Daily Archives: February 4, 2011

U.S. spending millions to see if herbs truly work

People have been using herbal supplements for centuries to cure all manner of ills and improve their health. But for all the folk wisdom promoting the use of such plants as St. John’s wort and black cohosh, much about their effect on human health remains unknown. Therefore, I’m delighted that the federal government is spending millions of dollars to support research dedicated to separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to herbal supplements. Here are the details from USA Today:

“A lot of these products are widely used by the consumer, and we don’t have evidence one way or the other whether they are safe and effective,” said Marguerite Klein, director of the Botanical Research Centers Program at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “We have a long way to go. It’s a big job.”

In August, the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Office of Dietary Supplements awarded about $37 million in grants to five interdisciplinary and collaborative dietary supplement centers across the nation.

The grants were part of a decade-long initiative that so far has awarded more than $250 million toward research to look into the safety and efficacy of health products made from the stems, seeds, leaves, bark and flowers of plants.

Reliance on botanical supplements faded in the mid-20th century as doctors began to rely more and more on scientifically tested pharmaceutical drugs to treat their patients, said William Obermeyer, vice president of research for ConsumerLab.com, which tests supplement brands for quality.

But today, herbal remedies and supplements are coming back in a big way.

People in the United States spent more than $5 billion on herbal and botanical dietary supplements in 2009, up 22% from a decade before, according to the American Botanical Council, a nonprofit research and education organization.

The increase has prompted some concern from doctors and health researchers. There are worries regarding the purity and consistency of supplements, which are not regulated as strictly as pharmaceutical drugs.

“One out of four of the dietary supplements we’ve quality-tested over the last 11 years failed,” Obermeyer said. The failure rate increases to 55%, he said, when considering botanical products alone.

Some products contain less than the promoted amount of the supplement in question — such as a 400-milligram capsule of echinacea containing just 250 milligrams of the herb. Other products are tainted by pesticides or heavy metals.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned supplement makers that any company marketing tainted products could face criminal prosecution. You can read my blog on this — “FDA targets manufacturers of tainted supplements.”

FDA targets manufacturers of tainted supplemen

The agency was specifically targeting products to promote weight loss, enhance sexual prowess or aid in body building, which it said were “masquerading as dietary supplements” and in some cases were laced with the same active ingredients as approved drugs or were close copies of those drugs or contained synthetic synthetic steroids that don’t qualify as dietary ingredients.

But even when someone takes a valid herbal supplement, it may not be as effective when taken as a pill or capsule rather than used in the manner of a folk remedy. For example, an herb normally ground into paste as part of a ceremony might lose its effectiveness if prepared using modern manufacturing methods, Obermeyer said.

“You move away from the traditional use out of convenience, and you may not have the same effect,” he said.

Researchers also are concerned that there just isn’t a lot of evidence to support the health benefits said to be gained from herbal supplements. People may be misusing them, which can lead to poor health and potential interactions with prescription drugs.

“Consumers often are taking them without telling their doctor, or taking them in lieu of going to the doctor,” Klein said.

Botanical research efforts that received recent federal funding include:

  • Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, to investigate how supplements such as artemisia and St. John’s wort can reduce a person’s chances of developing metabolic syndrome.
  • University of Illinois at Chicago, to examine how the body processes herbal supplements.
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to investigate the safety and efficacy of such botanical estrogens as wild yam, soy and dong quai, and particularly their potential to contribute to cancer in women.
  • University of Missouri, Columbia, to look at the molecular pathways used by supplements such as garlic and elderberry to affect human health.
  • Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, N.C., to study the potential of botanical oils to boost the immune system and reduce inflammation.

Despite the concerns of the medical community, researchers believe there are a lot of valid health benefits that can be derived from botanical supplements. These benefits just need to be proven in the lab.

“We wouldn’t be supporting a multimillion-dollar program if we didn’t feel there was potential,” Klein said.

You can learn more about the current research supporting or refuting various natural medications (herbs, vitamins, and supplements) in my book, Alternative Medicine: The claims, the evidence, the options, how to choose wisely. Signed copies are available here.

Alternative Medicine - 2009

FDA targets manufacturers of tainted supplements

Long time readers of this blog, and those who’ve read my book, Alternative Medicine: The claims, the options, the evidence, how to choose wisely, are aware of my warnings to U.S. purchasers of natural medications (herbs, vitamins, and supplements) that these products are virtually unregulated. Scores of these medications have been shown to be contaminated or mislabeled, making the purchasing of safe and effective product very difficult. (You can purchase a signed copy of the book here.)

Alternative Medicine - 2009

Now, comes some great news from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The AP reports, “The Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on manufacturers of certain weight loss, body building, and sexual enhancement supplements that contain potentially dangerous ingredients.”

The FDA “said Wednesday that some manufacturers are deceptively labeling products to hide that they contain ingredients known to cause adverse health effects. Other supplements contain ingredients that should only be available by prescription.”

The AP notes, “Dietary supplements can slip through the regulatory cracks because, unlike drugs, they do not have to be approved by the FDA before they are marketed.”

Bloomberg News reports, “The FDA has worked with the supplement industry to recall more than 80 products marketed for body building, 70 for sexual enhancement, and 40 for weight loss, the agency said.”

Some of the “weight-loss supplements contained the active ingredient in Abbott Laboratories’ diet drug Meridia (sibutramine), which was pulled off the market in October because of heart risks.”

In addition, “some illegal sexual-enhancement products contain sildenafil, the active ingredient in Pfizer Inc.’s erectile- dysfunction drug Viagra and Eli Lilly & Co.’s Cialis, the FDA said.”

The Washington Post reports that the FDA’s Principal Deputy Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein said that while “FDA’s actions have included recall of supplements and referral of companies for criminal prosecution, ‘we do not think that the problem is solved.'”

The Los Angeles Times reports, “Five major trade associations — the Council for Responsible Nutrition, Natural Products Assn., United Natural Products Alliance, Consumer Healthcare Products Assn. and American Herbal Products Assn. — joined the FDA on a press call to publicize the crackdown.”

WebMD reports, “Since December 2007, Sharfstein says, the FDA has alerted consumers to about 300 products marketed as dietary supplements that were tainted in some way. Serious adverse reports associated with the products include strokes, artery blockage in the lungs, kidney failure, acute liver injury, and death, although the FDA couldn’t provide exact numbers of adverse events or deaths.”

I hope this is only the first step of many that need to be taken to protect consumers against unsafe or contaminated products.

Girls who walk/bike to school do better in tests

In my book, SuperSized Kids: How to protect your child from the obesity threat, I explain that schools that have cut back on recess and physical education have seen the kids’ test scores fall. Likewise, those schools that have kept or even increased exercise, especially among boys, find that the kids learn better and not only improve grades on their report cards but have improved scores on standardized tests.

SSK cover

Now a new study of teens living in Spanish cities is showing that girls who walk or bike to school instead of getting a ride perform better in tests of verbal and math skills. And the longer the commute, the higher the test scores, regardless of how much exercise girls got outside of school.

Still, it’s unclear whether the commute itself matters, or if exercise in general or some other factor is at play.

Here are the details from Reuters Health: Dr. Francois Trudeau of the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, who was not involved in the study, wondered, “Would basketball in the morning do as much as an active commute?”

Current guidelines suggest that children and teenagers get at least an hour of moderate or vigorous exercise every day — equivalent to a brisk walk or jog, respectively.

But less than half of U.S. children, and even fewer teenagers, manage to work this much exercise into their routines.

The teen brain undergoes important changes in structure and function, and many researchers believe physical activity may have a positive effect. It increases blood flow to the brain, for instance, and appears to improve concentration, memory, and other key factors associated with learning.

Earlier this year, a large study of urban teens in Spain suggested those who exercise more outside of school do better on cognitive tests.

To test whether the same might be true for an active commute to school, David Martínez-Gómez of the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid and his colleagues looked at test scores from 1,700 urban Spanish teens, and asked them how they got to school.

Roughly 65 percent of teens said they either rode a bike or walked to school.

The authors found that girls with an active commute scored an average of 53 points in tests of cognitive function, while those who got a ride scored nearly four points less.

And girls whose active commute lasted longer than 15 minutes did better on the tests than girls who walked or biked for less than 15 minutes on their way to school — a sign the relationship between active commutes and test performance is real, Trudeau said.

Indeed, the effect persisted even after the researchers accounted for age, body weight, social and economic status, and activities outside school.

It’s not clear why there was no link between active commutes and cognitive performance among boys. Another study among Swedish teens found the same thing, the Spanish researchers write in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, and it’s possible that if boys are more active than girls overall, a bit of extra exercise during their commute wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Alternatively, brain differences between girls and boys might cause them to respond differently to exercise, the authors suggest.

Trudeau added that walking or biking to school often takes longer than a car or bus ride, which may provide time to reflect and mentally prepare for the day, giving them an edge. “It may be a good period to start thinking about the school day.”

He cautioned, however, that not all commutes are equal — a walk through European cities, with their cafes and shops, can be much more stimulating than a walk through a typical North American suburb, which could impact the benefits teens get from it. Plus, not every commute is safe, if kids have to navigate dangerous neighborhoods or busy roads.

“Walking in the streets of Spain may be different than walking in the suburbs of Montreal or Los Angeles,” Trudeau noted.

To learn more about how you can improve your child’s exercise, sleep, and nutrition habits (and thus protect them from or treat them for overweight or obesity) you can pick up a copy of my book, SuperSized Kids: How to protect your child from the obesity threat. The books is currently on sale in both the hardcover and softcover versions.