Playing Russian Roulette with Careless Supplement Use and Over-Use

October 20, 2015 in Foodland, Health Claims, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

This past week has provided some sobering news. Lamar Odom stopped breathing and went into a coma. And although the owner of the “Love Ranch” (brothel) wants to protect the reputation of his business, the doctors found more than the natural (????) product “Reload” implicated in his blood. So the crack cocaine probably was adding to his health problems, but deep in articles about this issue is the fact that the FDA had previously issued warnings about the supplement (Reload); the FDA said the supplement “contains hidden drug ingredient’ that could cause severe reactions.” This case evokes the comparison to playing the game of Russian roulette. The consequences are only occasionally as bad for the brain as a bullet to the head, but the thoughtless indifference to serious risk is similar between supplement overdosers and Russian roulette players.

It isn’t just ‘supplementing’ to replace Viagra, or adding caffeine for energy. These are only a few of the many problems in the supplement business. And even worse, hanging over the discussion is this larger question: do those who are supposed to be protecting the public really think that the public is heeding their warnings?

Just a couple of days after Lamar Odom went into a coma; the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published an article about the many adverse events related to dietary supplements. They report that supplements have led to 23,005 emergency visits per year to hospitals. It was all over the news. I’m frustrated by how it will probably be quickly forgotten and diluted into nothing to worry about. Certainly there seems to be much more news on Lamar Odom than on the NEJM article; but if the combination of these two stories can help some see the serious consequences of an under regulated supplement industry, coupled by a carelessly pill-popping public, then the juxtaposition of these two news events may wake up some few in the public.

The lead researcher and author of the study (who is a medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)), Andrew I. Geller, was quoted in a Washington Post article: “With the younger adults one of our central findings was weight loss or energy products were the most commonly implicated dietary supplements and the fact is, we found many with cardiac symptoms – which are effects we might see with caffeine.”

Let me just take a little digression away from supplements in general to focus on caffeine. It seems to me that since caffeine is found naturally in foods, that people seem to think caffeine is some kind of miracle health food. Not So!!! I know that some opportunistic businessmen are even adding caffeine to peanut butter. Why not? It was already in potato chips, sunflower seeds, beef jerky, waffles, pancake syrup, caffeinated water, gummy bears, and marshmallows not to mention all the drinks. This trend is raising real concerns. It’s even making the FDA jittery.

It surprises me that the public, seems to miss the concept of ‘dose response.’ A cup of coffee may be OK; but the equivalent of 5-plus, cups may be detrimental. Do you know how much your individual heart, or the heart of your child can take? The difference between a safe amount and a toxic dose of caffeine in the pure powdered products is very small. Yet another article in the Washington Post tells that the positive results for Alzheimer’s risk are diluted when more than 1 or 2 cups of coffee are consumed.

This is not just a caffeine problem. There are more than 55,000 supplement products on the market. If you read about the 23,000 ER visits, you may think that you will never be one of these who suffer a bad effect. But, to me that way of thinking is like the saying, “Where does a recession end and a depression begin? When your family breadwinner becomes unemployed.” It’s the same way in dealing with the health consequences of ignoring the dangers of supplements. If you’re the mother of the teen who is pronounced dead, the risk was too great. If you or your child ends up with a lifetime disability, the risk was too great.

I was speaking to a friend just a week ago, before all this news. The friend said (and obviously still believes) that you can’t get the nutrition you need from food; and that we Americans don’t eat right, anyway – so the obvious action is you can (and should) take supplements. Again, NOT SO!!!!

I wrote an article about the addition of carnitine to foods and supplements on April 16, 2013; Red Meat and Energy Supplements – Ouch! The point is that it’s not just Reload, caffeine, or carnitine; supplements are not leading to health. I’ve written many, many times on this issue; and on the related issue of nutritionism. So I thought if I just listed a few of my favorites from my past articles it may help you see why supplements are not a good idea.

I realize that my voice is only occasionally heard over the well-funded voices of those selling supplements. In addition, I realize that eating real, healthy foods; exercising regularly; and sleeping is not as exciting as living on the edge and popping a pill or having a quick ‘peanut butter’ sandwich infused with caffeine. But I’ve read a mountain of evidence that makes me believe that it is shortsighted in the extreme to ignore the evidence. It is unwise to trust the good intentions of supplement manufacturers in their publicity. For those who continue to use them, when they do post warning, or the FDA does, it is analogous to playing Russian roulette to ignore them and overdose.