Supplements' value hard to be sure of


In part because of a request to do an article about supplements, this column will deal with them.

However, before getting into the subject, here is a familiar maxim: You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

For a long time I have been concerned about some of the supplements that have been marketed in one way or another. For instance, some of the older folks will remember a supposed cancer cure called laetrile that was obtained from apricot pits. Then there is or was shark cartilage and royal jelly (from queen bees).

Another thing to think about is that supplements are a relatively new kid on the block. When I graduated from medical school in 1953 there were virtually no supplements.

My father's mother lived to be 95 and two of her sisters lived to be 100 or more. I think I can safely say they achieved that longevity without supplements.

So why are there so many on the market now? This is due in large part to a federal law. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act that was passed in 1994. The supplement industry intensely lobbied for it.

It basically took away most regulation of supplements by the federal Food and Drug Administration. What that means is that supplements are not required to be screened by the FDA for effectiveness or safety. To put this in a different way supplement manufacturers do not have to prove to anybody that supplements work and that they won't hurt you. And that is not good.

Contrast this with the strict regulation by the FDA of all pharmaceutical drugs, both prescription and non-prescription. They must be demonstrated effective and safe before they can be sold. Possible harmful effects must be clearly stated.

Big bucks are being spent for supplements -- at least 25 billion dollars a year in the U.S. Supplement manufacturers can use some of that money to lobby Congress.

Unfortunately there is only limited regulation of health claims that can be made. For example a label can say "helps improve your mood" but can't say "reduces depression." Or it can claim "maintains a healthy circulatory system" but cannot claim "prevents cardiovascular disease."

The average consumer will have much difficulty telling the difference between reasonable claims and those that are overblown.

A major problem with supplements is that there are some that have been sold or are being sold for which the only recommendation is anecdotal or testimonial evidence and there have been no solid scientific studies done.

Also some supplements can be very dangerous or they may interfere with medications a patient is taking.

According to the University of California-Berkeley Wellness Letter Special Report people should be wary of anti-aging claims because at the present time there is no known substance or supplement that will keep you young.

No one is saying that all supplements are bad but even with the good ones you can not be sure of quality control or purity or efficacy from one batch to the next. Vitamin D is one that many folks should be taking and a vegans should be on B12.

As far as anti-aging there are a number of things one can do to live longer and healthier. Among these are eat healthy food, avoid junk foods, soda pop, alcohol, tobacco, caffeinated beverages, have a regular exercise program,. and get adequate sleep at night.

Space and time prevent giving more information on supplements. For $19.95 you can buy the 60-page "Dietary Supplements: Your Complete Guide to Making the Best Choices" by the editors of UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

To order a copy call 1-800-829-9170 or write to Wellness Reports, PO Box 8532, Big Sandy, TX 75755.

If you aren't satisfied you can return it and pay nothing. You can also order a copy online at where you can choose a print of digital version.

Dr. Don Casebolt of College Place is a retired physician who is passionate about preventive medicine. He spent four years as a medical officer in the U.S. Navy, the last 2 1/2 years as a flight surgeon. He also worked on the Navajo Reservation for 22 years.


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