Natural medicines and supplements…are they all just forms of snake oil in different coloured (and flavoured!) packages?
If you watched the Four Corners special on supplements and the Australian Complementary Medicines Industry, you might think you are being taken for a ride!
Here’s a few things to consider if you watched the Four Corners special.
- The program focused almost entirely on multivitamins and –minerals, which are by definition hardly targeted interventions. Multivitamins are by definition a “safety net” – something you take even if you’re not sure if they’ll help – a kind of insurance policy. The world of nutritional supplementation to support optimal health is vast, and doesn’t really include multivitamins – for most health practitioners trained in this field, we will use them rarely if at all.
- They touched on a famous and much-cited study that showed that certain antioxidants actually increased risks – specifically, beta carotene increased risk of cancer in smokers. This is why seeing a trusted health professional who follows the research is so important. No health professional worth their salt would recommend isolated beta-carotene supplementation, whether you are a smoker or not.
- The conflict of interest issue is a serious one and applies equally to complementary medicines and pharmaceuticals. As was pointed out, much of pharmaceutical research is funded by pharmaceutical companies, and there is also a publication bias for positive studies (meaning that studies that don’t show a result are simply less likely to be published, which skews the available studies to looking possibly more positive overall than they are.)
- There was a lot of talk about hidden “evidence” – studies that you can’t access kept secret by the vitamin companies. This is simply a red herring; most research on complementary medicines is available to the public, easily searched on databases like PubMed, which any Australian with an internet connection can access.
- Much of the talk about pharmacies selling inferior products, and/or products making false claims, has definite merit. This doesn’t mean that products that do work don’t exist. Many of these products are not sold in pharmacies and health food stores. Every day, patients bring in to me their useless supplements that they have been sold at the pharmacy and health food store by staff who don’t understand the product. Once again, it comes down to establishing a relationship with a health professional you trust to follow the research and prescribe in accordance with research findings.
Here’s some facts you need to know to complete the picture.
Australia has one of the most stringent quality-control systems in place for natural medicines in the world.
You need to take care when ordering any supplements on-line as most countries, including the USA, lack the quality-control we have across the board. Analysis of complementary medicines sold in the USA has found countless incidences of the supplement not containing what it claims to contain – including containing fragments of pot plants instead of active therapeutic herbs listed on the label.
There is strong and rapidly growing evidence for the use of complementary medicines. Anyone who denies efficacy of all complementary medicines is not following the research.
Complementary medicine has a huge role to play in the management of chronic disease.
A good natural health practitioner will not only follow and understand the research on natural medicines and health conditions, but will use research as a guide for precise use of natural medicines – for example, the exact strain of the probiotic, the exact type of the curcumin, and the exact extract strength of the exact species of the herb. She will understand potential interactions among supplements, and between supplements and pharmaceutical drugs and explain all this to you so you feel confident in what you are using.
A point to add: interesting that the only people they spoke to you were healthy people who used supplements “just in case”…not the people who modern medicine was powerless to help, whose lives have been turned around by the use of carefully selected supplements under the guidance of an experienced health practitioner. This is the daily experience of health professionals like myself.
Bottom line? Stop believing one report or the other, one blog post or the other. Delve into the research. If you can’t, follow my page and be directed via links straight to the studies.
Alyssa runs Equilibria Physiotherapy & Nutrition, a clinic focusing on integrative solutions for pelvic health issues including all types of pelvic pain, bladder and bowel control issues, fertility, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Alyssa’s website is an information hub related to all things relating to the function of the female pelvis.
She aims to help as many people as possible restore balance to their pelvis through education, effective treatment and empowering lifestyle choices.
Alyssa enjoys playing the clarinet and rollerblading, though (much to the gratitude of her patients), not while she is consulting.
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