My sister swears by fish oil, aka Omega 3, as a holistic way to lower cholesterol. I happen to take it too, for entirely different motives. But, if I had high cholesterol levels, maybe I would had heeded her call to start downing fish oil for no other reason that she recommended it.
Let’s be honest: raise your hand if you have never taken a supplement that a friend or family member recommended, without thinking about it twice. Be it for sleep, losing weight, lowering cholesterol, hot flashes and on an on. I have been on the recommending side myself.
Maybe, just maybe, it is not such a good idea. That was my takeaway after attending an instructive lecture at St. John’s Health Medical Center in Santa Monica, aimed at explaining the roles of supplements, specifically for women who have undergone breast cancer. But you don’t have to have had cancer to benefit from some of the advice that was dispensed.
The dietary supplement industry is big business: over 26 billion dollars a year business in the United States alone. The shiny side of this coin is that these numbers show a willingness on the part of Americans to want to take care of themselves, by ingesting multi-vitamins or other, non-prescriptions, more “natural”, alternatives. But the supplement industry is also a highly unregulated industry, where the burden of proof falls squarely on the shoulders of those who produce the supplements. You can see where the conundrum starts.
The Food and Drug administration does have regulations manufacturers are supposed to adhere by but it does not have the financial means nor the manpower to study every single herbal pill that comes on the market (of which there are hundreds new ones every year), and will not start investigating problems unless side-effects have cropped up in the dozens and have been reported by the same companies who manufacture the supplements. The same double-blind studies that apply to conventional medications are rarely available for supplements and, when they are, again they are conducted by the same people who are selling you the products.
This doesn’t mean every supplement is a waste of time, and, as someone who has been under the care of a homeopathic MD for the last 20 years, I believe there is wisdom in ancient practices whose results are purely anecdotal but, as a cancer patient who is taking a hormone blocking medication, I have to be careful what I ingest. Far too often, we are not aware of the interactions of supplements with conventional medications, and they can be disastrous at worst, or just diminish the effectiveness of your prescription drug at best.
- If you are about to undergo surgery, any kind of surgery, you will most likely be told to stop, two weeks prior, aspirin, green tea, Vitamin C and E, ginger, valerian and a few others. The list of supplements that can make you bleed excessively is actually much longer, so let your surgeon know what you are taking;
- Buy your supplements from your doctor or your dietician. Or from a reputable holistic pharmacy. Avoid anything that is manufactured in China (many Chinese supplements have been found to contain lead) and it is best to purchase ones made either in North America or Europe (where they have stricter standards). And even so, recently some studies conducted on a bunch of supplements from the Target brand have been found to contain nothing much of what they were supposed to. There are a couple of sites that conduct studies and compare brands: consumerlab and Natural Medicine consumer database are the most reliable but they do require a small subscription fee.
- If you do experience an adverse effect, be it just a tummy ache, do report it. By law, every supplement label must contain the phone number of the manufacturer, where a dedicated line can also help you answer questions as to known interactions with other medications. After receiving a certain numbers of complaints, the manufacturer is legally bound to report them to the FDA who, in turn, will start an investigation.
- If you are taking a prescription drug, don’t assume the supplement you are taking is totally harmless and will not interfere with it. Ask your doctor, do some online research. If you are a cancer patient, Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has a brilliant website that lists all natural remedies’ interactions with most cancer drugs. For instance, if you have had breast cancer and are taking a hormone blocking medication, you should not take St. John’s worts, ginkgo, grapefruit extract or resveratrol (to name just the most common);
- Promising and reliable early studies on the effectiveness of supplements are available for about seven of them:
Turmeric (curcurmin) as an anti-inflammatory
Maitake Mushrooms for lowering blood sugar
Omega Three (fish oil) for lowering LDL cholesterol levels
Milk Thistle for liver problems
Astragalus could help with chemo side effects
Melatonin for sleep
Probiotics for healthy gut.
Above all, always ask questions before taking a supplement.