The volume of dietary supplements peddled on TV is more than I can handle. When I come across a channel dedicated to these commercials, I realize that the viewer population is old. Baby boomers don’t feel as groovy as they get older. Here are a few heavily advertised products that have me hitting the mute button:
discharge factor. A Ph.D. in political science speaks out in favor of this product, while strolling along Washington, DC’s Reflecting Pond to the sound of patriotic music. Pain is a symptom, not a specific diagnosis. The purpose of a thorough medical analysis is to generate a list of probable causes. What happens if a person neglects to get diagnosed with a serious illness while taking this supplement? Is there any data, beyond testimonials, to support the effectiveness of this product?
balance of nature. The traditional Inuit hunter-gatherer diet of the Arctic contained little plant food. These intrepid people survived by consuming caribou and seal, like real carnivores. Still, the traditional Inuit appeared to be in good health. People adapt to a myriad of diets. Moreover, a pill containing plant extracts is not physiologically equivalent to a serving of plant food, in terms of digestive function, hunger relief and cholesterol absorption. Be real.
Prevagene. Elderly people with memory loss would respond to this jellyfish-derived product, based on data reported “…on a clinical subgroup,” we are told. Where is the data demonstrating that an oral product, broken down by stomach acid and digestive enzymes, will alter the physiology of the brain?In addition, a complaint of memory loss should prompt a detailed evaluation to rule out thyroid disease, hypertension, depression and other causes.
super beta prostate. When evaluating prostate symptoms, a doctor should rule out underlying pathology, especially prostate cancer. Turning to a dietary supplement is the wrong approach, with the potential to delay evaluation with a physical exam or blood test.
Relaxing sleep. The seller of this product is a “former presidential candidate”, who strokes his guitar while dispensing popular advice on how to sleep better. His friend, a country music star, sits next to him and gives an impassioned testimony. Again, poor sleep is not a “diagnosis”, but a condition that reflects general health and lifestyle habits. For example, heart failure and diabetes can impact sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or orthopedic issues may play a role.
Super Beets. Due to its claimed ability to “unlock nitric oxide”, this product may “support healthy blood pressure” while “increasing your circulation” and provide you with “powerful antioxidant support” that will boost your energy. Athletes approve of it, football teams use it. College football players and coaches are, of course, nutrition experts.
Dietary supplements, as defined by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, are generally vitamins, minerals, botanical extracts, enzymes, metabolites or similar substances, classified as “foods” and not as drugs . Supplement labels and advertisements state, “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
The supplement disclaimer rushes before the eyes of the viewers in an instant, usually in microscopic characters. Could it be that the soft pedal disclaimers reflect the uncomfortable reality that supplement advertisements actually suggest that these products cure medical conditions? The companies clearly want a rock-solid disclaimer, while acknowledging the inherent contradictions in the overall project.
William Osler (1849-1919), professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, observed: “Stop worrying about your health. It will go away. However, turning off the TV and taking a walk might delay the inevitable. Should we buy food supplements to prevent physiological aging? I am skeptical of the inherent cost-benefit ratio of dietary supplements. Caveat emptor (Latin for “Let the buyer beware”) guides my vision. Consult your doctor about your particular situation.
Scott T. Anderson, MD ([email protected]), is a clinical professor at the University of California, Davis Medical School. This column is informative and does not constitute medical advice.