Archive for July, 2016

Consumer Reports is biased against supplements

FACTS.BIAS

If you are a subscriber to Consumer Reports (CR) magazine, you may depend on their ratings of household items and automobiles. But, would you still trust their advice if they said they don’t approve of using dish soap, toasters or televisions? Before you believe a word of the new September 2016 issue about dietary supplements, you should know that Consumer Reports is biased against supplements. Don’t take my word for it…take theirs. The graphic below is clipped from one of their newsletters. An otherwise useful editorial about telling your doctor everything quoted their medical/nutritional expert, Marvin Lipman, MD as having a “general bias against supplements”. I give him credit for at least being honest (even if he does not seem to be open-minded and well-informed on this topic).CR bias clip

CR really should have repeated that as a disclaimer in this month’s magazine where they quote him in a massive irresponsible attack on supplements. They obviously worked very hard to paint an ugly picture and scare readers. It would take a several-page article like CR’s to correct all the misleading impressions the piece delivers. So, instead I’ll just list a few examples and some of the general ways they went astray:

  • The worst failing of this article is that it does not acknowledge the tens of thousands of scientific studies showing benefits from dietary supplements. (One of my sponsor’s ingredient has been the subject of over 700 studies!) It is just sad that they will not only frighten people away from using supplements that would improve their health, but also cause many to resort instead to pharmaceuticals with their usual high cost and proven side effects. If CR wanted to really help people, they would tell the story of magnesium—it is priceless and costs merely pennies per day. What drug can help reduce blood pressure, inflammation and cholesterol; improve depression, bone density, blood sugar control and constipation; fight migraines, muscle cramping and depression; and help normalize heart rhythms along with dozens of other benefits? Please read my newly revised article on magnesium with its updated recommendations. Even when CR says a supplement works (e.g. “St. John’s Wort may be as effective as antidepressants”) they still think you should take a drug instead of the safer supplement.
  • In writing my book on probiotics, I found many studies showing that probiotics save a great many babies from horrible infant diseases. And yet CR chose to start their article with a terribly sad story about a premature baby who died as a result of a probiotic. That supplement was apparently contaminated at the hospital and so the anecdote should probably have been put into a story about the dangers of medical error.
  • The magazine paints a distorted picture of supplement regulation. Nutritional supplements are indeed regulated–not only by the FDA, but also by states. Understandably, the requirements are different from those for drugs. For example, if a medication is a little bit off, that could possibly kill you…but a variance in the dose of vitamin C will not. We can buy a whole can of the spice turmeric at the grocery store. Should it require several years and a billion dollars’ worth of testing to justify selling the exact same powder in a capsule? (No company would do that because they cannot get a patent and therefore every other company could then sell the supplement without the expense.) There are cheaters in every industry. Responsible supplement makers (like our HBN radio sponsors) and their trade associations warmly welcome when the FDA cracks down on those few fringe companies who spike their products with drugs or take quality shortcuts. (Note that it seems the wrong kind of test was used in at least one highly-publicized “exposé” of supplements that supposedly did not contain what they claimed.)
  • Obviously, not everything natural is safe. For example, no one takes supplements of hemlock the plant poison used to kill the ancient philosopher, Socrates. However, CR had to s.t.r.e.t.c.h to come up with their list of “15 Ingredients to Always Avoid”. Most items in it are quite rarely used if at all or are used differently than implied. One has not been sold in decades except for topical use (Comfrey). Another (Kava) was mistakenly blamed for liver damage when the problem was actually careless use of the wrong part of the plant. With some others the issue is mainly one of being sure to follow instructions and respect dosage.
  • Incidents of harm are highlighted with scary high totals. First, I sure wish they had given this story a meaningful context by discussing the well over 100,000 thousand deaths each year due just to those drugs given as prescribed in hospitals. Secondly, we have to understand that when adverse events are reported to the FDA, that can just mean a pill got stuck in the person’s throat. Even with serious issues, there is no follow up investigation to determine if the supplement really was to blame or it just happened to be present along with to another problem. Don’t you imagine that if a doctor has a bias like CR’s Dr. Lipman, he or she might be quick to blame the supplement rather than one of their own prescriptions?
  • CR points out that store clerks don’t always give good advice. Nutrition clerks do want to help and generally speaking they do. However, surely a consumer must bear some responsibility if they press an un-credentialed store clerk for medical advice about a serious health concern.

My advice: Follow label instructions. See your nutrition-oriented health professional for advice about disease. Buy supplements from major brands that have proper quality control and a fine reputation to protect. Be especially careful with any product that claims to cause weight loss, build muscle or enhance sexual performance. That is the quick-fix territory where scam artists skulk about. Also, be careful where you obtain your nutrition information. Consumers Reports publishes actual testing results for toasters and the like, but when it comes to supplements, they seem to rely on opinions rather than extensive research data. So, at the least I think they need to add nutritionists and integrative doctors to their staff of writers and editors—folks who will look at the weight of science and practical successful applications, not just repeat outdated prejudice. By the way, I do greatly appreciate that the magazine has taken a strong stand in favor of labeling GMO’s.

Get more value from routine blood tests

blood draw

The purpose of the standard blood tests one receives along with an annual checkup is basically to detect disease markers. For example, some numbers will show if an infection or major immune issue is present. Others might hint that the liver is struggling or that the kidneys are headed toward shut down. The cholesterol measurements supposedly predict heart disease, but there is a lot of controversy around that one. What about nutrition and markers of optimum health and longevity? The standard test will pick up iron deficiency anemia and for the astute observer may indicate one measure of low vitamin B12. Otherwise, little is revealed about nutrition or resilience.

People are fooled when they see “calcium” listed. If that number is high or low it can indicate trouble, but that test isn’t a reliable way to know if you are appropriately nourished in the mineral. That is because the body is so good at balancing calcium for cellular function that it will eat up a rib or two before letting the blood get too low. Likewise, potassium can indicate a lot of things but not really whether you are eating sufficient fruits and vegetables.

Unless a number is extremely out of range or there are a bunch of numbers a little bit out of range, doctors may tell you not to worry about the results. I highly recommend the reference book Your Blood Never Lies: How to Read a Blood Test for a Longer, Healthier Life by pharmacist, nutritionist and popular HBN guest, James B. LaValle. This book will tell you in detail what might be causing a high or low number on your tests. You may well see a trend that the doctor has missed.

Unless you are blessed to have a nutrition-savvy integrative physician, you might need to ask for additional tests if you want to aim for optimum health. Below are some examples:

Blood sugar. In addition to heading off diabetes and its complications, maintaining stable blood sugar is a powerful quality-of-life strategy. That is because when blood sugar (glucose) is high, sugar glues itself to the proteins in our cells. That sugar-coating (“glycosylation”) is linked to disease, mental decline and premature aging. (For more info and positive steps to take, read my articles, Blood Sugar Spikes and Avoid Diabetes.) Doctors almost always test “fasting glucose”. That does indicate what our blood sugar happens to be the day of the test. However, the HbA1c test shows how sugar-coated our proteins have become over a period of months. (Ideally we want that number to be under 5.)

Vitamin D. Given the importance of this hormone-like vitamin to most processes in the body, some doctors now routinely test for it. But, you have to ask before the blood draw, because it may take a greater quantity of blood than what the tech would ordinarily collect. The proper test to order is “25-hydroxyvitamin D” test—also called a 25(OH)D. Labs vary greatly in accuracy as do the levels they call “normal” or within range. Many claim that a score of 32 is okay. However, most nutrition and vitamin D experts say to aim for a level of 50 to 80. My article on D.

Thyroid. If you don’t score in the healthy range on my thyroid quiz, you might want to make sure you are getting more comprehensive thyroid testing than the typical and most basic TSH (“thyroid stimulating hormone”). The doctor will know what to do if you ask for a complete thyroid panel. My thyroid article.

Magnesium. As noted in my article on magnesium, this mineral is needed in at least 300 reactions in the body. It is also widely deficient in the American diet and that sets us up for big trouble…including heart attack. If you don’t specify something else, most physicians will order a “serum magnesium”. That is a snap shot of what is circulating at the moment and may reflect dinner last night. That is not good enough. Ask for “Red Blood Cell Magnesium”. Even though it is not the ultimate test either, it will at least give a better idea if the cells routinely have what they need for proper operation.

Be prepared if there will be extra cost by asking what insurance will cover. There are nutritional services that test a lot more nutrients, but the tests above are a good start. Again, every home should have a copy of this book to make sense of all test results: Your Blood Never Lies: How to Read a Blood Test for a Longer, Healthier Life.

What if “Doctor’s Orders” are WRONG?

smoke evidence

Husband Bill was chuckling as he highlighted a phrase in the cautions paragraph of a medication instruction sheet. The phrase “Talk to your doctor” was repeated 9 times! Understandably, Walmart wants to make sure the customer knows all the dangers. What amused Bill is that we probably assume that doctors already know all those risks when they prescribed adrug…or do they? What if “Doctor’s Orders” are wrong?

Medicine has become so technical, complex, fractured and hurried that we really should take very little for granted. Here are three examples I recently stumbled across where the “experts” were off base. The situations can seem funny except that they can cause people to avoid treatments that would be helpful and that are often safer than more conventional choices.

  • Geniuses at an agency (European Food Standards Authority) of the European Union declared that producers of bottled water could not legally claim that water reduces dehydration. Article. Do you suppose this kind of nonsense is one reason that Brits recently voted to withdraw from the EU? (Even our often misguided FDA is not that bad.)
  • A recent review of studies is just the latest showing benefits of a gentle massage technique, “therapeutic touch”. In this case the benefit was for pain, nausea, anxiety, fatigue, quality of life and even biochemical measures—especially in cancer patients. I found that review while looking for an update to a Time magazine article from 1994 which quoted experts mocking the method as “New Age mumbo-jumbo”.
  • A newspaper headline from last fall says “Vitamins don’t stop polyps.” Researchers had looked at supplemental calcium and vitamin D. The calcium (a mineral not a vitamin) was given at 1,200 mg a day. If you read Death by Calcium: Proof of the toxic effects of dairy and calcium supplements or listened to my interview with the author, you will understand why calcium might be expected to actually increase the risk of precancerous polyps. (The scientists might have had better results giving magnesium, zinc or selenium.) As for the vitamin D, the dose was a mere 1,000 IU. That is probably not enough to get most participants into even the safe range, let alone to a therapeutic level.
  • In the late 1940’s magazine ads claimed that more doctors smoked Camels than other brands and claimed that 20,679 doctors thought Luckies brand were less irritating. The ad shown above features entertainer Arthur Godfrey and a positive spin on the health evidence. The ad copy noted that scientists had checked folks who had smoked Chesterfields for an average of 10 years. They reported no damage to nose, throat or sinuses. Hmm…they didn’t mention looking lungs for cancer or emphysema which ironically is what killed poster boy, Mr. Godfrey.

We can’t believe all experts or discount them all. It does pay to remain a little skeptical and educate ourselves. Applying a little common sense helps as does educating ourselves. Getting a second opinion is also recommended. However, it is a good idea to get that opinion from a professional with a different type of training. Otherwise we are basically getting the same advice two different times. (I’m pretty sure that Dr. Google isn’t always right.) My guide to identifying a quack might be useful.

 


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