Goji berries….Antioxidants….Omega-3…Oh, my!!
You could spend all day reading up on supplements and only scratch the surface. You could also spend a lot of money – and many of my patients do – upwards of a thousand dollars every few months. But what are you really buying? Is it hype? Or is it real?
The answer: a bit of both.
Nutraceuticals from powders to pills to gels and creams are certainly a heterogeneous group of consumer products and it’s hard to lump them all into one post in any kind of logical way. But that’s what I’m going to try to do.
I call the nutraceutical business the modern snake oil business. Snake oil salesmen actually sold snake oil, at one time. And snake oil, as some of you may know, is full of omega-3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory. Omega-3 fatty acids should be part of everyone’s diet. But back in the days of the oil salesmen, people were buying snake oil for everything under the sun. And not only that, they were told that nothing else could help them.
Today’s savvy consumer knows that omega-3 comes from a variety of sources. It comes from fish, flax, and more. One of the most abundant sources of omega-3 that you won’t see advertised on the flax or fish oil web sites is super cheap: organ meat. (Yucky? Only if you never learned to cook it!) Another source is egg yolks from chicken free to eat their normal diet which includes omega-3 rich plants and insects.
Most supplement companies are little better than pharmaceutical companies.
Pharmaceutical companies sell their products to you indirectly, through doctors, by convincing us they’re the best way to address your health challenges. Supplement companies sell their products to you directly, by convincing you the pills they sell are superior to a balanced diet. In fact, nutraceutical companies want you to think the antioxidants, flavinoids, and other compounds they provide can only come from their pills. Nonsense.
All plants contain antioxidants, bioflavinoids and so on. So the more vegetables and herbs and so on you eat, the more of these goodies you get. And what’s more, there are far more active antioxidants and healthy bioflavinoids when plants are fresh than when they are dehydrated and encapsulated or otherwise formulated to sit on a shelf unrefrigerated.
I tell my patients that the “average” nutraceutical for sale is probably no more or no less dangerous than the “average” prescription medication. The FDA does not regulate the industry at all, not that they’ve done such a good job with pharmaceuticals but at least they contain what they claim to contain. The neutraceutical industry, however, is completely on the honor system. And when people get hurt and killed, there’s no system in place for notifying people selling tainted or just outright deadly cases to be notified. At least with pharmaceuticals pharmacists and doctors must be notified by law.
One of the more notorious cases was Kava Kava, which was banned from Germany after several people died from taking it. Kava Kava is a polynesian herb used as part of religious ceremonies and also for relaxation, a bit like the Irish use Guiness. The polynesians who use Kava Kava know that it can cause skin rashes, violent stomach upset, and other gastric problems. Clearly, just because something has been used “traditionally” and comes from a plant growing in the dirt as opposed to a plant off the Turnpike in New Jersey, doesn’t mean it’s free of painful and potentially harmful side effects.
But Kava Kava has more to teach us about all Nutraceuticals, not just the mind-altering ones.
Like all plants, Kava contains dozens of chemical families and perhaps thousands of individual chemicals. At the time people took their deadly capsules of Kava Kava, little was known about it. And few suspected there might be something about the way the Polynesians prepared the drink that might prevent them from dying. So when the factory made it’s Kava nutraceutical product, they followed a totally different protocol their product was a dry powder rather than a drink). It turns out, that little detail made the difference between life and death for some people.
Traditional preparation is done using what chemists call an aqueous extract, meaning water is used to remove the active ingredient from the source. This was traditionally done by soaking crushed Kava leaves in either water or coconut oil. In the factory, however, the chemists figured that they’d use a different kind of material to extract more of the active ingredient. It worked, and customers who took their product got plenty relaxed. But some, perhaps those with poor liver capacity, ended up permanently relaxed. Why?
The mind-altering Kava alkaloids are potentially toxic to the liver. Fortunately, aqueous extraction also removed compounds which helped reduce the toxicity, specifically one compound called glutathione. Glutathione is water soluble. And the factory, wanting to improve the efficiency of the extraction process, used an alcohol based solvent instead, leaving the glutatione behind. The result was deadly. Now, Kava manufacturers make sure the glutathione gets into the capsules. This was only one lesson learned, and some paid with their lives. How many other similar mistakes will be made?
The Solution Is Dilution
This was one of my toxicology professor’s favorite sayings. And it’s been taken to heart by the Nutraceutical companies who now put a tiny bit of numerous plants into their products. This safety measure reduces the chances that any one toxin can be present in large concentration. A good idea.
But is buying pills and powders really the only way to get all those antioxidants and other good things? Isn’t there a safer, tastier, more natural way?
There certainly is. And the answer may inspire you to check out a few of my salad dressing recipes.