What’s really in your supplement?

Supplements and vitamins

When you pick up a bottle of supplements, should you trust what the label says? While there is the perception that supplements are effective and inherently safe, there are good reasons to be skeptical. Few supplements are backed by good evidence that show they work as claimed. The risks of supplements are often not well understood. And importantly, the entire process of manufacturing, distributing, and marketing supplements is subject to a different set of rules than for drugs. These products may sit on pharmacy shelves, side-by-side with bottles of Tylenol, but they are held to significantly lower safety and efficacy standards. So while the number of products for sale has grown dramatically, so has the challenge to identify supplements that are truly safe and effective. Continue reading

Do calcium supplements cause heart attacks? An update.

Calcium Supplements

Why take a drug, herb or any other supplement? It’s usually because we believe the substance will do something desirable, and that we’re doing more good than harm. To be truly rational we’d carefully evaluate the expected risks and benefits, estimate the overall odds of a good outcome, and then make a decision that would weigh these factors against any costs (if relevant) to make a conclusion about value for money. But having the best available information at the time we make a decision can still mean decisions turn out to be bad ones: It can be that all relevant data isn’t made available, or it can be that new, unexpected information emerges later to change our evaluation. (Donald Rumsfeld might call them “known unknowns.”)

As unknowns become knowns, risk and benefit perspectives change. Clinical trials give a hint, but don’t tell the full safety and efficacy story. Over time, and with wider use, the true risk-benefit perspective becomes more clear, especially when large databases can be used to study effects in large populations. Epidemiology can be a powerful tool for finding unexpected consequences of treatments. But epidemiologic studies can also frustrate because they rarely determine causal relationships. That’s why I’ve been following the evolving evidence about calcium supplements with interest. Calcium supplements are taken by almost 1 in 5 women, second only to multivitamins as the most popular supplement. When you look at all supplements that contain calcium, a remarkable 43% of the (U.S.) population consumes a supplement with calcium as an ingredient. As a single-ingredient supplement, calcium is almost always taken for bone health, based on continued public health messages that our dietary intake is likely insufficient, putting women (rarely men) at risk of osteoporosis and subsequent fractures. This messaging is backed by a number of studies that have concluded that calcium supplements can reduce bone loss and the risk of fractures. Calcium has an impressive health halo, and supplement marketers and pharmaceutical companies have responded. There are pills, liquids, and even tasty chewy caramel squares embedded with calcium. It’s also fortified in foods like orange juice. Supplements are often taken as “insurance” against perceived or real dietary shortfalls, and it’s easy and convenient to take a calcium supplement daily, often driven by the perception that more is better. Few may think that there is any risk to calcium supplements. But there are now multiple safety signals that these products do have risks. And that’s cause for concern. Continue reading

CAM for cancer is no alternative

Mammogram showing breast cancer

One of the themes I’ve emphasized in many posts on this blog is that every treatment decision requires an evaluation of risks and benefits. No treatment is without some sort of risk: Even a decision to decline treatment has its own risks. And when a treatment has no demonstrable benefits, the risks factor more significantly into our evaluation. One of my frequent counseling challenges with patients is helping them understand a medication’s expected long-term benefits against the risks and side effects of treatment. This dialogue is most challenging with symptomless conditions like high blood pressure, where patients face the prospect of immediate side effects against the potential for long-term benefit. One’s willingness to accept side effects is influenced, in part, by and understanding of, and belief in, the overall goals of therapy. Side effects from blood-pressure medications can be unpleasant. But weighed against the reduced risk of catastrophic events like strokes, drug therapy may be more acceptable. Willingness to accept these tradeoffs varies dramatically by disease, and are strongly influenced by patient-specific factors. In general, the more serious the illness, the greater the willingness to accept the risks of treatment.

As I’ve described before, consumers may have completely different risk perspectives when it comes to drug therapies and (so-called) complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). For some, there is a clear delineation between the two: drugs are artificial, harsh, and dangerous. Supplements, herbs and anything deemed “alternative”, however, are natural, safe, and effective. When we talk about drugs, we use scientific terms – discussing the probability of effectiveness or harm, and describing both. With CAM, no tentativeness or balance may be used. Specific treatment claims may not be backed up by any supporting evidence at all. On several occasions patients with serious medical conditions have told me that they are refusing all drug treatments, describing them as ineffective or too toxic. Many are attracted to the the simple promises of CAM, instead. Now I’m not arguing that drug treatment is always necessary for ever illness. For some conditions where lifestyle changes can obviate the need for drug treatments, declining treatment this may be a reasonable approach – it’s a kick in the pants to improve one’s lifestyle. Saying “no” may also be reasonable where the benefits from treatment are expected to be modest, yet the adverse effects from treatments are substantial. These scenarios are not uncommon in the palliative care setting. But in some circumstances, there’s a clear medical requirement for drug treatment – yet treatment is declined. This approach is particularly frustrating in situations where patients face very serious illnesses that are potentially curable. This week is the World Cancer Congress in Montreal and on Monday there were calls for patients to beware of fake cancer cures, ranging from laetrile, to coffee enemas, to juicing, and mistletoe. What are the consequences of using alternative treatments, instead of science-based care, for cancer? There are several studies and a recent publication that can help answer that question. Continue reading

Green Coffee Beans for weight loss: Dr. Oz loves it, but where’s the evidence?

Green Coffee Beans - Fake Cures For Real Conditions

I can’t keep up with Dr. Oz. Just when I thought the latest weight loss miracle was raspberry ketone, along comes another panacea promising results with no effort. This time, it’s green coffee beans.

Everyone knows Dr. Oz, now. Formerly a guest on Oprah, he’s got his own show which he’s built into what’s probably the biggest platform for health pseudoscience and medical quackery on daytime television. In addition to promoting homeopathy, he’s hosted supplement marketer Joe Mercola several times to promote unproven supplements. He has been called out before for promoting ridiculous diet plans, and giving bad advice to diabetics. And don’t forget his failed attempt to actually demonstrate some science on his show, when he tested apple juice for arsenic which prompted a letter from the FDA about his shoddy methodology. His extensive track record of terrible health advice is your caution not to accept anything he suggests at face value. Yet it continues to frustrate me that pharmacies see his endorsements as a boon for sales of supplements, rather than what they really are  – an obstacle to science-based health care. So when the sign in front of my local pharmacy started advertising “Green coffee beans – as seen on Dr. Oz”, I tracked down the clip in question. The last time I saw Dr. Oz in action when when he had Steven Novella from the Science-Based Medicine blog as a guest, where there was actually a exchange (albeit brief) about the scientific evidence for alternative medicine. Replace Dr. Novella with a naturopath, and you get this: Continue reading