It’s all natural, my pretty…. Supplements Part 2: The gripping sequel!

Where last we left off, we were lugging our suitcases of $537 worth of all-natural supplements to our car after talking to Edna, the nutrition expert in our local crunchy-munchy-raw-n-natural-morally-superior health food store.  After hearing that self-titled nutrition experts aren’t necessarily educated or licensed like dietitians, you retort

“But fine. So what!? I happened to have $537 that I WANT to spend on these things that may or may not help me achieve all my dreams. If I end up happier / younger / turning into <insert Hollywood Heart-Throb here>’s look-alike or girlfriend, sweet. If not, oh well, no harm no foul, right?”

(Blog previously posted on nutrivise.tumblr.com!)

Unfortunately….wrong. More often than not, most supplement are going to run right through you. So unless you’ve found a way to earn back cash from flushing, you’re waving goodbye to hard earned dollars with every flush. What’s potentially more concerning is that you may be signing up for serious side effects that Edna didn’t tell you about, not just because she didn’t know, but because not even scientists know!

Let’s start with the more pleasant scenario of you pissing away your hard earned dollars on hopes of achieving something magical through a rare plant in Africa bottled for your pleasure.  The bummer is that the DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act) of 1994 was passed, which means that the FDA is no longer regulating any dietary supplements, and it’s basically the responsibility of the product supplier to make sure they are providing you with the substance they say they are. For example, when we buy bread, the FDA makes sure that that bread is actually bread, like the label says.  But for vitamins and other supplements, you have no guarantee that what you are buying actually contains the ingredients the label lists.  Instead of 1000 mg of vitamin C, you could be getting 100 mg of Vitamin C, and maybe even a little, itty-bitty, tiny-teeny bit of lead fell into the machine during processing. Oops!

While that sounded bad enough, here’s the actual worst-case scenario—the herb or supplement actually ends up causing you more problems than you had to begin with. Drugs have lists of side effects, essentially everything ever reported by someone taking the drug during a trial, even if this side effect may not have been due to the drug (ie. the patient just happened to have a headache during the drug trial and reported it). Supplements, on the other hand, were never tested out in trials, so there were no lists of side effects.  A drug has to prove it’s relatively safe based on rigorous investigation and FDA approval. An herb or supplement, on the other hand, doesn’t have to prove squat- not that it works, nor if it is safe, nor if it even contains what they say it has in it. (More info on this here- Stephen Barrett has some great stuff! http://www.quackwatch.org/02ConsumerProtection/dshea.html)

Possible Side Effects of Taking Supplements:

Enough Doom and Gloom—- what can you do to make sure what you’re taking is safe, while avoiding taking something potentially dangerous?!

  1. Run your supplement plans by a Registered Dietitian. Ask them to evaluate any research that might be out there on whatever your herb or product of interest is.
  2. If you decide you have to buy this supplement, (even if it’s a multivitamin), buy something sealed by one of these guys: United States Pharmacopeia, NSF International, ConsumerLab.com. Their seal does NOT mean the product is safe or effective, but it DOES mean that what is on the label is what is in the bottle.
  3. Tell your Dr if you’re going to start taking something. Some vitamins and supplements can interact with medications you are on, increase bleeding risk during surgery, and inflate or deflate blood panel values.
  4. Check your head. Remember, just because something is “Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. Remember Kurt Cobain—heroin was natural, and the last time we checked he wasn’t doing so hot…

Marily O

MS, RD, PhD

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One response

  1. Pingback: Quickie of the Week: Glucosamine = Joint Savior or Expensive Urine? | 411nutrition

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