Cancer, and Bacon and Botulism. Then for how to boost your absorption of carotenoid phytonutrients like beta-carotene see Raw Food Nutrient Absorption and Forgo Fat-Free Dressings? It’s unfortunate that green tea supplements have a scary side, but green tea itself has a variety of health-promoting properties.
Supplements may also be contaminated with toxic heavy metals. I’ve covered lead, mercury, and arsenic in many traditional remedies in my videos Some Ayurvedic Medicine Worse Than Lead Paint Exposure, Get the Lead Out, and Amla and Triphala Tested for Metals, but a Consumer Reports investigation is now questioning the safety of protein supplements. They found that more than half they tested exceeded the California prop 65 “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act” action levels. See more in my 1-min. video Heavy Metals In Protein Powder Supplements.
I have more than five dozen videos on dietary supplements in general for those interested in taking a deeper look, with a number suggesting toxicity including fish oil, Juice Plus, Herbalife, blue-green algae, spirulina, green tea extracts, and noni juice. There are, however, supplements like vitamin B12 and vitamin D that are likely to be health-promoting, but otherwise we should really try to get our nutrients from Produce, Not Pills.
Michael Greger, M.D.
Image Credit: erix! / Flickr