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Science Fails, Not Supplements

Neil E. Levin

Recent studies have reported that certain dietary supplements have not been effective when subjected to rigorous scientific testing. However, the science was not nearly as good as promised, and the results do not clearly show these natural products to be ineffective.

For example, according to the Associated Press (AP), a new study (GAIT) showed that the supplements glucosamine and chondroitin "did no better than dummy pills at relieving mild arthritis pain". The reported ineffectiveness of these pills was national headline news last week.

What the research actually showed is that these joint supplements did reduce moderate-to-severe joint pain by 25%, while failing to show similar results for mild joint pain. But the study only lasted six weeks, a very short duration when compared with previous, positive studies lasting over one year. I would not have expected any good results in such a short test, with only a relatively small number of participants suffering from moderate-to-severe joint pain. Nor did the researchers use commercially available supplements in the test, further reducing the application of their science to the general public. Still, it is actually good news that the supplements may work faster than previously determined, and on more severe pain. Negative press reports were unrepresentative of these truths found in this study.

Another recent study cited by the same AP report supposedly "revealed negative results for saw palmetto to treat prostate problems". This is quite a far-fetched interpretation of the actual study, which had promised to be a rigorous test of this herb.

What the new research actually showed is that saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) was ineffective at treating "moderate-to-severe symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia" over a one-year period. But this study rather strangely excluded men with mild-to-moderate prostate problems, who have been helped by the herb in many previous studies.

A 2002 Cochrane meta-analysis of published studies concluded that the evidence "suggests that Serenoa repens provides mild to moderate improvement in urinary symptoms and flow measures [and] produced similar improvement in urinary symptoms and flow compared to finasteride [a drug often prescribed for BPH] and is associated with fewer adverse treatment events."

I note that the Cochrane researchers actually took the time to notice whether their results seemed to relate to their initial review of the science, in contrast with many researchers who do not faithfully follow the existing evidence when designing their studies: "The results of this update are in agreement with our initial review."

The AP also repeated that there was a similar disappointment for the herb "St. John's wort to treat major depression". Again, the scientific record did not suggest that this herb should be used for, or was effective against, anything other than mild depression. Between October 1991 and December 1999 over 8 million patients were treated for mild depression with St. John's wort in Germany, with only 95 reports of side effects.

But depression is not a single disease with a single cause, and the more severe forms may become progressively harder to treat.

A pharmaceutical drug also failed to improve moderate to major depression in that same study. But the AP report only cites St. John's Wort as not working, expecting it to do more than the previous science would have predicted. Most people would expect the FDA-approved drug to be much more effective than an herb, but it wasn't. Isn't that the major news from that study?

Another report last year falsely claimed that Vitamin E was toxic at 400 IU, causing many people to stop using it, when lots of research – confirmed by the federal government's Institute of Medicine – shows that the safe upper limit is really over 1,500 IU/day.

Why does science get reported so inaccurately when it comes to natural products and therapies? It's bad enough that the studies are so poorly designed as to raise so many questions in the first place, but then the reporting unfairly describes the results with no context for the reader to figure out what it all means. It's no wonder that people are tired of seeing so many contradictory study results reported in the media, often so incompetently as to almost seem designed to confuse us.

Don't be fooled. Natural products often do work; typically for milder conditions and more slowly than drugs, but with fewer side effects. Unfortunately, since these details are commonly hidden in a study's fine print and rarely mentioned in the authors' press release, they are largely absent from the news reports that most of us see or hear.

One study that contradicts many others may actually be poorly designed or inaccurately reported, but is somehow arbitrarily declared to have overturned all previous studies and proven them wrong. Misleading oversimplifications and a lack of proper perspective create much of the confusion associated with modern health reporting, which often generates more heat than light. This hurts people because they are convinced by these reports to forego safe, effective, scientifically proven natural therapies that may help the body to repair itself in favor of drugs or other medical therapies that are often far more toxic to the body and, perhaps, even unnecessary.

Health Disclaimer. Content provided by NOW Foods. Copyright ©2006-2018. Published with permission. Neil E. Levin CCCN, DANLA is a certified clinical nutritionist and is a professional member of the International & American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists.