The Need to Educate Doctors About Natural Supplements

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AgeMD - 24 October, 2011

The media has made much of a recent study published in the Oct. 10 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, which found an association between the use of nutritional supplements and a heightened risk of mortality. Based on its findings, questions have been raised about the safety of a number of commonly used supplements. This has generated a great deal of controversy, and in the ensuing media storm, the most important issue has been overlooked: There is a growing need to educate primary care physicians about natural supplements and their effects on a person’s wellbeing.

The study’s limitations have already been widely reported. For instance, the researchers themselves concede that a cause-and-effect relationship between supplement use and death has not been established. The Los Angeles Times quotes the study’s lead author, Jaakko Mursu, as saying, "We don't have the detailed information why the women were using [supplements].” In fact, a number of women in the study were likely taking supplements as part of a regimen to treat an illness. For example, iron is used to treat anaemia. In cases such as these, it is far more likely that the illness rather than the supplements were the cause of death.

Despite its shortcomings, the study does contain two findings that have not received the analysis they deserve. First, the study reports the growing use of supplements among the women in the study’s sample, from 65% in 1986 to 85% in 2004. Second, it acknowledges a “dose response” relationship, meaning that the stronger the dosage, the more likely one’s health is adversely affected. As the vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition noted, "Anything, including water, can be harmful if you overdo it."  

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