Our Seductive Desire for a Magic Pill

Sunset on a desert tour of Dubai. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Sunset on a desert tour of Dubai. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

There are so many pills in the market that are touted as “magic pills” to keep you healthy, make you strong and boost your physical and sexual powers. But are they any good? Are they safe?

Health supplements are a $1.4-billion industry in Canada, but product testing is questionable, says a CBC report. Supplement products have increased dramatically, from about 4,000 types in 1994 to more than 55,000 in 2012. Roughly half of all US adults say they have used at least one supplement in the past month, most commonly vitamins.

Health Canada confessed to CBC’s Fifth Estate program that most herbal and vitamin supplements are approved for sale in Canada on “weak evidence”. The report also says more than 90 per cent of new products are approved within 10 days.

There is intense pressure from the supplements industry, anxious to cash in on the latest health-care trends. About three-quarters of Canadians regularly take natural health products such as vitamins, minerals, fish oil and herbal remedies, a 2010 Ipsos-Reid survey found.

Research in New Zealand published earlier this year found that 83 per cent of fish oil supplements tested exceeded maximum industry standards for rancidity. And recent tests by CBC’s Marketplace showed that four of seven fish oil supplements tested showed signs of rancidity.

Products for weight loss or increased energy accounted for the most ER visits. These products caused 72 per cent of problems involving chest pain or irregular or too-fast heartbeats, and they were the culprits in more than half of visits among patients ages 5 to 34. Bodybuilding and sexual-enhancement products also led to cardiac symptoms in many seeking ER help.

Marketplace (November 12, 2015) also found Vitamin C products make illegal claims. Canadians are constantly misled into thinking Vitamin C fights colds. Marketplace found Vitamin C products that make health claims are not allowed by Health Canada. While independent testing is done in the US to verify the accuracy of supplement ingredients, similar testing is not done in Canada. So what you take may not be safe.

University of Guelph botanist Steven Newmaster and his team conducted DNA tests on 44 herbal supplements bought in Canada and the US. Their study, published in the journal BMC Medicine in October 2013, found that nearly 60 per cent of the supplements contained ingredients not listed on the label and 32 per cent were outright frauds.

Subsequently, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman commissioned his own DNA tests of supplements sold by four major chains in the US. His study produced even more disturbing results, and Schneiderman ordered the retailers to stop selling the supplements, says CBC report. But no action by Health Canada.

The New England Journal of Medicine (October 2015) says supplements send 23,000 people to hospitals each year in the US. Products for weight loss or increased energy accounted for the most ER visits. So be careful before you consume any supplement not ordered by your doctor.

Best thing you can do for yourself is to exercise regularly, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, eat fish, meditate and do yoga. Don’t be seduced by a magic pill!

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