If you’ve been scanning the headlines over the past year, you’re probably wondering about the state of nutritional supplements. The New York Times recently warned that “Dietary Supplements Lead to 20,000 E.R. Visits Yearly.” That followed on the heels of such gloomy reports as “Study Warns of Diet Supplement Dangers Kept Quiet by FDA” a few months before.
But a look beneath the headlines finds surprisingly good news.
Since more than 150 million Americans currently take dietary supplements, the ill effects fall to a tiny fraction of users. And a significant majority of those ills come from one particular segment of the industry—weight-loss and workout supplements. Those physique-enhancing outliers that contain powerful stimulants such as amphetamine-like Acacia rigidula will likely come under much closer scrutiny in the future.
Meanwhile, the fish oil, vitamin D, and probiotic supplements many of us rely on have been proven safe and reliable in hundreds of studies.
Herbal DNA tests disputed
Supplement news was dominated earlier this year by an investigation from the New York Attorney General’s office, which at first determined that some herbal products on the shelves of major retailers did not contain the ingredients listed on their labels. The investigation came under fire from many corners, however, as the DNA testing conducted on the products was not a reliable method for evaluating botanical extracts. The American Herbal Products Association, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, and other industry groups blasted the AG’s office for “misuse of technologies” and “misinterpretation of the test results.”
A re-evaluation by the attorney general’s office concluded that DNA testing of herbal products should be done “prior to extraction” to avoid such misreadings of the results.
Let’s move to the overwhelmingly good news about dietary supplements. The past year brought favorable studies regarding omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics, certain vitamins and minerals, and a wide variety of herbal products.
A common finding from the research showed what many of us have suspected: Good health follows from maintaining adequate levels of nutrients throughout life. Using supplements to help treat various conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, cognitive decline, or depression can certainly be effective, but the better strategy is to prevent deficiencies of those nutrients in the first place. A healthy diet and a careful selection of supplements is a sound approach.
For example, studies of vitamin D published this year showed that low levels can lead to arthritis, dementia, complications following a stroke, falls among older adults, and other hazards. Though vitamin D levels are affected by a wide range of factors, there is strong evidence that supplementation and diet can help prevent many conditions before they occur or become severe.
The same can be said for omega-3 fatty acids. New research has shown that maintaining healthy levels appears to help prevent heart disease, migraines, compromised immunity, and other conditions. Though it’s rarely too late to begin eating fish or taking omega-3 supplements, the biggest payoffs seem to come from starting early and continuing.
Throughout 2015, this magazine highlighted significant good news regarding herbal supplements, particularly relating to mental health. Among the findings are the positive effects of Ginkgo biloba on anxiety, Rhodiola rosea on depression, and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) on stress.
Herbal treatments for relief of menopausal symptoms also stood out this year. Black cohosh was shown to reduce hot flashes, while the effectiveness of Pycnogenol was also reinforced.
Virtually every week brings good news about supplements, ranging from the positive effects of probiotics on blood lipids to the memory-boosting properties of resveratrol and folic acid. The fact is, supplements prevent far more emergency room visits than they cause. And that’s good news for us all.