Ask Will: Making Sense of Supplements
Q: My family has always been health conscious and we try to do the right thing for our health – because it’s important! But I’m getting mixed messages from the news when I hear about supplements. Are there some that are better than others?
A: I want to make this very clear. The weight of research evidence is not looking good for dietary supplements! And this, I think, is what causes the confusion as the health claims run headlong into the health data. So let’s just look at a bit of that.
First of all, the best source of your nutrition comes from food. That’s just common sense. The body has adapted to the food grown on this planet for the past few billion years of evolution. And it would be a logical absurdity to presume the perfect fit between food and physiology could be bettered by some invention we came up with over the past few decades.
That doesn’t stop us from trying to convince others that nutritional supplements must be a healthful solution. Unfortunately the health claims lead the health data. For example:
- Does glucosamine and chondroitin work for joint pain? Not for the knee (here’s another).
- Do vitamin B supplements help heal the arteries of your heart? Not at all.
- Do supplemental vitamins C and E help prevent cancer? In this massive randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled Physicians’ Health Study II, an amazing 14,641 male physicians aged 50 years or older were given vitamin C and E supplements. Neither provided any protection whatsoever against cancer, despite the fact that foods with vitamin C and E are protective.
- But what about the multivitamins? Do they help you stay healthy? Not for your heart and not for cancer prevention.
This amazing lack of effect is only now getting significant attention from regulators. In fact, a FDA investigation of herbal supplements randomly tested 78 supplement bottles at found in drugstores. They found that 80 percent of them did not even contain the ingredients advertised on their labels. What did they contain? According to the report, in many cases they consisted of powdered rice, wheat, and ground-up houseplants.
Seriously. Ground up houseplants.
Even if they were pure which, 80 percent of the time they are not, ginkgo biloba supplements carried a claim that the products supported “concentration, memory, and peripheral circulation, enhancing blood flow to the arms, legs, and brain.” There is no evidence for this. A line of saw palmetto supplements promised to “support healthy prostate function.” There is no evidence for this either. One brand of echinacea supplements were promoted for “healthy immune function.” Evidence? Nope.
Maybe the ground up houseplants just aren’t that effective for anything much, with the exception perhaps of selling fraudulent claims to unsuspecting customers.
Supplements can also be dangerous.
The common supplements above may have been irrelevant to better health for the men, but for pregnant women they turned out to make pregnancy complications of high blood pressure 10 percent worse!
The Cancer Institute recently reported that exposure to supplements such as vitamins, herbs, protein powders, and botanicals were responsible for more than 35,000 calls to US poison control centers in 2011. Over 800 of them had moderate to severe outcomes, and four people died.
Even this alarming incidence is likely a strong underestimate of the actual health toll taken by supplements, as most people won’t actually call a poison control center.
Those on chemotherapy are at a much higher risk of unexpected drug interactions with dietary supplements and should consult their doctor about any they are taking. But even this may not be enough, as the lack of regulatory oversight has allowed some supplement makers to insert dangerous additional drugs in their formulas that are completely unlabeled.
If you’re sick, take your meds. Don’t be silly. But if you have a relatively normal physiology and your body’s not broken yet, your best source of nutrition comes from the foods that are here precisely because of the optimal nutrition they provide for our body.
In our weekly series Ask Will, our resident nutrition expert, Dr. Will Clower, Founder & CEO of Mediterranean Wellness, will be answering your questions on food, diet, and nutrition each Wednesday! He’ll tackle the common and the not-so-common concerns we all have with food and help us work towards creating the best nutrition plan for us! Have a question for Dr. Clower? Ask Will in the comments below and stay tuned each Wednesday to see your question get answered!