Measured Against Reality

Friday, August 18, 2006

Dietary Supplements are Useless

The health supplements industry is huge, with at least $17 billion in yearly sales. They sell vitamins, minerals, herbs, anything that has any claim to health benefit and is naturally occurring, and people buy it. What does science have to say about these supplements?

Antioxidants are some of the biggest sellers. We’re told that they’re the superheroes who come into our bodies and fight off damage from the evil free radicals that will destroy our cell membranes, or even our DNA. Chemicals such as beta carotene, vitamins C and E, and polyphenols have been shown to produce benefits when eaten in the fruits and vegetables that naturally produce them. But how do they fare in supplement form?

According to New Scientist, beta carotene actually increases the risk of lung cancer in smokers; vitamin E gives no protection against heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, or cancers; vitamin C gives no results whatsoever, unless the person is deficient already; and the little research on polyphenols indicates that they do nothing. But we know that these things are healthy when we ingest them in fruits or vegetables, so why aren’t they in supplement form?

… because the polyphenols, caratenoids, and vitamins in fruit and vegetables are bound into tough, fibrous material, they hang around in the stomach and colon, where they can neutralize free radicals… Supplements may not replicate this effect because they are being digested too quickly.

Then again, some drinks, such as coffee and tea, have been shown to be beneficial to health, despite containing free radicals such as hydrogen peroxide. Again, it seems as though our knowledge about antioxidants is out of kilter, if free radicals are bad, why do coffee and tea have health benefits?

It’s possible that, in small quantities, they activate our own defenses. Cells make enzymes such as catalase and superoxide dismutase, which actually fight off the damage. Imagine that, our bodies have their own evolved mechanism for dealing with cell damage.

Another darling of the herbal remedy community is Echinacea, the miracle plant that alleviates cold suffering and boosts the immune system. Too bad nearly every study ever done has shown that it has no effects whatsoever. It can even cause liver damage if taken for too long. The story is the same for almost every herbal supplement.

The conclusion is clear, supplements do nothing. I’d say that this means the death of an industry, but seeing as the supplement industry and their customers have never been concerned with facts, I doubt anything will change. Americans are too gullible and want the easy way out too much to stop buying into this garbage now.

Which is too bad, because the key to health is simple, and we all know it: eat well, exercise, and live well. I guess pills and empty promises are just more attractive to our society. Which I think is a wonderful sign for our future, don’t you?

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  • I'm pretty sure St. Johns Wort has been proven comparable to other prescription drugs.

    By Blogger Jennifer, at 7:10 PM, August 21, 2006  

  • I just looked into it, and the studies produce mixed results, some find it effective, others don't.

    By Blogger stupac2, at 7:14 PM, August 21, 2006  

  • Is moderation in one's diet and lifestyle scientifically proven? We all know colloquially that moderation is the answer, but does it have the rock-hard (erection) scientific evidence that proves the effectiveness of agents such as amphetamine against weight gain?

    Amphetamine literally, chemically influences the brain to stimulate metabolism and suppress appetite. Exercise and moderation in diet require unprovable intangibles like 'willpower'.

    Dietary supplements often work on scientifically unprovable, yet verifiably potent human tendency: the placebo effect. Belief in a cure may make the cure's effectiveness on par with that of a scientifically quantifiable 'cure'.

    I am not a relativist, but what truly makes a cure effective? Both rely on faith in assertions, and both are probably equally improbably. The most potent element here is still the faith of man, despite in which cure his faith lies.

    By Blogger Red Fish Blue Fish, at 6:20 PM, September 11, 2006  

  • I have to agree and disagree. Much of the herbal supplementation industry has problems and isn't proven. But don't throw the baby out with the bath water. There are supplements that have quite a bit of research to back them up. Also they are "supplements" which means they must be a supplement to a good diet. Most people try to use them as a substitute. A daily multi, Vit. D, Omega 3, and magnesium supplementation all have grounds in scientific research. Just do a pubmed search. Once you start wavering from these supplements into crazy herbal, vitamins, and minerals I have to agree either the research has proven it ineffective or more research needs to be done.
    Also you really need to watch where you are getting supplements because up until this year the FDA was not regulating them. To learn more about this new regulation of supplements visit"

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