There appear to be a lot of bottles in the supplement area of any store. Every magazine is filled with ads for pills that will (somehow) change your life, prime time television has advertisements for a pills for any part of your body or mind, and the internet has just about everything for sale.
Supplements are a multibillion dollar business. The hard questions are: what do we need, how much do we need, and are the ads telling the whole truth? Here is some background information that may help answer the questions. In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Act, which states that if something is called a “dietary supplement,” the FDA does not have to test it, and no one monitors what is really in the supplement. There has been a lot of abuse since then. False claims are made which leaves the consumer at a strong disadvantage. For some strange reason, many Americans feel that if something is sold over the counter, or if it says “all-natural”, then it is completely safe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Another misconception is, if a little bit is good, more is better.
This thinking can lead to health consequences. So how does one dig through all of the advertising and decide what will enhance their health, what is a waste of money, and what will do neither harm nor good? Multivitamins do not fix a lousy diet. Megadose vitamins can be harmful because having too much of a nutrient is just as problematic as having too little. The best bet for multivitamin tablets are a store brands. High price does not guarantee better quality (about 20 cents a day is the most you should pay). Look for a tablet that provides 100% of RDA for most nutrients. You cannot get enough vitamin E or calcium in a multivitamin. If you are over age 50, be sure that the tablet has at least 25 mcg of vitamin B12. Too much dietary iron is a problem that may be worse than too little, so vitamins for mature adults should have no dietary iron.
Beyond multivitamins, a person may want to supplement vitamin E to get 100-400 IU a day. And of course, a person wants to supplement the diet to receive a total of 1000-1500 mg of calcium depending on age. The only nutrients that have good clinical studies on their benefits are vitamin E, calcium, folate and vitamin D. The folate and vitamin D are in most multivitamins, so vitamin E and calcium are the only supplements needed beyond the multi unless you have been diagnosed through testing by a bona fide physician with a nutrient deficiency. Hair analysis, looking in the eyes, etc. are not legitimate tests for deficiency. You need blood tests. In a recent study, one group was given supplements and another group ate a balanced diet. At the end of the study those taking the multivitamins had little to no change in nutritional status, while those on the balanced diet improved their nutritional status. More studies need to be done to confirm this finding. Meanwhile, take a multivitamin if you wish to supplement a good diet. Make sure it has at least 400 mcg of folate and vitamin D each. Take vitamin E and calcium. Those four nutrients have long-term clinical studies. Take your vitamins with a meal.
Anything that contains calories contains energy (a calorie is nothing more than a way to measure the energy in food). If there is one thing that Americans do not need, it is more calories! Energy is being marketed to appeal to the general population who feel they need to be “energized.” These bars do not give any more energy than the energy provided from the same amount of calories from any food. The American public is always seeking a magic solution to a problem. A lot of people do feel a lack of “energy,” but this is usually due to lack of exercise. Exercise makes us feel more energetic. Eating an energy bar will not do that. Many of the bars are nothing more than glorified candy bars (they have about the same number of calories). Food is still the best way to provide the energy the body needs, because food has phytochemicals and other nutrients that do not go into the bars. These bars may be useful to endurance athletes who have trouble consuming enough calories to fuel their activity. A bar may also be a better bet if a person is unexpectedly on the road and tempted to stop at a fast food restaurant for lunch. One can choose from high carbohydrate bars, 40/30/30 bars, high protein bars, or supplement bars. The recommendation: eat a good diet.
In the past few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of herbal supplements on the shelf. Some people are using them indiscriminately without realizing that they may have harmful interactions with prescription drugs. Also, studies have been conducted that show that a lot of herbal supplements on the market do not in fact have enough of the herb it claims to contain to be of any value. Remember, there is no governing agency that the manufacturers must answer to. No one is testing for purity or for content. Herbs have been used in Europe for a long time, but their products are tested for purity and content. Many herbs are considered medicinal in European countries.
Few studies have been done in North Amerca, or in Europe, that test the effectiveness of herbs. The National Institute of Health has begun testing, but results will take a while because testing must cover a long period of time to be sure there are no ill effects.
Some of the more popular products:
- Glucosamine – may bring relief to those with joint discomfort. Studies recommend using 1500mg a day. It can, however, raise blood sugar levels in diabetics. If you see no results in 2-4 months you probably will not get any.
- St. John’s Wort – may bring relief for the “blues.” Interacts with a lot of prescription medications (antidepressants, anticoagulants, etc.). Not for clinical depression.
- SamE – used for depression. Needs physician supervision. Half of the products tested in this country had less than half the amount stated on the label. SamE is considered a medicine in Europe.
- Ginkgo Biloba – often claimed to improve memory and concentration. This will be true only if there is poor circulation to the brain. Ginkgo is a blood thinner and should not be used by anyone taking a blood thinner, such as aspirin, vitamin E, warfarin (Coumadin), garlic or ginger. If you take it for a month and see no improvement you probably won’t. In independent tests, one in four brands did not have the amount of ginkgo that is shown to have any effect. See your physician if you feel you have memory loss or poor concentration.
- Metabolism Enhancement – Many products claim to increase your metabolic rate or energy level. These products almost always contain an amphetamine-type drug that goes by the name of ephedra or ma huang. Anyone interested in their health should avoid these at all costs. Yes, they will raise the metabolism which helps weight loss and helps make you feel alert and “high”. But the price could be death. The jolt to the heart could throw the heart into an arrhythmia.
Many people take better care of their automobiles than they do their own bodies. They would not dump anything that a friend recommended into the vehicle, but they will do it to their body. We own nothing more precious than our body and keeping it fit and healthy should be our primary concern. Do not live to regret what you did to yourself. Before taking anything, research it carefully looking for valid research by independent researchers from major universities. Do not take something based only on the testimony of somebody else. You would not ask a neighbor to set your broken arm unless he or she was a qualified medical professional. Do not rely on unqualified sources for nutrition information. Talk to the experts in the field: registered dietitians.