Supplements: What are your really getting?
By Clark Zimmerman, LAc.
Years ago my wife and I took a month long trip to Tibet to trek through a remote section of the Himalaya’s. We signed with a local budget travel group that promised to arrange our food, travel, lodging and gear for the two week trip. We were careful to ask all the right questions in an attempt to make sure we were safe and comfortable in one of the most isolated and inhospitable parts of the planet. Once on our trip we discovered that the “North Face” cold weather gear we were provided was counterfeit and of very poor quality when we spent our first night camping out on the Tibetan plateau. After two weeks of frozen toes, we learned the hard way that you can’t always trust the label, or the budget option.
I was reminded of this experience the other day when I read a disturbing story about herbal supplements. A recent study found that many herbal supplements that are available at large budget chain stores, such as Walmart, GNC or Walgreens, contain little to none of the herbs that are listed on their labels. Many of the supplements that were tested were actually other plants or fillers that are at best ineffective, and at worst problematic. The herbal supplement industry has become a sort of “wild-west” where few things are regulated in a way that is supportive to either the patient or practice of herbalism itself.
This practice of misleading consumers has created an unfortunate reality in our country. Not only is it potentially harmful to the consumer, but it is also creating a confusing situation concerning herbal medicine itself. I have personally worked with patients over the years that tell me that they have tried certain herbs and that the herbs didn’t help them. When I ask the patient about what they have tried, many times they mention a low quality, cheap brand. Rather than thinking that the supplement itself is not good quality, the patient assumes that the herbs themselves are ineffective. With many of these patients, if they are given the proper formula, with high quality herbs, they respond in a favorable way. This is misleading many people to assume that herbal medicine itself doesn’t work, when it is actually the system of labeling and regulating itself that is to blame.
Mislabeling herbs is only part of the problem. Some herbal supplements are given irresponsibly, without a proper assessment of the patient’s medical situation or needs. This was the case several years ago with the herb ephedra. Ephedra has been used medically for asthma for thousands of years, but when big business found that it could be used to help people lose weight and “build stamina” is was marketed as a weight loss or exercise aid. Unfortunately, it was given at doses that were too high, and to people with health conditions that made it unsafe, so dozens of people became ill or even died from improper use of this wonderful plant. The FDA then made it illegal to import and sell ephedra. This was good for the general public in that it avoided more problems for the unsuspecting person, but it was terrible for legitimate herbalists and their suffering patients.
So given the seeming enormity of the problem, what is to be done? We must explore regulating the supplement industry in a way that makes reliable, safe, controllable herbs and vitamins available to the public, but does so in a way that doesn’t price small producers and companies out of the market. This is a work in progress, and there is a lot of discussion about the best ways to do this. Until this happens it is very important to work with trained and certified professional herbalists who can guide patients in a safe and effective manner. It is also important to purchase products from a company or practitioner that is reputable. In this case the old adage that “you get what you pay for” is proving to be more and more true.