Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Wife Is Smarter Than Me

I grew up on dietary supplements. As I've written before, my mother was a devout reader of Prevention Magazine in the 1960s and my supplementation experience began with cod liver oil some 50+ years ago and continued over many years with strong recommendations to take Vitamin C, beta-carotene, the B complex vitamins, etc. It was only within the past year or so that I realized my folly.

My wife, Yael, on the other hand, has always disdained supplement pills. We never really discussed her aversion to such pills and I just assumed she didn't like pills in general as she always tries to avoid medication whenever possible (another check-mark on her smart list).

Today, we got into a discussion about dietary supplements and she reminded me of her decision to abstain from them over all the years that I was popping them.  I finally asked her specifically for her reasoning. Her answer was so eloquent and pure that I had to write about it.

She explained that part of her childhood took place on a farm where she would pick eggs off the floor and fruits and vegetables from trees and fields.  It simply never made sense to her that somehow our health was dependent on taking little capsules that had been chemically synthesized and produced in some plant or laboratory as opposed to eating nature's own produce. She is so right and obviously much smarter than me because she realized the insanity years before I did.

Yet, it is reported that by some estimates, 80% of Americans now take some form of dietary supplementation. This is unfortunately the case despite a slew of recent studies beginning to form quite a unavoidable pile that have revealed that these pills instead of making us healthier may in fact be making us sicker.

A new patient of mine yesterday handed me Tuft University's Health and Nutrition Letter and asked my opinion if it was worth reading. She was on a dozen dietary supplements and admitted confusion on what she should take and had sought out such publications for affirmation of her choices. By the way, she was on many of the usual suspects with doubling and tripling of dosages across her various pills. Some dosages were 30 times the recommended daily allowance (RDA). I put her on a two week vacation from all her dietary supplements other than Aspirin to see if it would help with some of he medical issues.

Nevertheless, I promised to read Health and Nutrition Letter and report back to her on its value and reliability. After reading it, on first exposure, I give it a thumb's up. I thought it was well written, thoughtful, not attempting to be provocative; rather, I found the information to be factual and reported without apparent bias.

Articles included a report further debunking ginkgo biloba as effective in preventing heart attacks and strokes. It did report that ginkgo may have some mild benefit in preventing peripheral arterial disease (disease of blood vessels in arms and legs that prevents blood flow). Another article reported on yet another study that shows the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. There were articles on the FDA warning Cheerios about their bogus health claims and how Organic produce, contrary to widespread myth-making, has no nutritional benefit over conventionally raised produce. The study did not address the pesticide risks, just the nutritional value.

But my favorite article was titled "The Bad News About Products "Too Good to Be True."" It was a well presented argument against the false advertising perpetuated by a rapidly growing supplement industry. One key aspect of the article was discussion how Congress bowing to pressure from the ever-growing increasingly powerful dietary supplement industry, essentially sought to gut the 1990 Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) by passing the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994 (DSHEA) and the Food & Drug Admoinstration Modernization Act (FDAMA) in 1997.

While the NLEA "set a standard of "significant scientific agreement" for health related claims on product labels," both the DSHEA and FDAMA, according to a professor named Dr. James Tilloston at Tufts, marked a "return to snake oil. The FDA's hands are tied by unwise policy initiated by pressure groups to allow them to huckster. It's undermined all health claims."

I was recently interviewed by a reporter for The Globe Magazine on the deceptive practices of dietary supplement marketers. The reporter told me something that should give us all pause for thought. She told me that the reason there have been so few articles exposing the chicanery of the industry is because the dietary supplement industry represents a significant source of advertising dollars and no media outlet usually wants to bite the hand that feeds it. Nevertheless, I see this changing as the proverbial cat is out of the bag as the tsunami of recent studies showing harms from many such products simply can't be ignored.

 If this is any solace and it shouldn't be, I was invited to appear on the most popular morning TV show in Australia to discuss the problems with dietary supplements. I guess this growing public health problem is not confined to our borders and has become a world-wide phenomenon.

So warn your family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers: Don't take supplements without the advice of you doctor and even when doctors gives such advice, you should ask them what information they are relying upon as that information may now be outdated.

A word to the wise should be sufficient.

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