Of the many controversial topics in in health care, the benefits of over the counter supplements has been hitting the news lately. GNC, Walmart, Walgreens, and Target are being investigated for selling supplements that didn’t contain nearly (if any) of the product advertised on the bottle. So the $17.85 bottle of St. John’s Wort that you got for your minor depression is mostly just filler.
But this is just a recent story in a arduous history of headlines. Consumer groups will come out with reports like this, but then healthcare advocate groups and industry leaders will support the opposite. This scientist says this vitamin causes prostate cancer and then the other scientist says that’s because the synthetic was used and tested and not the natural. This is just on the popular media side of things. Then when you dig a little deeper into the rabbit hole, you’ll learn that there are many forms of the same vitamin some of which work better and others that don’t. Some need to be taken with food, others with milk, never with coffee, before bed, yadda yadda. It’s just confusing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a patient tell me that they feel like they’d benefit from supplements, but they don’t take them because they don’t know how to choose a good one.
Why does all of this confusion exist? Vitamins have been around forever, shouldn’t there be a consensus by now? There are a few things that add to the ongoing controversy of supplements and vitamins that if you can understand, you’ll be able to appreciate the finer points of these ongoing debates.
Supplements are an under-regulated industry
There are TONS of supplement companies out there. Some are amazing. Others are garbage. No one is really watching how closely these companies adhere to consumer protection standards and the bad-ones are usually weeded out after the fact. Many supplement companies submit themselves to rigorous third party reviews, tests, and trials but independent universities and labs to prove their claims. Look for special seals on supplement bottles. Some great brands that I always trust are Integrative Therapeutics, Standard Process, and Enzymatic Therapy.
Supplements and Nutrition Therapy is an under-funded area of research.
Good solid clinical trials and tests cost a lot of money and the funding is hard to come by. Good studies on nutrition usually come from Europe, where the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t hold such a monopoly on available funds. There are some very good trials out but none that I know of come close to the magnitude of prescription drug trials.
Not all vitamin E is the same.
There’s much diversity even among a single micronutrient. Is it natural or synthetic? Which molecular form is it? Is it whole or standardized? All of these things matter. They affect the cost of production and the clinical effectiveness. You can’t take a single supplement, vitamin E for example, ignore its qualities, run a test, and apply the results to every vitamin E. The results are only true to that one form.
The bottom line is that good quality supplements are clinically effective and useful, especially as a natural alternative to prescription drugs. But just like everything else, there’s quality and there’s crap. Don’t let the poor examples speak for the bunch.
In future posts, I’ll explain some general rules for selecting a supplements and multivitamin and I’ll talk about why the most american’s can benefit their health with regular supplementation of micronutrients.