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.

4 thoughts on “Distinguishing Fact from Fiction in Supplement Claims

  1. Apprentice

    Hi Judith! Thank you to you and Nina for your work! I don’t want to sound cliche but your serotonin research is truly life changing! A question for you. I often wake up in the morning “out of sorts” and craving sugar. I experience the same carb craving as I would at 10 a.m. or 3 in the afternoon. You have mentioned that serotonin levels are naturally higher in the morning, but in my case it varies. Some days I am just fine with protein in the first part of the day but some days not. After finishing SPD recommended breakfast I feel unsatisfied. I often count minutes to have my morning snack. I am at a healthy weight for my height (118 lbs @ 5’5″). I am not looking to lose weight. I just want to feel good to serve people in my life. Would it be ok to eat a carby snack say at 6:00 a.m before my 7:00 a.m breakfast?

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  2. Apprentice

    A very thought provoking post! All to say, we need to be cautious with supplements…to protect our well-being and unnecessary spending of money. Thank you Dr. Wurtman!

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