Rethinking Healthcare

Supplements under the microscope

Supplements under the microscope

Posting in Food

The jury is still out on most supplements although some results on fish oil are promising.

Chances are good that if you're over 40 you take a variety of supplements.

Vitamin D. Fish oil. Chondroitin and glucosamine. Calcium, Time-release Niacin. Melatonin. The list seems endless. It's a big business. (The fish oil I take is at the right. I get mine at Costco.)

I take some of these supplements and often wonder why. We know the Niacin can increase good cholesterol. We know we need Vitamin D.

But does any of it really work? That's what scientists are trying to figure out now. Judging from the headlines research on supplements is nearly as popular as research on drugs.

The results are mixed, and often controversial.

Glucosamine and chondroitin, usually taken together, are mostly taking it on the chin. The popular joint supplement doesn't help with arthritis, according to a study called GAIT. A 2006 result showed it helped with the pain, but it may be no better than a placebo, and thus not worth the trouble.

It won't hurt but it can't help.

The results for fish oil are more mixed.

The headline is a study showing that fish oil mixed into margarine does not prevent a second heart attack in people who have had one.

The result angered fish oil advocates, who have been claiming a tab a day can save 10,000 lives a year.

A second study, in mice, indicates fish oil works by reducing inflammation. This has resulted in a host of new claims involving diseases related to inflammation.

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It's a slippery slope. Taking too much can actually increase your risk for bleeding and stroke.

But how much is too much?

The best way to get fish oil, of course, is to just eat fish, especially fatty fish like eels and salmon.  While DuPont claims a version it grows from yeast can be as good as fish oil from fish, the study was done on rats.

The bottom line is this.

In past decades nutritional supplements were of little scientific value. Everyone assumed such "health food" was for hippies and extremists. Then the supplements entered the mainstream, and now scientists are taking them seriously.

More study is needed, but it's being done. We should have more to report soon.

But for now let me throw this out to the group. Do you take supplements? Which ones? Do they seem to help or not? How could you tell?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure