*Editor’s Note: This website is not designed to, and should not be construed to, provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment.
Update: GNC forced to improve quality.
As a yoga instructor, I encounter students from all walks of life.
One of my regulars, who also happens to be one of my favorite students, is a pharmacist at a major university hospital. On a recent morning after class, we were talking about our respective working lives, and I asked her what her biggest challenge was.
Without missing a beat, she replied that it was the number of patients she encountered who failed to disclose the herbal supplements or vitamins they were currently taking and were unaware of any possible or potential drug interactions between the former and their prescription and/or over-the-counter drugs.
When I asked if that happened a lot, she nodded emphatically and replied, “Yes. All the time.”
That revelation is hardly surprising given the number of people in America alone who take vitamins and/or herbal supplements.
According to a Gallup poll taken late last year, half of all Americans take vitamins regularly with women, older and upper-income individuals taking the most. (It’s estimated that we collectively spend $12 billion dollars a year on vitamins alone and an estimated $60 billion on herbal supplements.)
While I happen to take Vitamin D supplements at the recommendation of my doctor, most people do not receive any medical advice or even ask their health care provider before embarking on a new supplement/vitamin.
As Dr. Andrew Weil noted in the revised edition of his best-selling book, Natural Health, Natural Medicine, every year or so, there is a “hot” new vitamin or supplement that is all the rage and many people buy it regardless if they really need it or not, or even if it lives up to the often exaggerated claims attributed to it.
Besides that, there are other considerations as well. For one thing, despite the fact that many equate “natural” with somehow being safer, that is often not the case. Many natural things can be bad for us, and vitamins and supplements are no exception to that rule. For instance, some mega doses of vitamins like Vitamin A can do far more harm than good.
On the herbal side, in large doses, kava kava can cause liver damage. Horse chestnut, a popular remedy for varicose veins, may interact with some diabetic drugs and anticoagulants. Even chamomile, an herb often recommended to children because of its mildness, might interact with anticoagulants.
While many people I know are leery about taking any sort of drug-prescription or over-the-counter medicine, they have no qualms about supplements. However, as the above shows, supplements can be powerful things, with many acting like drugs. (Indeed, the word drug comes from the Swedish word “druug” which means “dried plant.”)
If that isn’t enough to make one take pause and think, then consider that you might not even get what you think you are getting, or what is on the label of your tincture, tablets, etc. It’s estimated that 30% of supplements “are mislabeled, contaminated or—in many cases—wholly without the herb you thought you were buying”. (Part of this lies in the fact that unlike the drug industry which is pretty strictly regulated, the vitamin and supplement industry is largely unregulated.)
Therefore, what’s a supplement-loving girl or guy to do? Or more correctly, how can we have our supplements, make sure the stuff we are taking is actually what it says it is on the label, and remain safe?
Below are some helpful tips to keep us safe:
1. First, ask ourselves why we are taking this or what we can realistically hope to expect.
The old adage, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is, is especially true here. Extreme claims such as guaranteed weight loss, “perfect” health, or an emphasis that everyone should be taking a certain vitamin supplement or herbal product should be red flags. Don’t rely on claims made by product manufacturers or even anecdotes from friends. Instead, do your own research which brings me to #2.
2. Ask the experts.
“Experts” in this case refer to health care providers, herbalists, or if you’re lucky enough to know any, researchers in the field of botany or nutrition depending on what you are interested in taking.
While any possible drug interactions are important, it’s a good idea to ask our primary care physicians their advice whether we embark on a new vitamin or supplement, even if we aren’t currently on anything. This is even more important if we happen to be women of childbearing age who want to, or may want to, be become pregnant in the not-so-distant future.
Of course, not all experts are created equal. If you get the impression that your health care provider, herbalist, etc., may not have the most up-to-date information, or be lacking specific areas of knowledge, find one who appears to not only know what they are talking about, but has the references to back it up (e.g., I happen to know and trust a local herbalist who, in addition to having worked as a herbalist for over 20 years, is also a nurse practitioner.)
3. Whenever possible, obtain herbal medicine from a mainstream pharmacy.
As Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, MD explain in their best-selling 2008 book Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, consumers are not only likely to find the highest quality products there, but also products “probably free of contaminants and adulterants.” They also recommend sticking with pills as opposed to powdered leaves, teas, etc. to ensure that one is receiving the correct dosage. (As far as what that correct dosage is, again, it is a good idea to ask an expert. Do not automatically assume that “more is more.”)
4. Inform your entire healthcare network or team of all supplements and/or vitamins.
This includes mental health therapists, physical therapists, etc. in addition to one’s GP or family doctor. Do not assume that by telling one health care provider, the other will get the get the information. As my pharmacist student noted, more often than not, that does not happen.
In closing I, along with millions of people take vitamins and supplements, feel that they greatly contribute to my overall physical and mental well-being.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that like anything else we put in our bodies, caution should be used and “natural” should not automatically be equated with “safe” or even good for us. As any herbalist will tell you, many plants are powerful and should be treated with the same respect as their pharmaceutical counterparts. Therefore, a little knowledge can go a long way in preventing any potential harm.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Wiki Commons