Stupid Pills, The Politics of Fraudulent Dietary Supplements, Timothy Egan, New York Times Opinion Pages, 6 February 2015
He calls supplements “Frankenstein remedies – botanicals, herbs, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, dried stuff.”
These accusations are arrogant and misinformed. As much as I caution about taking supplements, I do think they are helpful sometimes. The government thinks so too:
the Institute of Medicine recommends that adults older than 50 years obtain most of their vitamin B12 from vitamin supplements or fortified foods.
Individuals who have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from foods, as well as vegetarians who consume no animal foods, might benefit from vitamin B12-fortified foods, oral vitamin B12 supplements, or vitamin B12 injections.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that exclusively and partially breastfed infants receive supplements of 400 IU/day of vitamin D shortly after birth and continue to receive these supplements until they are weaned.
Individuals who have a reduced ability to absorb dietary fat might require vitamin D supplementation.
[The Endocrine Society] reported that to consistently raise serum levels of 25(OH)D above 75 nmol/L (30 ng/ml), at least 1,500-2,000 IU/day of supplemental vitamin D might be required in adults, and at least 1,000 IU/day in children and adolescents.
The federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans notes that … “Dietary supplements … may be advantageous in specific situations to increase intake of a specific vitamin or mineral.”
Studies suggest that the short-term use of ginger can safely relieve pregnancy-related nausea and vomiting.
Research suggests that valerian may be helpful for insomnia. … Valerian seems to improve the sleep quality of people who are withdrawing from the use of sleeping pills.
Results from several studies suggest that peppermint oil may improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
These last three examples are just the tip of the iceberg in the field of herbal medicine, a field I think is worthy of respect, not ridicule, and deserving of more research dollars. I realize I’m walking a fine line here, between using herbs as a fix for problems that are better solved with diet and exercise, and using herbs as a temporary aid. But I’m going to walk that line because I think it’s better to turn to chamomile tea during a time of increased stress than to pop benzodiazepines or sleeping pills. It’s better to take saw palmetto than Flomax. Herbs can be useful.
So, I’ve listed examples where the government tells us that dietary supplements can improve health conditions. Sometimes they tell us outright we should take them. Yet they do not have a mechanism in place to assure us that the supplement is not a pill filled with sand or ground up houseplants, as the New York Attorney General recently found.
It is wrong to label supplement takers as stupid or suckers. It is right to fix the regulation of supplements.
(By the way, I looked up several herbs while writing this and discovered where once the NIH said they were effective and gave them a grade of A for a certain condition, they now say “inconclusive” or “more study needed.” I was shocked. The pharmaceutical industry benefits when the government says herbs are ineffective. I see that industry’s hand in this. I also can’t help thinking drug companies are at the root of over-the-counter remedies getting pulled, e.g. Primatene Mist.)