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Supplements | Is Your Supplement Shopping Unregulated?

Is Your Supplement Shopping Unregulated?

If you’ve shopped for a dietary supplement lately, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the huge variety of products available on today’s market. But while it’s great that dietary supplements are so abundant, more choices can equal greater confusion. How can you know if you are getting the best and safest brand of an herb, vitamin or mineral? What does all of the information on the label really mean for your health?

The answer is quite simple: You don’t have to know. Unless you have a doctoral degree in science, don’t even try to figure it out. Instead, avoid of the supplement aisle until you’ve called your local naturopathic doctor (ND) to make an appointment for some personalized guidance.

Why go through the trouble of an appointment? Because in an unregulated industry with so many competing brands (some which are vastly better than others), it’s in your best interest to consult with the experts first. Plant medicines can be just as potent as synthetic drugs, so it’s important to know how much to take and with what it doesn’t mix well. And, contrary to some of the hype, there is no “one-size-fits-all” formula for alleviating pain, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure or depression. Some substances will work perfectly for your neighbor but not for you, and an ND can help you steer clear of those that won’t work well for you.

Dean Neary, a naturopathic physician and chair of the physical medicine department at Bastyr University, told a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on March 13 that a part of him – albeit a small part of him -- believes dietary supplements should only be available by prescription. “People need someone qualified to help them manage what supplements they take,” he says, noting that salespeople at health food stores and vitamin shops are often unqualified to offer sound medical advice. “Some of them are basically kids,” he observes.

Neary explains that there is no single group of professionals who are widely identified as advisers on dietary supplements, although nutritionists were at one point considered the experts. These days, naturopathic physicians are the logical choice, since they study plant medicines in great depth. But that authority is not universally recognized, he explains.

Kathie Golden, ND, Product Review Coordinator at Bastyr Dispensary, agrees that naturopathic physicians are the best choice for guidance, since they keep up with the latest research on natural products. “I had a friend who thought she should be able to figure out how much of an herb to take. But you shouldn’t know what dosage to take any more than you should know the dosage of penicillin at the pharmacy. People don’t understand that, and it’s a big problem,” she explains.

It’s true that some medical doctors (MDs) or nutritionists may also be extremely knowledgeable about herbs and natural products, but not always. Naturopathic physicians can be a surer bet. And if you’re not able to schedule an appointment, you can at least shop at stores that screen their products for quality and safety and who hire qualified staff, such as at the Bastyr Dispensary.

Which other stores offer quality supplements besides Bastyr Dispensary? To find out, you can ask if the store follows the good manufacturing practices (GMPs) proposed by the FDA, which are the closest thing to regulation the supplement industry has right now. The GMPs, which the FDA is charged with creating and enforcing, are part of what’s called the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which is legislation that was approved during the Clinton administration. The DSHEA ensures the public’s access to safe and quality supplements. As part of that act, the government established the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements.

Those retailers that follow the GMPs can guarantee consumers that what’s on the label is what’s really in the bottle, and also that their products contain no pesticides, heavy metals or other contaminants. Although the FDA is not enforcing the GMPs yet, “High-quality companies have come in line with the GMPs,” says Dr. Golden, including the Bastyr Dispensary. She explains that it’s important to be ready for the day the enforcement begins. Getting the GMPs finalized and enforced has been a slow process, because, “the FDA just doesn’t have the staff to deal with it,” says Golden.

So, needless to say, the world of natural products is not yet perfect -- or perfectly regulated, but natural products aren’t going away any time soon. Scientists are increasingly eager to conduct research on natural substances’ effects on everything from cancer to arthritis to depression. Although this is a hopeful sign to NDs who have always believed in the healing power of nature, there is a downside. Some of the medical professionals who preside over studies on herbs and natural supplements use inferior forms of a natural substance and/or don’t provide adequate time for them to work, says Neary. This causes the public to rule out natural products that actually are quite effective.

Neary points to the recent study on glucosamine in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed that glucosamine was no more effective for arthritis pain than a placebo. Neary says researchers didn’t give the supplement enough time to surpass the placebo effect, which often happens in initial stages of treatment. He explains that in his practice, he would not try to assess the effectiveness of glucosamine until after six months of usage, and the study did not last that long.

So, you can’t believe everything you read about “conclusions” made from studies on herbs and supplements. You can’t even really trust yourself. You’ve got to just admit it: Some decisions really are better left to the experts.

For more information about quality supplements, contact the Bastyr Dispensary or the FDA site, the Office of Dietary Supplements, or make an appointment with a naturopathic physician.

Writer: Sydney Maupin
Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Kathie Golden, ND; Dean Neary, ND;

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The health information contained in this site is not intended as medical advice and should not be considered a substitute for appropriate medical care. Any products mentioned in studies cited in Healthnotes articles are not necessarily endorsed by Bastyr. As with any product, consult with a natural health practitioner to discuss what may be best for you.


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