“Herbal” and “All Natural”

Are all supplements safe? Are all supplements effective? Do we need them?

by Stanley Brosman, MD

Knowledge image

Whenever we discuss the management of a person’s cancer, the conversation also involves diet and exercise. There are many things in life we can’t control. We cannot pick our parents or the genes they deliver to us. What we inherit is what we’ve got. We can’t control our lifespan, the number of heartbeats we will have, or many of the medical problems and degenerative conditions we may experience, but we certainly can take steps to modify these conditions and improve our lives.

Cancer cells are another matter. These cells don’t follow the normal rules of cell behavior. They’re outlaws, and they use every trick in the book to evade detection and treatment. They seem to follow the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest. Even though cancer cells have a more rapid death rate than normal cells, only those cancer cells that are strong enough to evade our natural immunity are able to survive, grow, spread, and evade treatment. We can cut them out, radiate them, freeze them, heat them, starve them, poison them, and try to persuade them to become good citizens by blocking the pathways they use in their quest for immortality, but they can be very difficult to eliminate and control.

If we can’t directly control cancer cells, what can we control?
We are in control of our diet, how much exercise we get, how we manage stress, and how we relate to our family and friends. It’s the dietary part that we will consider.

What many of us do not realize is that these products do not have to pass any examination to evaluate their safety and effectiveness.

We are constantly being exposed to an overwhelming flood of advertising for dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies. We accept these advertisements at face value because we think the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that these products are safe and effective. We feel reassured because these ads are broadcast on television and radio; they appear in print in our newspapers and magazines. They are mailed to our homes and sent to us over the Internet on a daily basis.

What many of us do not realize is that these products do not have to pass any examination to evaluate their safety and effectiveness. This misconception has resulted in billions of dollars being spent on products made by a multi-billion dollar industry that does not have to spend any money on creditable research to back up their claims. As consumers, we hope to purchase reliable products from a reliable company, but it is difficult to make this assessment.

Why do we take supplements?
The intent would be to supplement some deficiency. If we don’t ingest enough calcium in our diet, a calcium supplement is worthwhile. If we are deficient in Vitamin D, a supplement is appropriate. Unfortunately, in most cases, we often cannot tell what needs to be supplemented or how much is necessary, so we take everything that is promoted and hope it will do some good. We also hope that what we take is accurately labeled and prepared and is not a bogus preparation.

One of the prime examples of aggressive marketing is in the area of impotence. Men have been taking all sorts of nostrums for years in the hopes of improving their sexual performance. The Federal Trade Commission has investigated many of these claims and as a result issued the following alert:

  • Products advertised as effective for treating impotence without a doctor’s prescription should be ignored, as they cannot cure the condition.
  • Products advertised as “breakthroughs” in the treatment of impotence mandate double-checking with a physician for legitimacy.
  • Some manufacturers of impotence cures claim that their product is “scientifically proven” to work. When a consumer sees the phrase “clinical studies prove it works,” caution is in order, as these claims are often false.
  • Claims providing very high rates of success are often bogus. Some manufacturers create phony “clinics” and fake “institutes” solely to promote bogus impotence cures. When impotence cures are said to be “herbal” or “all natural,” the product should be ignored.
  • There is no herb or “all natural” substance proven to cure impotence.

We can probably substitute the word “cancer” or any other disorder and repeat the same statements. People with cancer are particularly susceptible to these marketing schemes.

What’s the answer?
We need to talk to our doctors about the entirety of our treatment. This may include taking vitamins and supplements, but everything should be integrated. We need to inquire about possible negative interactions between prescription medications and supplements. There are many challenges in managing cancer, but we don’t want to add to them by the inappropriate use of any intervention.

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Dr. Stanley Brosman is clinical professor of Urology at UCLA. He specializes in urologic oncology and dietary management in people with cancer and is actively involved in clinical and laboratory research.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2010.