Health News Digest

January 1, 2007

Hot Off The Press:  Another Misguided Attack On Dietary Supplements


By  Michael D. Shaw

Considering that Americans spend well over $1.5 trillion on health care, and the prospect of millions of older and sicker baby boomers all lining up to bankrupt the country as they push the system to its limits looms in the near future, we should all be thrilled that many people are taking an ownership interest in their own health.

One component of this relatively new self-reliance is the boom in dietary supplements, used by nearly 150 million Americans.

Congress defined the term “dietary supplement” in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994.

A dietary supplement is a product taken by mouth that contains a “dietary ingredient” intended to supplement the diet. The “dietary ingredients” in these products may include: vitamins, minerals, herbs, or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites.

However, there are some who are not so thrilled with this development—the latest among them being Dan Hurley, a New Jersey-based writer, whose new book Natural Causes attacks the supplement industry. In Hurley’s fantasy world, supplements may well be doing more harm than good, and may be one of the greatest swindles ever perpetrated on the American public.

Note that this very premise could also be attached to the conventional allopathic health care system, better than 90 percent of which is based on expensive proprietary pharmaceuticals that are rife with side effects, and invasive therapies that are generally not without their problems, either.

Hurley’s opening salvo is directed toward the herb Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). He relates the case of one Sue Gilliatt, who supposedly “burned off her nose” using some preparation of the herb to treat her skin cancer. Bearing in mind that people can do stupid things to themselves with any variety of means, the overwhelming number of references on herbal medicine list the main applications for Bloodroot as an emetic and expectorant, treating asthma, croup, and laryngitis.

Some references describe the use of a Bloodroot paste for skin diseases, warts, and tumors, and most works note that since the herb contains alkaloids, too high an internal dose can be fatal.

Assuming that his tale is true, one can only conclude that Ms. Gilliatt abused the herb in a most extreme manner, and, for some reason, refused to seek the advice of a professional when it became clear that the results of the treatment were becoming disastrous. How this story proves anything more than people can do idiotic things remains a mystery.

Another anecdote relates the story of a Dorothy Wilson, whose doctor prescribed the amino acid L-Tryptophan for her insomnia in 1988, somehow triggering a disease that left her painfully incapacitated by nerve damage. Many will remember that in 1989, the FDA recalled L-Tryptophan, stating that it caused the rare Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS). Moreover, in March, 1990, the FDA banned the sale of supplemental L-Tryptophan completely. There is some evidence that the syndrome was caused by impurities, rather than the L-Tryptophan itself.

Nonetheless, the FDA action puts the lie to Hurley’s contention that the supplement industry is operating without any oversight. Indeed, given that premarket approval for non-proprietary supplements would be impractical at best, and financially ruinous at worst, the system worked exactly as it should. Far from being uninvolved in the supplement industry, the FDA has extensive guidelines.

As to his contention that the FDA is too cozy with the supplement industry, one could make a more compelling argument that the agency is a bit too close with big Pharma. Followers of the health scene are well aware of the recent miscues involving various pain meds and cholesterol-lowering drugs, the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device, and the Bjork-Shiley artificial heart valve, to mention but a few.

Regarding the L-Tryptophan matter, it is worth recalling that virtually on the heels of the ban, a major Newsweek article touted the virtues of the anti-depressant drug Prozac. L-Tryptophan had been used for many years as a natural treatment for depression, anxiety, PMS, and as a sleep-inducing aid. Both L-Tryptophan and Prozac act to increase serotonin, although in completely different ways.

L-Tryptophan acts to produce serotonin regardless of what levels exist naturally, while so-called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft enhance levels of serotonin by working on whatever amounts of it already exist in the body. One would think that increased production of this neurotransmitter would be a more effective therapy than mere enhancement. In fact, the body synthesizes serotonin from L-Tryptophan!

Hurley does provide an entertaining history of actual snake oil, and then breezes through time with a look at bad medicine in many of its forms, even if he does confuse several matters, including crediting one Samuel Thomson with certain ancient Chinese healing concepts. Demonstrating excruciating ignorance, he goes on to ridicule the cold/heat (yin/yang) pathogenic energies paradigm, proven over 3000 years.

Interestingly, Hurley concludes his book with an admonishment to avoid the quick-fix/magic bullet answer to good health, apparently unaware that this is the defining precept of conventional health care today. He could have added that people should also avoid superficial quick-fix hatchet job books that shed far more heat than light on such an important topic as health care.