Monthly Archives: May 2018

Distinguishing Fact from Fiction in Supplement Claims

The June issue of Women’s Health ran an article describing several relatively new supplements that have been making news because they are supposed to confer a large variety of health benefits upon their users.  All of them are derived from parts of plants that are pulverized into a powder or mixed into a solution. The prices were mentioned; they are not inexpensive but if the claims made for them are true, then they should be able to replace very costly drugs now being used to treat the disorders these supplements are able to prevent/treat.

But how does one know whether they do what they are supposed to do? How do we go from brief descriptions of these supplements and suggestions as to how to ingest them, to using them to treat our health problems?

One answer is to spend many hours searching the Internet for valid information about the efficacy of the supplements in doing what they are supposed to be doing. However, even after doing so, there is no guarantee that a particular supplement will replace a well-researched drug for a particular disease.

Curcumin, a yellow spice derived from turmeric, is described in the article and elsewhere as able to decrease the symptoms of certain diseases like arthritis and intestinal disorders. A distant relative who has had an autoimmune disease of the intestinal tract, Crohn’s Disease, was so convinced by published research on ability of this spice to relieve her symptoms that she stopped her treatment with a drug she had been using for years.  Two symptom-filled months later, she returned to the drug; the curcumin did not work for her. But it may work for others and only large clinical trials comparing curcumin with a conventional treatment will provide the answer. The magazine suggested trying it by sprinkling the spice over eggs.  But, of course, the article did not say who should try it, for what disorder and how often to take it. And at $27.00 for 100 grams, it might be cheaper to use the spice, turmeric, from which it is derived instead.

Another featured supplement, Schisandra, is a berry that has the unique property of producing five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy. Used as a medicine in Asia and Russia for centuries, it is thought to activate enzymes in the liver that break down many compounds and making them available to the body or destroying their functionality.   A short list of Schisandra’s therapeutic effects from several Internet sites include: preventing early aging, increasing lifespan, normalizing blood sugar and blood pressure, protecting against inflammation, chronic night sweats, excessive urination, insomnia, depression, fatigue and treating high cholesterol, pneumonia, asthma, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).  The magazine highlighted one of its functions: it has been found to enhance short-term memory, especially spatial memory, but so far only among rats. (For those of us who get lost easily, this might be useful.)

But it is hard to find a scientific basis for these claims, nor any specific information on whether we should be ingesting this herb for its prevention abilities.  Like the other supplements, it is not cheap at $20.50 for 8 oz. The article suggested sprinkling a teaspoon over popcorn, but it wasn’t clear whether this would allow the eater to locate the exit from the movie theatre with less difficulty.

What one does not learn from the article is that the supplement can cause myriad side effects such as heartburn, upset stomach, decreased appetite, stomach pain, skin rash and itching. In addition, because it affects liver enzymes, it may alter the metabolism of many drugs. For example, a drug, Warfarin (coumadin), used to retard blood clotting, can be broken down more rapidly by the liver if the patient is taking Schisandra, thus reducing its efficacy. In the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Panossian and Wikman published a comprehensive review of studies using Schisandra, including the use of this herb for mental illness, gastrointestinal disorders and infectious disease like the flu.  (“Pharmacology of Schisandra chinensis Bail: an overview of Russian research and uses in medicine,” Panossian1Wikman, G., J Ethnopharmacol. 2008 118(2):183-212)

According to their report, Schisandra has been used in Russia for decades as a medicinal herb, but it is frustratingly difficult to figure out whether we should follow the Russian experience and use it for diabetes or high blood pressure or to prevent normal aging. What dose should be taken for what disease, how long should it taken, how often each day, and how will it affect other medications being used?

Maca, also described in the article, comes from a tuberous root found in the Andes in Peru. A placebo-controlled study carried out the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that  Maca restored sexual satisfaction in women whose libido had been suppressed by their antidepressants.  (A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial of Maca Root as Treatment for Antidepressant-Induced Sexual Dysfunction in Women Evid Based Complement Alternat Med., Dording, C., Schettler, P., Dalton, E., et al ,  2015)

According to their report, Schisandra has been used in Russia for decades as a medicinal herb, but it is frustratingly difficult to figure out whether we should follow the Russian experience and use it for diabetes or high blood pressure or to prevent normal aging. What dose should be taken for what disease, how long should it taken, how often each day, and how will it affect other medications being used?

Maca, also described in the article, comes from a tuberous root found in the Andes in Peru. A placebo-controlled study carried out the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that  Maca restored sexual satisfaction in women whose libido had been suppressed by their antidepressants.  (A Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Trial of Maca Root as Treatment for Antidepressant-Induced Sexual Dysfunction in Women Evid Based Complement Alternat Med., Dording, C., Schettler, P., Dalton, E., et al ,  2015)

The caveat, however, is that the only group that responded were the 12 post-menopausal women in the treatment group. Younger women did not have a positive response. The magazine article did not mention that the drug might only be useful for older women as suggested in the research report.  Moreover, the magazine suggested Maca might help insomnia, while the Internet is filled with reports about Maca actually causing sleep difficulty.

The caveat, however, is that the only group that responded were the 12 post-menopausal women in the treatment group. Younger women did not have a positive response. The magazine article did not mention that the drug might only be useful for older women as suggested in the research report.  Moreover, the magazine suggested Maca might help insomnia, while the Internet is filled with reports about Maca actually causing sleep difficulty.

One would not expect to find a comprehensive description of the functions and efficacy of any supplement in magazines, or on an Internet site selling the product or giving anecdotal information on what it did for the individual writing about it.  But it takes entirely too much effort to ferret out the information necessary to know how to use these supplements, whether they will work better than traditional interventions, if they might interact with other medications one is taking, how pure they are, what the dose is, and whether they are worth the cost. Unfortunately, there is little money to do the research necessary to show whether or not the claims made for these supplements are valid.

Until that occurs, let the user be cautious.

The Unfortunate Association Between Pain and Obesity

Anyone who suffers from chronic joint and/or muscular pain and is also struggling with obesity realizes how much each impacts the other.  The pain makes it hard to move to exercise without discomfort. The pain of fibromyalgia also makes it hard to deny oneself food that is pleasurable (and possibly fattening) because such eating is a source of pleasure. Pain makes it hard to be in a good mood, and not surprisingly, may potentiate depression. That, in turn, affects eating, sometimes causing weight gain, as do most antidepressants.

Thus more pain is experienced.

Another concern is that insomnia can result from pain; few people can sleep through the night because of the unrelenting disturbance. The fatigue from lack of sleep often leads to overeating, weight gain, and more pain.  And, just to make things worse, two of the drugs prescribed to help pain, especially that of fibromyalgia, can cause weight gain (Neurontin and Lyrica). And so more pain occurs.

Pain comes in many varieties: headaches, abdominal pain, joint and muscle pain, and fibromyalgia.  A review by Okifuji and Hare in the Journal of Pain Research details the ways pain and obesity interact; their review makes the reader feel grateful for every minute that is pain free. (“The association between chronic pain and obesity,” Okifuji, A., and Hare, B., J Pain Res. 2015; 8:399) When obese individuals claim that it “hurts to walk, to climb steps, to get up from a chair, to lift anything,” they are describing the way their weight affects their inability to move without pain.

According to Okifuji and Hare’s review, as BMI (a measurement of weight relative to height) increases, so too does chronic pain.  In one study, fewer than 3% of people with normal BMI reported low back pain, but almost 12% of morbidly obese individuals did so. Anyone who has watched the television series “My 600-lb Life” has seen the pain on the faces of these extremely obese people when they have had to stand or walk. It seems unbearable, yet even at a considerably lower weight, the body may respond to carrying around extra pounds with chronic pain.  The Arthritis Foundation has some compelling information about the relationship of excess weight and pressure on the knees: every extra pound carried puts 4 pounds of extra pressure on our knees. So if one is only ten pounds overweight, forty pounds of extra pressure is placed on those joints. This means that weight gain associated with a painful disease like fibromyalgia, typically more than twenty pounds, may put enough pressure on the knees to cause another source of pain.

If obesity is exacerbating chronic pain, such as that associated with arthritis or fibromyalagia, the solution is simple but not easy to achieve: lose weight.  Many studies that have shown relief of pain with weight loss.  In a typical study, when adults suffering from joint pain are put on a diet with or without the kind of exercise that their bodies can tolerate, they lose weight and their pain is diminished.  (“Diet and Exercise for Obese Adults with Knee Osteoarthritis,” Messier, S., Clin Geriatr Med, 2010;26:461; Effects of intensive diet and exercise on knee joint loads, inflammation, and clinical outcomes among overweight and obese adults with knee osteoarthritis: the IDEA randomized clinical trial,” Messier, S., Mihalko, S., Legault, C., Miller, G., JAMA, 2013 Sep 25; 310(12): 1263-73)

But anyone who has experienced even transient pain from, for example, an overly ambitious workout, the first long bike ride of the season, too much weeding and hauling a wheelbarrow, or some unexplained back pain that thankfully disappears a week or so after it mysteriously arrived… knows how hard it is to move without pain. Unfortunately, our appetite rarely disappears when the pain arrives.  A friend who is extremely active was transported through an airport in a wheelchair after a virus-like infection caused severe back pain. His agony prevented him from walking more than a few steps at a time. After he recovered, he told me how reluctant he was to move when he was in such pain.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t lose my appetite so I was eating as much as before,” he said.

Increasing mobility as a way of preventing weight gain and supporting weight loss is advised for almost all situations in which there is chronic pain, as long as there is no possibility of damage to joints or muscles. The best way to go about this is with guidance from a physical therapist who can advise on movements that either will not hurt, or cause too much discomfort. Swimming and/or aerobic exercises in warm water is less likely to cause pain than activities involving some impact on joints. Gentle yoga is also recommended with instructors who know how to protect the participants from movements that will hurt. Recumbent bikes tend to be more protective of joints and muscles than other pieces of equipment in a gym, but even this piece of equipment should only be used with the advice of a physical therapist. Walking, if not too painful, should be done where there are places to sit and rest, should the pain becomes too intense to continue.

Dieting is equally difficult. When pain restricts most physical activity, it is hard not to gain weight since the individual requires many fewer calories than when normal activity is taking place. Muscle weight may be lost due to the inactivity, but excess calories will continue to be turned into fat. A dietician can figure out how many calories should be consumed in relation to the degree of inactivity caused by the pain. And just as important, the dietician can develop a food plan to make sure that all essential nutrients are being consumed within the calorie limits. Pain and attempts to lose weight should not lead to a nutritionally inadequate diet.

Even small amounts of weight loss are beneficial. If every pound gained may make the pain worse, every pound lost should bring some relief.

Accidental Weight Loss: A Gift for the Dieter

Three of my friends are suddenly thinner, and they are delighted because none of them was dieting.  One lost weight because work required her to travel across several time zones, and she found that she was sleepy, but not hungry, at mealtimes in the new time zone. Another had unexplained abdominal pain, was put in the hospital for tests, and did not eat for several days because of the tests and the pain.  When she returned home, she found that she had lost several pounds. The pain went away unexplained, but the weight loss remained. A third moved and was so busy unpacking, she ate when she remembered to eat, and that consumed were protein bars unearthed in one of the boxes. Because she couldn’t remember where anything she had unpacked was, she walked miles in her home trying to locate the stuff she needed, such as her cell phone.

None of these women was obese, but each wanted to lose between 15 and twenty pounds, but had not gotten around to doing so (one for several years). However now, after noticing their unexpected weight loss, they put themselves on a diet because as one of them told me, “My weight loss was a gift and I didn’t want to throw it away.”

Who knows what motivates someone to go on a diet at a particular moment? Sometimes it is done during a traditional dieting time, such as the first week in January. Diets are started because a special occasion is occurring several weeks or months hence and right now the article of clothing to be worn is tight. Or the occasion itself calls for appearing slimmer; weddings and reunions are noteworthy for being diet motivators. Medical reasons are often motivators for weight loss, too, but sadly are usually accompanied by the development of a medical problem like diabetes or painful orthopedic issues. Occasionally a picture of oneself from an unflattering angle strips away the ability to deny the excess pounds, or the inability to fit into the new season’s clothes that fit a year ago demand that either weight be lost, or a new wardrobe be purchased. But these reasons for starting a diet involve a conscious ‘before’ when the individual was not on a diet, and a conscious ‘now’, when the diet has been started. Accidental weight loss is just that; no conscious decision is involved, it just happens.

Perhaps the most positive aspect of accidental weight loss (in addition to the lost weight itself) is realizing that it is possible to drop pounds without even trying. Many who struggle to lose weight believe that they won’t be able to. The pounds appear to be stuck with permanent glue to various parts of the body. Diets are started and weight may be lost, but to do so requires a great deal of effort: meal planning, and preparation, and time for exercise. Of course this healthy way of life should be followed regardless of weight change, but we are human and unless weight loss is substantial, we may feel that losing weight is not worth the effort we are putting into doing so.

Accidental weight loss seems to produce a looser skirt or pants, a zipper that goes up easily, a shirt whose buttons close without any obvious effort.  “My unplanned weight loss proved to me that when I eat less and move more, the pounds came off, “said my friend, “and I didn’t have to follow any peculiar diet, or any specific kind of exercise.“

Accidental weight loss challenges the claims that the dieter must eat, or avoid eating, foods from specific food groups, must overcook the food, or eat it raw, must allow it to ferment to produce specific bacteria, must subject the body to fasting, cleanses, supplements made from herbs and twigs, injections of fat burning hormones, hypnosis, packaged foods made in an industrial plant, or the latest tabloid ‘miracle’ diet, in order to lose weight. When weight is lost accidentally, it seems that the body wasn’t paying attention to all these diet remedies. It just responded to less food coming in, and in some cases more energy was being used up by your body, and that simply equates to that your physiology used up some of its fat stores, for energy.

The realization that the body is capable of losing weight without formal dieting should be transformed into a strategy for continuing to lose weight. The first step should be reviewing in a non-judgmental way, the eating and physical activity habits that caused the weight gain, and next figuring out what acceptable changes can be made to sustain the weight that has already been lost. With a suddenly slightly lighter body, eating smaller portions, or going for walk rather than sitting on the sofa, may become easier. Throwing away high fat, high sugar, and high sodium snacks that have been an obstacle to weight loss, might seem sensible rather than a culinary sacrifice and exploring alternate methods of decreasing stress other than eating.

After accidental weight loss, you are unlikely to continue to lose weight without consciously making an attempt to do so, but you will be able to. Your body has shown you that it is able to remove a few of those pounds you once felt would never be lost. Now your body is just waiting for you to continue to lose more.