Naturally Un-Natural OTC drugs

It’s alway puzzled me that taking innumerable vitamins, of dubious utility and origin, appealed to the “natural healthy food” crowd. These supplements are pushed, presumably for a fee, by various “experts” who are anything but expert–such as Kathie Gifford, various athletic types, Suzanne Somers and all manner of fading B-list celebrities. These people, and they include health gurus such as Andrew Weil, are willing to sell you their own brand supplements at a substantial profit to themselves.

Proponents of health lifestyles and “organic foods,” don’t hesitate literally ingest handfuls of these remedies and vitamins of uncertain origin and dubious efficacy. They take them to “stay healthy” while berating our health care system, ironically, for prescribing too many pills.

The use of vitamins to prevent disease is a little like the man from Sri Lanka I once met in Pennsylvania wearing flower in his vest. When asked why? He replied “it keeps the elephants away.” When I told him there were none here, he nodded and said, “see it works.” When he returns to Sri Lanka it won’t continue to work.

The best way to stay healthy is to eat well, exercise and not use tobacco products. There is little evidence that indiscriminate use of vitamins do much of anything. To true believer of vitamin use, however, vitamins appear work for most of their lives (most of us are healthy for most of our lives) and then they don’t.

In fact virtually all of these “health store” remedies are unproven and in many instances have been proven harmful to the health. Yet billions of dollars are wasted on them each year.

The FDA has been reviewing over the counter “natural” diet pills and found that they contain dangerous ingredients and may do significant harm to harm.

“And StarCaps are not the only culprits. In a continuing investigation that has prompted consumer warnings and recalls by some distributors, the F.D.A. has determined that dozens of weight-loss supplements, most of them imported from China, contain hidden and potentially harmful drugs.”

“Doctors said undeclared drugs could cause problems on their own, like elevated blood pressure or seizures, could have toxic interactions with other medications and could make it difficult for physicians to diagnose patients.”

How do such products get on the market? In the 90’s when the use of over the counter (OTC) agents was accelerating, Orin Hatch of Utah, the home of many of the supplement companies, sponsored and got passed through the republican congress the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA)–Clinton signed the bill. Before DSHEA manufacturers of OTC remedies had to prove to the FDA that their supplement was safe. The idea that they might have to prove that the remedy did anything was never a part of the FDA review process.

After the act was passed, the FDA, already short staffed and underfunded, had to discover and prove that a “dietary supplement” was unsafe before they could stop its sale. What followed was feeding frenzy of marketing of agents for such indications as “heart health”, “prostate health,” “male enhancement,” and all manner of vague indications. Just as a stopped clock is right two times a day there are occasional useful supplements. Unfortunately,however, most are useless and some as noted above cause significant problems.

The FDA has a list of potentially harmful dietary agents on their site.

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