Benjamin Franklin once said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” This blog mostly covers the wealth, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in health (and wise). As you may have gathered from the title, this article will cover a little of all three.
Over a year ago, I wrote an article about the Youngevity Scam. Youngevity is a company that sells vitamins and supplements at prices that seem to be four times the industry average, with no additional proof of quality or effectiveness. One of the points that I made in the article is that current research is showing that vitamins and supplements may do more harm than good.
In fact, scientists believe antioxidants might make your cancer worse.
And if you don’t believe those very good sources, this extremely-respected medical journal has processed numerous extremely large studies to conclude: “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.”
There’s more: Vitamins appear to be bad for your workout. And here’s another article, How Vitamins Went From Medical Marvel to Marketing Scam.
And if you are looking for some humor with your information, here’s John Oliver’s evisceration of Dr. Oz and the supplement industry.
Even with all those underlined, reputable sources, that statement drew an extremely strong reaction in the comments. The reaction has, in some ways, eclipsed the intended discussion of Youngevity itself. I recommended that people place that passion to work in addressing the publishers of those articles rather than me. I’m simply pointing out their research. I’m not sure that advice hit home with the commenters… perhaps because they lack the critical thinking skills to avoid such scams like Youngevity in the first place.
I have to admit that I was surprised by the strong reaction. Then I started to realize that people have individual problems with pharmaceutical companies. Some don’t like the long list of possible side effects they are required to state in commercials. Some have experienced a bad reaction. Some have found that medicine hasn’t fixed the intended problem. Some just hate the exorbitant prices. It’s probably a combination of all the above.
Perhaps this USA Today article explains it best:
“Many consumers view alternative medicine industry as more altruistic and home-spun than Big Pharma. But in his book, Offit paints a picture of an aggressive, $34 billion a year industry whose key players are adept at using lawsuits, lobbyists and legislation to protect their market.”
I wonder if people would feel the same if they new that? I can see the appeal of alternative medicine. The cost of vitamin C is minimal compared to many pharmaceuticals. The side effects seem to be limited. There are no patent wars over vitamin C. It can claim to be “all natural.”
This is all great, but as Tim Minchin writes in one of my favorite 10 minute shorts, “By definition, alternative medicine has either not been proved to work or been proved not to work. Do you know what they call alternative medicine that has been proved to work? Medicine.”
In my opinion, watching that video is probably the best investment of 10 minutes you’ll make this week. If you are lucky enough to find such great information presented in entertainment way once a year, you’ve hit a home run. It really is that well-done.
As the USA Today article mentioned, people often pit supplements against pharmaceuticals like they are the Red Sox and Yankees. They like to point out that some pharmaceuticals were taken off the market because they harmed people and thus supplements are the answer. It isn’t a fight between or the other. It isn’t a zero sum game where if one loses the other wins. If the entire pharmaceutical industry was whisked off to Jupiter tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the effectiveness, or ineffectiveness, of vitamin C. If the entire supplement industry was whisked off to Saturn it wouldn’t change the effectiveness, or ineffectiveness of Viagra (which is very effective).
People in that Youngevity article have taken things to the extreme suggesting that there’s a “sickness industry.” The idea behind it is that doctors have collaborated to keep people sick so that they can get repeat business. This ridiculous notion seems to work on those who lack critical thinking skills. Those with critical thinking skills would realize that they couldn’t keep such an elaborate plot secret in every country on Earth. Someone would leak it for the fame and fortune. Not only that, but these people would have to explain why these doctors would not choose to cure their own mothers and daughters. People are going to get sick no matter what we do, there’s no need for doctors to intentionally try to keep people sick. They have more personal incentive to solve a sickness and become personally famous with movies and book deals on how he/she did it… not to mention money from the cure itself (Pfizer did quite well with Viagra).
Other people in the Youngevity article have pointed out that the pharmaceutical industry is undoubtedly corrupt and that I shouldn’t defend them. I imagine there most certainly is corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. However, we must grant that there likely is the same corruption in the supplement industry. If we are going to be conspiracy theorists, we might as well be equal opportunity ones. I wonder if these conspiracy theorists are the same people who own mutual funds. I wonder if these people have mortgages. There is extensive evidence that there is corruption all over Wall Street and yet I don’t know anyone with money who doesn’t have money effected by it. The subprime lending and banking collapse in 2008 are just a couple of examples. If you bought into stocks at that time you would have probably come close to doubling your money. You may have used a bank’s money to own their homes today.
The lesson here is that good results can come about despite “corruption.” We’d love for every industry to be corruption-free. I can’t think of any industry that is. I can’t see how damning all industries because of some “corruption” is progress.
Many supplement supporters will point to their safety. I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve gotten from people saying, “When was the last time someone died from supplements?” (I resist the urge to educate them about the role that Ephedra played in Baltimore Orioles’ Steve Belcher’s death.) However, there’s a lot of research showing that supplements simply aren’t as safe as we thought. There’s a New York Times article that cites quite a few problems with supplements such as “20 percent contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury or arsenic”, and people taking two products “developed hair loss, muscle cramps, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue and blisters.” The conclusion was simple: “For too long, too many people have believed that dietary supplements can only help and never hurt. Increasingly, it’s clear that this belief is a false one.”
That article didn’t address the damage done to the liver by supplements.
Then there are hidden dangers with supplements that few consider. This Wikipedia article on self-licensing shows that people use supplements as an excuse, like a counterbalance, to engage or continue dangerous habits such as smoking. However, without proof or significant evidence that supplements counter the dangerous habits, a person is left with worse health than before.
Even if we were to concede that supplements are generally safe (which would simply be wrong from the above information), we have to consider the case of ice cream. Ice cream is “safe” too, so why not advocate that as an alternative to medicine?
The answer is that safety doesn’t mean anything without effectiveness. Each day millions and millions of people get in cars despite the fact that they aren’t safe. Why? Because cars are effective transportation. A couch may be safer, but it is sucks when it comes to transporting people from point A to point B. People focused on safety without regard to effectiveness have got their priorities backwards.
Once I put all the conspiracy theories aside, I’m left one with one question, “Does it work?” If it doesn’t work, then we might as well associate it with ice cream, at least that tastes better.
When it comes to pharmaceuticals, you know that they’ve been tested in multiple clinical trials to show that they are both safe and effective. Like any human endeavor, there are mistakes that happen, but these are the outlier cases. It isn’t the norm, or there would be hundreds of million of people dropping dead from medicine each day. On the other hand, when it comes to supplements, there are typically no clinical trials showing that they are effective for anything… with these notable exceptions on the FDA’s website. It’s not like vitamins and supplements haven’t been put to the test either. This article on The Atlantic does a great job of citing that in tests of hundreds of thousands of people vitamins and supplements haven’t been effective. This article on The Slate comes to the same conclusion.
Finally, as the NY Times wrote in this article, Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem, “DNA tests show that many pills labeled as healing herbs are little more than powdered rice and weeds.” The article shows that you might not be getting what you are buying with supplements, which is very different from most pharmaceuticals that are under strict regulations.
In short, there’s significant proof that pharmaceuticals do work and significant proof that vitamins and supplements don’t work. I’m with you in wishing the opposite were true, but that doesn’t make it reality. Thus with the exception of vitamin D and calcium supplements for bone strength, folic acid for expecting mothers, and a few others, I conclude that it does not make sense to buy vitamins.
I leave you with some advice that I believe both camps can agree on. Eating right and exercising seems to be the time-tested formula for good health.
Update (1/2015): More research continues to show that antioxidants don’t improve lifespan.
Update (7/2016): Consumer Reports has put together some information to help consumers with supplements. They mention that they created a dangerous weight-loss supplement simply to show how quick and easy it is for anyone to do the same. They also created a label to show how deceptive they can be.
They also reported that supplements can make you sick. With the help of a team of doctors, they created a list of 15 supplement ingredients to always avoid.
Not only that, but Consumer Reports (again with medical professionals) explain few people need supplements, but here are the one who do.
Consumer Reports also tells you what USP Verified and other supplement seals mean. The quick and dirty: No one approves the products are safe and effective like FDA approval, but at least the seals show that some of the product has been checked sometime to ensure that it contains what it says.
[I want to make it quite clear that I’ve received no compensation from anyone for this post. The supplement people are often quite quick to point out that Big Pharma is paying for articles like this in an attempt to discredit it. So know that I have no financial interest in this war of pharmaceuticals and supplements. I simply want to help educate people use critical thinking skills and not waste their money on marketing when the science shows they receive no benefit.]
The preceding was an updated article first published in August 2013.