Dangerous Supplements Killing Us???

According to a recent data analysis from the Iowa Women’s Health Study (IWHS), your dietary supplements may be killing you.

 

A few months ago, you may remember having read some of the newspaper headlines or heard the spots on evening news that went something like, “Your Multivitamin May Be Killing You!” – or “Is This The End of Vitamins?”

  

Many of these (irresponsible) headlines were driven by an analysis of data from the Iowa Women’s Health Study (IWHS) published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (October 2011). The IWHS is a long-running (19 years) study that asks more than 38,000 women about their diet and lifestyle habits – questions about what they eat, what supplements they take, etc.

 

What the latest IWHS analysis DOES suggest to us though, is that older (postmenopausal) women, as well as most men, probably don’t need to supplement their diets with iron (but we’ve known that for years and most multivitamin supplements are formulated with low/no iron for these population groups already). We also know that mega-doses of ANY mineral (or any nutrient for that matter) tends to be a bad idea for anyone – unless you have a known nutrient deficiency that you’re trying to correct.

  

For example, we’ve known for many years that high-doses of isolated nutrients can actually cause more problems than they prevent – recent examples are high-dose synthetic beta-carotene in smokers (leading to more lung cancer) and mega-dose vitamin C in cancer patients (which protects cancer cells more than healthy cells). The “take-away” message from such studies is not that supplements are “bad” – but rather that synthetic, isolated, high-dose supplements are bad in certain circumstances.

  

Consider another recent problematic example from the “synthetic, isolated, high-dose supplement” approach – that of vitamin E. A study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA, October 2011) called the SELECT trial, found that vitamin E slightly increased the risk for prostate cancer. The type of vitamin E supplement used in the study was a high dose (400IU) of synthetic form (“dl-“) of an isolated type of vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol only, which is one of eight different types of vitamin E that is found in our diets).

  

About half of Americans report taking at least one supplement on a regular basis – that’s a lot if vitamin users. The dietary supplement industry generates about $28 billion in annual sales – which sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that just one cholesterol drug generates $9 billion yearly (Lipitor from Pfizer) and that the pharmaceutical industry spends nearly $15 billion annually just to advertise their products. Also consider that the most common reason for a visit to the emergency room among senior citizens is not “dangerous” vitamin supplements, but is due to commonly used diabetes pills and blood thinners (prescription drugs are a LOT more dangerous than dietary supplements – see some statistics here). According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (New England Journal of Medicine, November 2011), adverse drug events such as allergic reactions and overdoses accounted for about 100,000 hospitalizations every year in people 65 and older (99,628 drug-induced hospitalizations in 2010).

  

Again and again, we are finding that synthetic, isolated, high-dose supplements fail to keep us healthy and fail to prevent disease (and may actually cause cellular damage that accelerates the disease process in certain cases). Studying the health benefits – or disease-preventing effects – of dietary supplements is extremely difficult because, unlike drugs where you can study the differences between a treatment group (the drug) and a non-treatment group (a placebo), you cannot have a supplement study where the placebo group gets “zero” of the nutrient being studied (because of baseline levels of the nutrient in the normal diet). As such, you’re always comparing a “low-ish” dietary level of the nutrient with a “somewhat higher” supplemental level of the nutrient – and such studies may need to be carried out for decades to tease out small differences in certain health parameters.

  

We know that drugs are dangerous – that’s why they come with a long list of side effects and health warnings printed on a “product insert” – including the most stringent “Black Box” warning (alerting patients to serious injuries, including death) that the US Food and Drug Administration mandates be placed on the most dangerous classes of medications – antidepressants, ADHD drugs, and sleep aids.

  

What should you do?

  

Considering the latest studies (and the thousands of studies that have come before them), I still recommend the following when it comes to daily supplementation:

  

  1. Keep taking your daily Multivitamin. A balanced formula should contain:
    1. an adequate level of vitamin D (1,000-3,000IU of vitamin D3)
    2. a balanced form of natural vitamin E (30IU including all eight vitamin E isomers – tocopherols and tocotrienols)
    3. a balanced blend of vitamin A in pre-formed and pre-cursor (beta-carotene) forms
    4. RDA-levels (100% Daily Value) of most minerals in bioavailable forms (such as amino acid chelates) – except for iron in men and postmenopausal women. The exception is athletic men and women, who may require supplemental iron to replace excessive losses.
  1. Take extra Calcium (up to 500mg from supplements) and Magnesium (up to 250mg from supplements) if you’re not getting enough from your diet (1,000mg-1,500mg of calcium and 500mg-750mg of magnesium, depending on age and gender).
  2. Take a daily Omega-3 supplement. Properly purified and concentrated fish oil is the most effective approach to deliver the 1,000mg of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA) recommended by most scientific research organizations. Vegetarians can look for flax seed oil and algae-derived omega-3s, but concentrations and potency are much lower.
  3. Be sure to get enough Phytonutrients in your diet. These are the plant-derived vitamin-like compounds such as flavonoids (from berries such as blueberries) and carotenoids (from red/orange/yellow veggies such as carrots, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes). Flavonoids and carotenoids are more potent antioxidants than vitamins C and E (which you still need).
  1. Stay away from mega-doses of ANY supplement, but especially avoid mega-doses of any mineral and any antioxidant because we already have very good scientific evidence that pharmacological levels of such nutrients can cause more harm than help in the human body.
  1. Consider further supplementation based on individual lifestyle goals. For example, if you’re an athlete, you may want a supplement to help you recover better/faster from your workouts – or if you’re a busy mom, you might want a supplement to help with energy or stress levels – or if you’re trying to lose weight, you might want a supplement to help control appetite and burn fat faster.

  

Final Thoughts

  

Keep in mind that our body is a collection of numerous interconnected biochemical networks – all interdependent upon one another for proper functioning. As with an army, there is no single soldier that we can target to significantly affect the performance of the entire army – we must hit multiple “soldiers” simultaneously to influence the health of the overall organism – and no approach is more multi-faceted than a dietary approach consisting of a well-balanced and varied diet (foods) complemented by a well-balanced and varied supplement regimen.

  

I will certainly continue taking my daily multivitamin supplement (Intense Defense) to help “provide” essential nutrients, “protect” from toxins in the environment, and “promote” fat and carbohydrate metabolism – and I encourage you to continue taking your daily multivitamin – even is it’s just for nutritional “insurance” when you can’t eat a perfect diet.

  

Thanks for reading…

 

Shawn 

==================================

Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D.

Nutritional Biochemist and Author

801-576-0788 (office)

801-915-1170 (mobile)

smtalbott@mac.com

www.shawntalbott.com

 

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Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic  (http://www.KilleratLarge.com)

The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House) – http://www.cortisolconnection.com/

The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House) – http://www.cortisolconnectiondiet.com/

Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection – The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House) – http://www.cortisolcontrol.com/

Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living – Lasting Relief for Flexible Joints, Strong Bones and Ache-Free Muscles (Chronicle Publishers – Currant Books) – http://painfreelivingbook.com/

The Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkens) – http://www.supplementwatch.com/

A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press) – http://www.supplementwatch.com/

 

Dangers of Supplements???

A few months ago, you may remember having read some of the newspaper headlines or heard the spots on evening news that went something like, “Your Multivitamin May Be Killing You!” – or “Is This The End of Vitamins?”

Many of these (irresponsible) headlines were driven by an analysis of data from the Iowa Women’s Health Study (IWHS) published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (October 2011). The IWHS is a long-running (19 years) study that asks more than 38,000 women about their diet and lifestyle habits – questions about what they eat, what supplements they take, etc.

You can read more of my comments about the IWHS analysis HERE.

From the newspaper headlines, you might have come away with the idea that swallowing vitamins was poisoning these women and that Iowa must be awash in dead bodies. What the analysis actually found was that older women, who supplemented with high levels of certain minerals (particularly copper and iron), when they didn’t need them (because they already had normal levels of these minerals in their diets), encountered health problems, including a very slight statistical increase in mortality (so small that many researchers think the result may be an error/artifact of the statistical analysis).

So, the newspaper headlines would have been more accurate if they said something along the lines of, “Older women with excellent diets should go easy on mega-dose minerals” – but, of course, headlines like that don’t sell newspapers.

Jumping on the “supplements are killing us” bandwagon is Consumer Reports magazine (September 2012) with their cover story, “10 Surprising Dangers of Vitamins & Supplements.” Again, scary cover stories sell more magazines than accurate portrayals of the outstanding safety profile of dietary supplements.

The Consumer Reports (CR) article listed the following “10 dangers” of supplements:

  1. 1.   Supplements are not risk-free

The CR article indicates that “more than 6,300 reports of serious adverse events” associated with dietary supplements “streamed into the FDA” between 2007 and 2012. Six years and a little more than 1,000 adverse reports – so about 1,000 per year. Sounds like a lot, until you put that number in context against the millions and millions of servings of supplements that are consumed every year – which puts the rate of “adverse events” below 1% of users (they can still happen, to be sure, but adverse events for dietary supplements is very very rare).

Another way to look at the “dangers” associated with dietary supplements is to look at incidents reported to poison control centers. According to 2009 data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, there were about 2.5 million calls (2,479,355) to poison control centers for possible “substance” reactions. Of those 2.5 million calls, 1.5 million were for drugs (1,564,773 = 63%), while only about 100,000 (4%) were for vitamins (72,768) or dietary supplements (29,417).

This means that of all the calls to poison control centers in the United States, only about 4% are related to dietary supplements, while about 63% are related to pharmaceuticals. Of those 4% of calls related to supplements, about 75% were related to children under the age of 5 accidentally ingesting the supplement.

Among the 1.5 million calls related to pharmaceuticals, almost 500 resulted in death (497) and more than 7,000 were considered major reactions (7,395). In contrast, calls about supplements resulted in a single death and 41 major reactions. I wish we could say that dietary supplements are associated with ZERO risk of adverse events 100% of the time, but I think you’ll agree that toxicity or “danger” associated with dietary supplements is quite low.

  1. 2.   Some supplements are really prescription drugs

The FDA has stated that it considers dietary supplements that are spiked with prescription drugs to be “the largest threat” to consumer safety. I agree – but it’s important to note that such products are ILLEGAL and are NOT supplements. They are dangerous synthetic drugs that are being misbranded as safe natural dietary supplements. Earlier this month, Chinese authorities detained nearly 2,000 people as part of a nationwide crackdown on the sale of fake health products and counterfeit drugs – so the problem is certainly not confined just to the supplement industry. The best way to protect yourself from dangerous drugs masquerading as dietary supplements is to buy only from reputable supplement companies that adhere to good manufacturing practices (GMPs).

  1. 3.   You can overdose on vitamins and minerals

I completely agree with this “danger” – but that’s why all dietary supplements come with “recommended usage” instructions. Follow them! The idea that “more” of a certain supplement is “better” is wrong – so stick with the specific serving suggestions on every dietary supplement you decide to consume.

  1. 4.   You can’t depend on warning labels

This “danger” is based on CR’s finding that some supplements carry warning statements and others don’t – but with such a low risk of adverse events for dietary supplements, it’s unrealistic to ask safe products to carry warnings for risks that are highly unlikely to ever occur. If you’re concerned about a specific health risk for your personal health status, consult with your own healthcare provider.

  1. 5.   None are proven to cure major diseases

Agreed – but let’s also agree that the same “danger” applies to prescription drugs, which also don’t “cure” any major diseases.

  1. 6.   Buy with caution from botanicas

Botanicas are Hispanic herbal shops found in many major cities. Like Chinese herbalists, botanicas often sell raw herbs of questionable identity, purity, and potency. If we were back in the Middle Ages, you might turn to raw herbs to make medicinal teas to help treat diseases and improve health – but in today’s modern world, we can standardize the amount of active ingredients in our dietary supplements, thus ensuring potency, purity, and effectiveness.

  1. 7.   Heart and cancer protection: not proven

Isn’t this really the same “danger” as #5?

  1. 8.   Betcha can’t guess this commonly reported problem

This is a silly “danger” to let you know that CHOKING is the #1 cause of “adverse events” associated with dietary supplements. Over 5 years of data collection, reports of choking numbered about 900 incidents in the FDA database. If we remove choking and kid’s getting into unattended supplements from the FDA and poison control databases, then adverse events associated with supplements are almost non-existent.

  1. 9.   Some “natural” products are anything but

Correct – sometimes you will find “synthetic” ingredients in your dietary supplements. Sometimes this is because a criminal is trying to illegally sell an undeclared prescription drug or steroid. Sometimes it’s because a synthetic version of a vitamin is superior to a natural version (as occurs for B-complex vitamins, which have superior absorption). But, in the vast majority of cases, “natural” does indeed mean natural.

  1. 10.         You may not need supplements at all

Agreed. If you’re eating a perfect diet with 2-3 servings of fatty fish each week (for omega-3 fatty acids), and 10-12 servings of brightly colored fruits and vegetables every day (for antioxidants and phytonutrients), and a diet based predominantly on low-glycemic whole grains (for B-vitamins and fiber), and lean meats (for protein), then maybe you don’t need a dietary supplement. Wait, I hope you’re also getting at least 8 hours of deep restful sleep each night and have a very low exposure to stress in your life, because then you certainly don’t need a supplement.

If you’re like the vast majority of busy people that I know (myself included), you probably don’t eat a perfect diet, or get as much sleep as you know you should, and you’re probably exposed to stressful events on a fairly regular basis. Join the club – there are a lot of us out there – and dietary supplements can help us fill the gap between where we ARE and where we WANT to be in terms of how we feel, how we look, and how we perform on a daily basis.

Thanks for reading…

Shawn

==================================

Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D.

Nutritional Biochemist and Author

801-576-0788 (office)

801-915-1170 (mobile)

smtalbott@mac.com

www.shawntalbott.com

NEW BOOK: The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy

Order at Amazon = http://amzn.to/ovkwJf

Follow me on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/user/smtalbott?feature=mhee

Follow me on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001IU0YV6

Follow me on Twitter  http://twitter.com/DocTalbott

Follow me on LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/ShawnTalbott

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Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic  (http://www.KilleratLarge.com)

The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House) – http://www.cortisolconnection.com/

The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House) – http://www.cortisolconnectiondiet.com/

Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection – The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House) – http://www.cortisolcontrol.com/

Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living – Lasting Relief for Flexible Joints, Strong Bones and Ache-Free Muscles (Chronicle Publishers – Currant Books) – http://painfreelivingbook.com/

The Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkens) – http://www.supplementwatch.com/

A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press) – http://www.supplementwatch.com/