Vol. 177 September 15, 2017 Chemicals ARE Natural

September 15, 2017

“There is no natural-chemical divide: natural is chemical.
– Neil Savage, Scientific American Custom Media, 2017

 

Every once in a while something, a magazine article, a journal publication, even a book, … never just a tweet, comes along that reaffirms what you have said for decades. Doesn’t it feel great when that happens? Don’t you just want to blast it out to all those who humored you or even rolled their eyes at you in the past, especially your children? Well, I just read such an article (1), and I am writing a blog about it.

Health gurus and life coaches have been tooting the “natural is better” horn so well that we might easily forget that “natural salt” is sodium chloride, a chemical. Sea salt is sodium chloride plus a whole bunch of other naturally occurring chemicals. If we use iodized salt we are using sodium chloride that has iodine, another chemical, added to it to prevent goiter. The point is that all these chemicals are “natural”.

What could be more natural than drinking a glass of water (spring water, of course, from a bottle you bought) with a lemon slice in it? That lemon peel has no less than 51 chemicals in it: 28 hydrocarbons, 8 aldehydes, 10 alcohols, 3 esters, 1 ketone, and 1 oxide (look those up yourself on Wikipedia if you can’t remember high school chemistry).  A full list of all the chemicals in the whole slice is too long to include in this short blog, and they are all natural. I suspect that if all the chemicals in a lemon were listed on its label or included in its advertisements, the lemon would soon lose its luster as being natural, and yet, of course, it still would be.

“Organic” seems to be equated now-a-days with “natural”. Let me reassure you as an almost-a-college-organic-chemistry-major that there are tons of organic chemicals in our lives. Fragrances all contain natural or “essential” oils which are organic chemicals. The European Union Cosmetic Regulations list 26 fragrance chemicals as skin allergens, all “natural” ingredients. Even tea tree oil, the darling “natural” cleanser of gym and Pilates studio equipment everywhere, can cause skin redness and irritation in 2% of people.

According to Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, cancer epidemiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, one of the reasons we prefer the word “natural” to “chemical” is that we do a poor job of identifying relative risks. (2)

“Threats that are invisible and not under our control tend to elicit a strong reaction from the public.
[Such as PCBs present in our water in a few parts per million] Other exposures like cigarette smoking,
weight gain, or excessive alcohol consumption do not ellicit anywhere near the same reaction, because
we think that they are under our control, are widespread, and familiar they have been
‘domesticated’, so to speak.”

People also confuse association with causation. Even when science disproves a cause after years of research, the public fear of the association link persists. (Example, measles vaccine and autism)

Too much of anything, even something “natural” like water, can be harmful, even lethal. Everyone is familiar with the mantra, “Drink More Water, It’s Healthy For You”. But you can drink too much. It won’t be the suburban housewife who takes a water bottle with her when she drives to the post office. You have to work hard at it. Like the marathoner hoping to maintain his strength by drinking as much as he/she can during the race who ends up diluting their blood level of sodium (hyponatremia), and finishes confused, if not collapsed at the end of the race. That is called “water intoxication” and is a form of water poisoning.

“How much water can you drink without peeing” contests have resulted in at least one well-publicized death from water intoxication. Andy Warhol’s family brought suit alleging that his unexpected death in the hospital after routine gall bladder surgery was due to water intoxication caused by too much intravenous fluid. He was admitted to the hospital weighing 128 pounds and died just a few days later weighing 156 pounds.

“The world is an ongoing chemical experiment, and natural doesn’t always mean safe.”
So if it is “natural” or “chemical”, it doesn’t make a difference. The dose is important.
Too much natural water can kill you, and a little bit of natural occurring cyanide in a peach pit  or a little arsenic in your rice  has little significant effect.
“Concentrate on the concentration”.
I will still ask for that chemical-heavy lemon peel twist in my martini.

References:
1. “Chemistry is Everywhere”, pg. 13-15, Scientific American Custom Media, 2017, Neil Savage
2. “Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks”, G. Kabat

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Vol. 164 March 1, 2017 The Exercise Paradox

January 31, 2017

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“You can’t outrun a bad diet”

It appears that an African native chasing a wounded giraffe through the bush and over the plains for 12 hours in order to get food for himself and his family burns the SAME NUMBER OF CALORIES per day as the modern couch potato. Researchers measuring the urine excretion of two radioactive isotopes of water ingested by the subjects (the “gold standard” of measuring energy expenditure) have confirmed this fact as postulated previously by several studies. These African hunter-gatherers burned about 2,600 calories a day, about the same as average adults in present day U.S. and Europe.

The researchers were looking to measure the size of the “energy shortfall” in Westerners to explain the global rise of obesity. They found none. In fact, another review of almost a hundred (98) world-wide studies of energy expenditure (calories burned per day) revealed that “the persons with all the modern conveniences have similar energy expenditures to those with more physically demanding lives in less developed countries.”  Therefore, “obesity is a disease of gluttony, not sloth.”

Physical activity does NOT cause weight loss, but exercise can help prevent weight gain.  A JAMA 2010 study of 34,000 middle-aged U.S. women showed that 60 minutes a day of moderate exercise (walking) prevented weight gain in those on a normal diet who had previously lost weight through dieting.

As someone who collected articles about  bad things happening to joggers to justify my ignoring Society’s “persistent call to go running”, this is music to my ears. The evidence that exercise, including just walking, is good for you is absolutely true and well accepted. It just doesn’t help you lose weight. Again, as someone who has made a resolution every January to lose weight by going to the gym only to peter out by the end of every March, this made me feel less inadequate, or at least less guilty.

Humans have a fixed rate of energy expenditure which is independent of their physical activity. A subsequent study of 300 people wearing Fit-bits showed that those doing moderate activity  (some exercise and always taking the stairs) burned only 200 more calories than couch potatoes. People doing intense physical activity did NOT burn more calories than the moderately active people. Again, the African bushman burns the SAME number of calories walking a mile as does the Westerner.

Studies of energy expenditure in zoo animals compared to animals in the wild reveal the same constancy. How can this be? No one really knows, but the authors speculate that since human energy expenditure is quite constant (and constrained), we modern adults who are not chasing wounded giraffes over the veld have evolved metabolic adaptations that spend our calories on supporting brain functions (the oxygen you take in with every fourth breath is needed just to feed your brain) , running our inflammatory processes (exercise may prevent inflammation by diverting energy from it), producing more and bigger babies, and living longer. But, I am not sure that I am any smarter than the African bushman who lives to 70 in his world, and many of them do.

Humans have learned to cook which increases the caloric value of many foods and makes them more efficiently digested.
We also have evolved to be fat. Our tendency to store fat is probably an adaptation for surviving lean times.
During lean times our survival is enhanced by us sharing what food there is.
Apes do not share.

“Exercise to stay healthy and vital;
focus on diet to look after your weight.”

References:
1. The Exercise Paradox, Herman Pontzer, Scientific American, Feb. 2017, 28-31


Vol. 153 September 1, 2016 Is Nothing Sacred? No, Not in Medicine.

September 1, 2016

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It can be frustrating and unsettling when after years of telling us that something is good…or bad for you, doctors then tell us that the opposite is true! “Redefining the truth” is the essence of science, particularly the science of medicine. The medical mantra is: Keep studying, keep collecting data, keep analyzing, and if the “truth” changes, report it!
Here are some more revisions of the truth as examples.

Baby Dolls and Teen Pregnancies
Giving high school students a baby doll to take of care for several weeks is touted as a deterrent to teen-age pregnancies. The sophisticated doll is programmed to cry, make demands, go to sleep (or not), etc. just like a real baby. Students are instructed to care for it 24/7 as if it were a real baby. The expectation is that such a “reality-check” would make teen agers more aware of the burdens of caring for an infant and that would convince them to use effective birth control.

A recent report in the British Medical Journal documented that the average teen age pregnancy rate in those who cared for a doll stayed the same or even INCREASED in some schools. The article speculates that the positive, loving experience that some teens had and the extra attention they received while caring for the doll caused this. The company that makes the dolls quickly switched its marketing pitch from “reducing teen pregnancy” to “teaching quality infant care”.

Get the Lead Out”
The high level of lead in the water in Flint, Michigan in 2015 immediately raised an alarming concern about “poisoned children”.  A blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter is considered “a threshold for official action as a “precautionary principle” according to public health experts.   5% of the kids in Flint had blood lead levels of 5-10 micrograms per deciliter.  The increase from 2.4% having a level over 5 in 2013 to 4.9% of kids tested in 2015 raised the public health alarm.

It is well known that the body can excrete lead. If the input of lead (ingested in food, water, or dirt or breathed in from car exhausts) exceeds the excretion rate and the blood lead level reaches 40-69 micrograms per deciliter then outpatient treatment is recommended, even though the person is asymptomatic. Blood levels above 70 can cause symptoms and are treated by hospitalization. None of the Flint children had lead levels over 40.

Lead performs no essential function in our bodies and chronically high levels can cause neurological damage, so it is incumbent of public health officials (and politicians) to prevent prolonged exposure, but these children have NOT been damaged. They will, I am sure, be monitored and studied for years to come to see if there is any subtle effect of these low lead levels. Because that’s what medical science does.

Lowering Blood Pressure in Intermediate-Risk Persons Without Heart Disease with Two Drugs Did Not Decrease the Rates of Major Cardio-vascular Events

NEJM 374:21 May 26, 2016,pg. 2009-2019

Lowering Cholesterol in Intermediate-Risk Persons Without Heart Disease and Normal Lipid Levels With One Drug Decreased the Risk of a Major Cardio-Vascular Event from 4.7% to 3.6% (a 25% reduction)

same NEJM issue pg. 2012-2031

Lowering Blood Pressure AND Cholesterol in the same study as above with Three Drugs Decreased the Risk of Some Major Cardio-vascular Events from 5.0% to 3.6% (a 30% reduction)

same NEJM issue pg. 2032-2043

Like Fox Radio, “We report the news. You decide.”

“Get the Fat Out…But Which Fat?”
The British Medical Journal published an article in April written by a team of scientists at NIH headed by Christopher Ramsden, called the “Indiana Jones of biology” because he specializes in excavating old studies, particularly those that go against our “mainstream government-sanctioned health advice”. He unearthed a 1968 five-year, tightly controlled study of over nine thousand participants randomly assigned to either a vegetable oil based diet or a standard animal fat diet.

The study documents that eating vegetable fats instead of animal fats did NOT, repeat did NOT, reduce the risk of heart disease or death. Substituting a vegetable oil diet ( about half of the saturated fat of the standard diet) did lower the average blood cholesterol by 14%, BUT the risk of death INcreased 22% for every 30 points the cholesterol fell! 

Dr. Robert Franz of the Mayo Clinic, the son of the organizer of the 1968 study, speculates that his father’s team was disappointed that they could find no benefit of the vegetable oil diet, and so didn’t publish it widely. An accompanying editorial in the BMJ concluded that “ the benefits of choosing polyunsaturated fat over saturated fat seem a little less certain than we thought.”

Again like Fox Radio:  “We report the news. You decide.”

“Worried About Peanut Allergy in Your Family?
Avoid Peanuts! No, NO, Eat Them as Early as You Can!”
The experts use to say “no solid foods to infants before age 4 to 6 months.”
Experts now say “do not delay solid foods beyond 4 to 6 months.”

In the past 10 years childhood peanut allergy has doubled from 1.4% to 3% (still small).
The experts use to say that “if you’re worried about peanut allergy in your child do not give peanut food until age 3 years”.
Experts now say “give the infant peanut food as early as 4 months of age.”

A 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that consumption of peanut food at 4 months of age reduced the development of a peanut allergy (documented by skin-prick tests) by 70% – 86%!!

“We should no longer recommend avoidance of allergenic foods in infants.”


Vol. 141 February 1, 2016 Newspaper Update from Z to A

February 1, 2016

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All I know is just what I read in the papers.
Will Rogers

You can never get all the facts from just one newspaper,
and unless you have all the facts, you cannot make proper
judgements about what is going on.
Harry S. Truman

I usually start thinking about what to write in my next blog a few days before the 1st and 15th of the month. This Tuesday, January 26 I picked up a newspaper and was immediately struck by the number of medically relevant articles (some of which contained “medical fun facts”, from front page headlines to blurbs in the business section. Here are some of them.

El Salvador Advises Women to Stop having Babies for 2 Years Because of the Zika Virus (front page)
Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that causes minor symptom in an adult but can cause severe microcephaly and even death in a fetus. First reported n Brazil, 5000 adult cases have been identified in El Salvador. The rate of infected fetuses is not known. Turns out that the above recommendation has not caused much of a stir in El Salvador. In comparison to other developing countries its birth rate is low. Salvadorian women list their reasons as:  1. fear of violence, 2. poor economics and widespread poverty, and 3. their acceptance of contraception (despite the church’s stand), and now 4. Zika virus. Some have gone so far as to deride the recommendation as a government conspiracy to reduce the birth rate in “this most densely populated country on the entire continent” (per their Health Minister). Zika has caused more of a stir here, and our CDC has advised pregnant U.S. citizens not to travel to Central and South America.

As someone who is not usually receptive to conspiracy theories, I myself feel a bit concerned about “just who” is controlling information. This story sort of “dribbled out” as a minor note only to explode rapidly on the front page with lots of “known facts.”

Grand Jury Indicts the Accusers of Planned Parenthood (lead story on front page)
The Texas grand jury convened to investigate the criminal activity of Planned Parenthood as alleged by the Center for Medical Progress has instead indicted the Center’s founder Mr.Daleiden and Ms. Merritt, makers of the “selling baby parts” videos. After two months of investigating the evidence the grand jury issued indictments for a federal offense (illegal changes made to fake California driver licenses) and a misdemeanor (offering $1600 per sample to Planned Parenthood for fetal tissue which is against existing law).

That this grand jury was impaneled by a Republic DA in a Republican state with a Republican governor made this unexpected result immediately newsworthy because of the rabid Republican-led Congressional attacks on Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood noted that this was the eleventh investigation of them that found no wrongdoing.

Gluten-Free Diet Did Not Benefit Competitive Athletes (first page of Well Section)
A two week double-blind study of 13 seriously training, competitive cyclists eating indistinguishable gluten-free and gluten-laced sports bars revealed no difference in general feeling, performance, or inflammatory markers related to sports bar type. The researcher remarked that, “Unless you are having gastrointestinal problems a gluten-free diet will probably provide no benefit… I hope that people learn to be more objective in terms of what they hear and read about gluten-free diets and nutrition in general.” (1)

EKG Screening For College Basketball Players? (Op Ed page)
When the chief medical officer of the NCAA recommended in March 2015 that all male college basketball players should get a electrocardiogram (EKG) because of the risk of sudden cardiac death, 100 college team physicians reacted very loudly. They strongly pointed out that the inaccuracy of EKG screening causes lots of expensive and unnecessary medical investigation of commonly occurring “false positive” results. Another problem is that rates of sudden death in these students has been calculated to be all the way as low as 1 in 50,000-100,00 to as high as 1 in 1,300 (higher than the risk of dying in an auto accident). The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology both oppose EKG screening of 460,000 U.S. college athletes. Some colleges do require it. The newspaper editor suggests “maybe just for high-risk basketball and soccer players”. “More data later” remains the medical mantra.

More Gun Violence,  (multiple pages, no surprise,)
       Dorchester, Boston: A 34 year old male was shot in the abdomen at 2:35 PM because he had taken another male’s parking spot. The shooter sped away in a black BMW.
         East Boston: At 2 PM on the inbound Blue Line of the MBTA a man getting off the train turned around and fired 5 shots at a man he had been arguing with. He hit the 29 year old target and a 43 year old man just standing on the platform.
        Windham, Maine: A 33 year old man arising from bed in his house in the early morning hours opened fire with a shotgun at a figure at the end of the stairs that he thought was an intruder. It was his wife who had gotten up earlier.
        , Mass: An intoxicated 60 year old man was arrested for firing a gun at a snowplow driver in Plymouth Saturday night.
…………(NY Times probably doesn’t even report such common happenings)

Autism Therapies to be Tested on Genetically Engineered Monkeys (bottom of page in Science section)
Mice are not useful research models for studying social cognition and interaction, so scientists in China have turned to genetically engineered monkeys to test drug therapies for autism . The monkeys born from eggs injected with the human MECP2 gene (associated with autism) showed more repetitive behavior, more stress responses, more defensive behavior, more grunting when people gazed at them, and less social interaction than other monkeys. The higher cost of developing such monkeys compared to mice, the difficulty of equating monkey behavior to human autistic behavior, and the fact that the implanted gene is found only in the monkey’s nerves and not throughout their brains means that this “break-through”  may not be all that helpful(2). Though it could be a good science fiction plot. Synopsis: “Lab break-in releases autistic monkeys. Presidential primary candidates attack (or defend) animal rights activists, but most push their campaign ad content up to a higher reading level.”   

References: (other than the January 26, 2016 NY Times and Boston Globe)
1. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Dec. 2015, Dana Lis
2. Nature, January 2016, Institute of Neuroscience, Chinese Academy of Science,Shanghai


Vol. 140 January 15, 2016 A Review of 2015 Hubslist Blogs

January 15, 2016

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Click on the date to see the full blog

 

January 1 – 5 out of 10 of my resolutions were “kept”. You guess which ones.

January 15 – 6 reasons why patients are non-compliant , excuse me, “non-adherent”- the new PC term, with their medications.

February 1 – incidence of sudden death while watching the Super Bowl (Patriot fans probably don’t have to worry about that THIS year.)

February 15 – some myths revealed about cholesterol in your diet, global warming, measles vaccination rates, herbal supplements, and Dr. Oz, vendor of snake oil(s).

March 1 – 8 new causes of death caused by cigarette smoking added to the previously identified 12; a total of 20.

April 1 – Athena Health purchases MySpace which raises more concerns about privacy of health care data (April Fools edition).

April 15 – what does a “board certified physician” mean, and what does it have to do with Presidential candidates (Rand Paul)?

May 1 – physicians’ prognoses are often too optimistic for the same reasons patients’ are.

May 15 – E-cigarettes open new avenues for adolescent use of marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids (“bath salts”).

June 1 – annual review of sunscreens and bug repellents plus less universities providing student access to tanning booths.

June 15 – new forensic techniques of identifying individuals by bacterial, viral, and DNA “fingerprints”.

July 1 – 6 positive access outcomes and 4 positive health care delivery outcomes of Obamacare at 5 years of age.

July 15 – dangers of synthetic cannabinoids (attn: Chandler Jones?) and the minimal (“pending”) review of sunscreens by FDA.

August 1 – two websites with the best “symptom diagnosis” track record for helpfulness, and the one that is the worst.

August 15 – [ family vacation in a lighthouse without electricity or running water]
DSC01581

September 1 – why new drugs cost so much, no “gay gene” identified yet, and the myths of low testosterone, chronic Lyme, and  8 glasses of water a day.

September 15 – The health benefits of our “microbiome” and the “microbiome” of the New York City subway.

October 1 – the misleading, untruthful attacks on Planned Parenthood.

October 15 – the scope and magnitude of adverse effects of dietary supplements.

November 1 – transgender, transsexual, transvestite, and hermaphrodite, oh my!

November 15 – toddlers shooting people and other “norms” of gun deaths – “By Degrees“.

December 1 – changing advice about what NOT to eat during the holidays.

December 15 – the benefits of research using fetal tissue, short history of political attacks on Planned Parenthood, and why if you are NOT fat and live a long life you should thank your parents.

HAPPY NEW YEAR


Vol. 137 December 1, 2015 Holiday Season Eating Advice

December 2, 2015

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“WHY LISTEN TO SO-CALLED HEALTH ‘EXPERTS’
WHEN THEY ARE ALWAYS CHANGING THEIR MINDS
ABOUT WHAT’S GOOD OR BAD TO EAT?”

With the passing of the Thanksgiving turkey we are officially in the “holiday season”. Weight gain during the 6 week holiday season represents 51% of our annual weight gain which is actually only about a pound or two on average. Much less than the average weight gain during a 7-day ship’s cruise of a pound a day. So, what foods should be avoided in the next 6 weeks?

JUNK FOOD?
Junk Food has been the traditional scapegoat for our increasing obesity. But, what is junk food? Decades ago I remember a very savvy pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Gilbert Forbes, challenging a forum of physicians at a national pediatric meeting to define junk foods.
“Food high in sugar and carbohydrates”, was our immediate response.
“Like grandma’s apple pie?” was Dr. Forbes’ equally quick reply.
“Oh… high starch foods” was our second try.
“Like potatoes? How come all Germans aren’t fat?”
Our working definition after an hour or more of back and forth boiled down to “anything wrapped in cellophane or delivered by a vending machine.” Dr. Forbes’ point was that it is the total number of calories ingested and not any particular food that contributes to obesity.
Today that definition still holds true

In its inexorable march towards the truth medical science has just thrown a stone at the junk food glass house. A Cornell study (1) based on nearly 5,000 surveys done by the CDC in 2007-2008 surprisingly showed that for 95% of the people their BMI  (a measure of obesity) was NOT linked to soda, fast food, or even candy. The researchers expected to find that the more junk food people ate the more apt they were to be obese. Instead they found no correlation between eating junk food and a higher BMI; no link between junk food and obesity. The researchers concluded that it was our increased intake of grains and added fats that was driving up the number of calories consumed by the average American.  “Junk foods may not be the central difference between fat and thin. Limiting those foods is a part of a healthy diet, but it might not be the whole thing.” (2)

 SUGAR?
Sugar continues to get a bad rap, and we consume more and more sugar substitutes. But, as we say in medical science, “there ain’t no free lunch”. Studies showing that Canadian lab mice were more prone to develop bladder cancer if fed saccharine (Sweet and Low) certainly caused a bit of a flap until someone calculated the comparative human doses to be several shovelfuls a day. Sucralose (Splenda) is now under investigation because its effect on our gut bacteria may make us more prone to gain weight and develop diabetes. Like Fox radio news says, “We report, You decide.”

SALT?
Excess (added) salt does seem to correlate with higher blood pressure.  I don’t have the space here to summarize again the whiplash swings of research on salt and disease, but I can tell another story from the past that makes the point more succinctly.
A bunch of physicians (all male – I told you this was a story from the past) who were having lunch at the same table in a hospital cafeteria started remarking about the prodigious amount of salt a cardiologist was pouring on his food. As the discussion heated up, the cardiologist looked up from his plate and stopped it with a question, “How many of you have talked to your father in the past year.” Half of us raised our hands. “You guys can eat what you want. The others better watch their diets. You just have to pick your parents right.”

EGGS?
After decades of branding eggs as “bad” because of its cholesterol the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reported in 2015 that “eggs are OK.” A 1999 Harvard study showed that there was no correlation between an egg a day and the risk of heart disease in healthy people (3). 90% of our cholesterol is manufactured by our own liver as directed by our genes. Restricting our intake of certain fats can normally decrease our cholesterol level by about 10% at most.

WINE or BEER?
Previous studies have shown that wine drinkers seemed to experience less heart disease and certain cancers. Efforts to analyze why wine seemed so healthy resulted in tagging resveratrol, a chemical in grape skin, as the “active ingredient”. Dozens of nutritional supplements containing resveratrol ($12 – $25 for a month’s supply) immediately hit the market. Four Danish scientists thought that answer might be too simple and launched a study of what else those wine drinkers were buying at the food store. After examining 3.5 million store receipt transactions from 98 supermarkets they found that wine drinkers were more apt to buy olives, low-fat cheese, fruits and vegetables, low-fat meat, spices, and tea. Beer drinkers were more likely to buy chips, ketchup, margarine, sugar, ready-cooked meals, soft drinks, and, of course, beer. (4)

BOTTOM LINE for this holiday season?
“PICK YOUR PARENTS RIGHT, AND EAT AND DRINK IN MODERATION.”

References:
1. Boston Globe, B12, November 23, 2015, Megan Scudellari
2. David Just, Cornell University Professor of Applied Economics and Management
3. Boston Globe, March 15, 2015, Walter Willett, MD, Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health
4. The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, Mark Schatzker, May 2015 as reported in The Atlantic, June 2015


Vol. 134 October 15, 2015 Supplements Are Not Harmless.

October 16, 2015

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“The belief is that they [dietary supplements] are entirely safe,
but now science says that they’re not.”
– Pieter Cohen, MD, Harvard Medical School

A recent study of 63 hospitals from 2004 to 2013 estimated that over 20,000 ER visits and 2000 hospital admissions annually in the U.S. were due to adverse effects of dietary supplements. Adverse events included allergic reactions, excess doses, unsupervised ingestion by children, or other events (e.g., choking). Cases involving death, intentional self-harm, drug abuse, or withdrawal were excluded.  Adverse effects commonly involved cardiovascular adverse effects from weight-loss or energy herbal products among young adults, unsupervised ingestion of micronutrients (iron) by children, and swallowing problems associated with micronutrients (multi-vitamins) among older adults. (1)

The supplements listed included orally administered herbal products (Echinacea, Coenzyme Q10, Gripe Water, etc.), complementary nutritional products (fish oil, body building protein , chondroitin/glucosamine, etc), vitamins and minerals (including calcium and iron), and topically administered herbal or homeopathic products. Energy drinks and herbal tea beverages were excluded from the study.

In the U.S. there were more than 55,000 dietary supplements on the market in 2012, and about half of all adults reported having used at least one dietary supplement in the past month. 150 million people in the U.S. take supplements, including children’s vitamins. In 2007, out-of-pocket expenditures for herbal or complementary nutritional products reached $14.8 billion, which equaled one-third of the total out-of-pocket expenditures for prescription drugs.

  • Weight loss supplements or herbal energy products led the list of supplements with adverse effects in this study.
  • More than half of emergency department visits for supplement-related adverse events involved female patients.
  • Sexual-enhancement products or bodybuilding products were implicated in 14% of emergency department visits for supplement-related adverse events among male patients; there were too few cases among female patients to calculate a reliable estimate.
  • 20% of ER visits involved children who took supplements without supervision.
  • Most ER visits for unsupervised ingestion of supplements by children involved multivitamins (34%), iron (12%), supplements for weight loss (11%), and supplements for sleep, sedation, or anxiety (9%). Child-resistant packaging is not required for dietary supplements other than those containing iron (the amount of iron in the usual bottle can be lethal to small children) , but despite such packaging, iron supplements were the second most commonly implicated type of supplement in unsupervised ingestion by children.

Although the numbers of ER visits and hospitalizations were less than the 5% of the ER visits that have been reported for pharmaceutical products, dietary supplements are unregulated and marketed under the presumption of safety. The FDA is actually BARRED from regulating dietary supplements by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. (Wouldn’t you like to know the history of that particular bill, or at least, the lobbyists involved?)

When you or someone you know has a good effect from a supplement (like taking glucosamine for knee pain) it natural to think that anyone with knee pain should take it, and that every physician should know about this “miracle supplement”. In medicine that kind of anecdote is called a “case report”.  Case reports can lead to studies of a large number of people, called “statistical studies”. Results of those studies can be persuasive, but the truly scientifically skeptical physician will wait for the results of an organized, randomized, double-blind study with controls (people who don’t get the supplement). Such organized, controlled studies have not found a whole lot of benefit, if any, from taking dietary supplements, especially vitamins, but that is the subject for another whole blog… or two.

References;

1. Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Events Related to Dietary Supplements
Andrew I. Geller, M.D., et al, N Engl J Med 2015; 373: 1531-1540; October 15, 2015


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