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Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients

Enough Already!

Enough Already! – US News & World Report criticizes natural products and dietary supplements

It’s bad enough when the “quackbusters” get their 15 minutes on the talk shows, but when a purported news magazine — US News & World Report — does a hatchet job on alternatives, it’s downright aggravating. Their cover story “The Risks of Natural Cures,” (Feb. 12, 2001) is a lot more sensationalism than it is serious journalism.

The patient stories of deaths and disability mostly concern diet pills and “body-building” supplements. Yet the article does not discriminate between these highly commercialized products and legitimate supplements like Ginkgo for memory, St. John’s wort for depression, saw palmetto for BPH, and glucosamine sulfate for osteoarthritis, all of which have clinical research showing their safety and effectiveness. The statement “A recent survey shows that 63% of consumers took a vitamin, mineral, or herbal supplement in the past three months” is followed by “Many take all of them at once.” Does this mean that taking more than one vitamin or herb at the same time, is dangerous? What about multi-vitamin and mineral supplements which many physicians recommend? This one sentence, more than anything else in the article, shows a serious lack of knowledge of the subject.

Supplements containing ephedra were involved in most of the cases cited in the article, listing cardiovascular problems as primary risks, but these are usually diet pills, used by the dieter without physician supervision, and may be abused by people trying to lose weight. A California attorney recently sued a supplement manufacturer “on behalf of 13 clients who suffered strokes, brain damage, seizures and death, allegedly related to a popular ephedra supplement.” One could assume that these consumers were overweight — what other health problems might they have had? We will probably never know, since there is so much bias against any kind of nutritional supplementation. A San Francisco pathologist says “The only cases I know where people (who took ephedra) died, they had severe coronary artery disease or they took overdoses.”

The body-building supplements aimed at men are also high risk for some of the same reasons as ephedra for weight loss — no physician supervision, and unknown underlying health problems, and highly advertised. That these two products pose risks for the user is not news to the legitimate alternative community. Naturopathic doctors do not prescribe “diet” pills or muscle-builders for week-end warriors — they use clinically researched and traditional useage nutrients — vitamins, minerals, and herbs which have been shown to be safe and effective.

Yes, there should be labels on St. John’s wort about exposure to the sun, and yes, there should be concern about health risks from diet pills and steroids. But to suggest that all nutritional supplements are dangerous is a gross distortion of the facts. There are some risks with some products, but let’s not forget that pharmaceutical drugs will kill some 200,000 to 300,000 people this year. I’d like to see US News & World Report do a cover story on those numbers.

Painting all supplements with the same broad brush smacks of yellow journalism — sensationalistic headlines do grab more readers, they say. (and the two-page color ad for Vioxx was not threatened). But nutritional therapy is here to stay, and journalistic magazines like US News & World Report who publish such biased and misleading articles will lose credibility with their well-informed readers.

Irene Alleger, Editor

COPYRIGHT 2001 The Townsend Letter Group

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group