The Truth Behind Herbs and Supplements…..
For a few years during my high school and college days, I was into supplements. I was also into country music, but nobody is perfect. I took vitamin C to ward off colds, B vitamins for increased energy and ephedrine for weight loss to name just a few. My excuse? Like the ancient Chinese who supposedly used acupuncture 5,000 years ago*, or the 18th century American physicians who bled their patients to remove excess bodily humors, I was prescientific.
In contrast to those dark days, as a result of my discovery of the work of James Randi and the modern skeptical movement I spent the early years of my pediatric residency developing an interest in so-called alternative medicine. My eyes were opened as I learned about the reality behind the substances I ingested with the fearlessness of ignorance and I became embarrassingly aware of the simple fact that science just doesn’t support the near entirety of claims made by the manufacturers of herbs and supplements**. Despite this, these products can be found on the shelves of thousands of stores across this country and they rake in billions of dollars annually. Unfortunately, consumers are generally unaware of the science, or rather the lack of it, behind these products, and of the risk that they take each time they head down to the GNC or Rite-Aid.
If I were to walk out my back door and take a random sampling of the available plant life, place those clippings of various flowers, weeds and grasses in my blender, and press liquefy, the end result would have the potential to make me a very rich man. To the untrained eye it would appear to be merely a glass full of grass juice, and to the naive mind a nasty and useless concoction. But to an individual initiated in the unethical reality of herbs and supplements, it might just be a gold mine. You see, all it would take to turn green grass into green cash is the current state of regulation of herbs and supplements in the United States and a vague structure/function claim.
Here’s how it works. Since the early 90’s, 1994 to be exact, with the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, the supplement industry has essentially existed as if stuck in the days of the American Old West. The Law of the day, much like our current Food and Drug Administration, served as a means of maintaining a somewhat controlled chaos. Try this excerpt on for size, podnuh.
“Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed. FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market. Generally, manufacturers do not need to register their products with FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements.”
Now just let that sink in for a moment. Wait for it. Wait for it. Has it hit yet? Has that feeling of emptiness and despair that I experience on a near daily basis during my frequent adventures in the Land O’Woo settled in yet? Allow me to break this down for you. Since 1994, when the FDA was sent outside to fetch its own switch so that Congress could more effectively tan its hide, manufacturers have had no oversight whatsoever when it comes to determining whether or not their herb or supplement is safe. My fictional grass juice, which I’ll have you know has been used by Native Americans to cure teeth itch and hair pain for thousands of years, could contain iocane powder*** and kill several consumers before the FDA would be able shut down my operation. In fact, as I am writing this there are herbs and supplements sitting on store shelves which contain toxic levels of heavy metals such as lead or mercury and which are adulterated with pharmaceuticals****. When enough people are harmed by an herb or supplement, such as in the infamous case of ephedrine a few years ago, the FDA investigates and the product is pulled. There are thousands of new supplements that go on the market each year and the emergence of the next Ephedra is only a matter of time.
But what about effectiveness? Unfortunately, DSHEA rains on that parade as well. There is no requirement under the law for an herb or supplement to be proven effective by the company selling it as long as the claims made fit certain criteria. If claims of positive impact on a specific disease are made, then the FDA has the power to make sure that the evidence supports those claims. If vague claims involving support of structures or bodily functions are made, then the FDA is impotent. So if I attempted to market my backyard grass juice to cure epilepsy, I wouldn’t get very far. But if my infomercial talks about supporting brain health (wink wink, nudge nudge) or improving neurological function, I’ll be opening my Swiss bank account in no time.
The dangers of DSHEA and the herb and supplement racket actually go much deeper than this brief discussion goes into. I’ll devote additional posts to these issues but I encourage my readers to take the next step and investigate for themselves. A great place to start, as it is with any healthfraud or alternative medicine related topic, is Science-Based Medicine.
*The Chinese weren’t using acupuncture 5,000 years ago despite what numerous news reports and press releases claim. What is known today as acupuncture has only existed for the past several decades and has failed the test of science.
**These manufacturers are typically subsidiaries of the mammoth pharmaceutical companies so reviled by the alt med crowd. Awareness of this fact has forced many a believer to erect additional impenetrable walls of cerebral compartmentalization to avoid the coma inducing cognitive dissonance.
***Iocane powder is a deadly poison that is odorless, tasteless and highly soluble. It is only available in powder form and was once popular for use during battles of wits when death was on the line, particularly with Sicilians. Although it takes a few years, determined individuals are capable of developing immunity to the poison.
****Actual Viagra has been found in supplements bearing claims of male enhancement!