Herbal and vitamin supplements are a $37 billion a year industry. Some have familiar names such as Bee Pollen, Alfalfa, and Ginseng. Others have more mysterious names such as Ashwagandha, Horny Goat Weed and Cat’s Claw.
With so many options available and so many claims of “fat busting,” “skin tightening,” and “miracle cures,” how can you know what supplements are actually beneficial?
Unfortunately, that’s a tough question to answer. Unlike prescription medications, vitamins and minerals are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA’s strict regulations ensure that all medications brought to market are scientifically tested and that all potential side effects are explicitly identified. For vitamins and supplements, however, there is no oversight to the quality or claims that are made.
Marketing for supplements often include language such as “developing research” or “research suggests.” This indicates that the claims of health benefits have not been proven. These supplements may or may not be harmful. Regardless, you should let your doctor or other medical provider know what supplements you intend to take. They will let you know about possible drug interactions and help you make an informed decision about what vitamins or supplements you need.
For example, the blood thinner Coumadin interacts with several herbal products and their use could increase the risk of a stroke. Evening primrose oil, which people take for sleep or menopausal symptoms, can interact with seizure medications and make them less effective.
Some examples of toxicity are Kava root, which in high doses can damage the liver and excess vitamin C can increase your risk of kidney stones and leach calcium from the body.
Some of the most common supplements are cinnamon and turmeric. These are concentrations of the same spices you have in your kitchen cabinet.
People sometimes use cinnamon in an effort to improve blood sugar control or treat diabetes. Most of the studies, however, show no benefit.
Turmeric, on the other hand, maybe helpful as an anti-inflammatory. In preliminary studies, turmeric has been shown to be as effective as ibuprofen (Advil) in treating arthritis of the knee.
Notice that I said “in preliminary studies.” The benefits haven’t been scientifically proven, but there is a good possibility that turmeric has some medicinal effects. Like most herbs, though, it can also have side effects, so check with your medical provider.
Vitamin D is another supplement that has gotten a lot of attention recently. It is undergoing multinational studies for its possible effects on heart disease, stroke and cancer. No conclusive evidence from the large U.S. trial has been released yet, but more information could be available by the end of the year.
Multivitamins are becoming less popular as there has been very little evidence that they are beneficial to the general public both in preventing or treating chronic disease. Patients with certain deficiencies, such as iron, might benefit from specific vitamin therapy, however.
So be sure to ask your doctor about any supplements you are considering. In general, it is best to get your vitamins and minerals from the food you eat. The best medicine to maintain your health is to eat a nutritious diet and exercise regularly.
Your medical provider can help you figure out what supplements are right for you. If you do not have a primary care physician, you can schedule an appointment by calling 910.662.6000.