California physician Matilde Parente, M.D. has just released a new book, Healing Ways: An Integrative Sourcebook, which provides a fresh and comprehensive overview of the various methods that comprise the field of integrative health, much of which was once considered alternative and hardly worthy of mainstream medical endorsement or interest.
Despite their widespread use and growing acceptance, many questions remain regarding some non-mainstream healthcare methods, including issues of safety and effectiveness. One major and persistent area of concern and consumer confusion involves dietary supplements.
“Navigating your way down the supplement aisle can be a challenge,” says Dr. Parente. “Makers of dietary supplements are not required to follow most of the laws, testing, and requirements that apply to prescription drugs. People tend to believe that just because a supplement sits on a pharmacy or grocery shelf and does not carry a warning label that it is safe for everyone to use.”
In reality, supplements are not tested first in humans and only after they have caused injuries that are reported to the FDA can actions be taken to protect the public. People do not realize it is in their power to report such problems or are not aware of how quickly and easily they can do so.
Health Canada has regulations on dietary supplements. However, you need to be aware of the following:
- According to the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD), not all natural health products currently available on the Canadian market have been evaluated by Health Canada.
- Notwithstanding, such yet-to-be-evaluated products may legally be sold in Canada.
- Such products will bear an exemption number listed on the product label – look for the format EN-XXXXXX to identify these as-yet exempted, incompletely tested products.
- Although not yet fully evaluated, exempted products have undergone an initial assessment to ensure that “information supporting their safety, quality and efficacy has been provided, and that specific safety criteria have been met.”
So how do people derive the benefits of dietary supplements without putting themselves at risk for potential problems such as the ones that regularly occur as a result of this after-the-fact regulation?
Dr. Parente recommends the following steps when choosing among dietary supplements:
- Bring up your medication and supplement use with all your health care providers—including all dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals and herbs.
- Review the label for any ingredients you may be allergic to or that might cause problems, including hormones, unfamiliar ingredients, long lists of ingredients, or ingredients that may trigger a rise in blood pressure or heart rate.
- Tap into the knowledge of a pharmacist about different supplement choices and possible interactions with prescription drugs, foods, or other supplements.
- Only buy as much as you are likely to consume before the expiration date, and store them properly.
- Know that the more drugs and supplements you take, the greater the risk for interactions or bad reactions—question the need for multiple medications and herbals, aiming to simplify your regimen in consultation with your healthcare providers.
- Stay away from supplements that advertise miracle cures, immediate results and those that promise to help you achieve something you know to be difficult, such as weight loss, super strength, a headful of hair, outsized sexual performance or regained youth.
- Remember that dietary supplements cannot be sold or advertised to cure or alleviate a disease—steer clear of such claims and promises.
- Certification by an independent laboratory may be as reliable as no certification at all when it comes to the specific bottle sitting in your medicine cabinet—look for supplements that follow established, tested procedures, such as those bearing the USP Verified Mark.
- Follow the label instructions—whether a product claims to be natural or not, more is not necessarily better, and more could be harmful.
- “People who care about their health may be surprised to learn how many useful and safe integrative health choices are available—some of these might be less risky than certain conventional care options,” Dr. Parente says.
“Our wellness state, lifestyle choices and diet sometimes fall out of balance. For some conditions, high-touch, low-tech and more holistic approaches can be quite effective, safe and less costly than many mainstream methods or treatments”.