How do you know what’s in your vitamins? Taking nutrients to keep you well or to heal you from an illness can be a slippery slope. There are lots of details involved that many people, nutritionists, and even doctors don’t understand.
Nutraceuticals are a major tool in my business. I specialize in medical nutrition and natural answers for diverse and complex illnesses. I have been in practice for 47 years, and have formulated vitamins for major companies like Metagenics. Presently I train medical doctors in the use of nutrients to treat diverse diseases. I have been studying, teaching, and watching the trends of the nutraceutical industry for half a century. Boy, do I have some helpful information for you today!
First, let’s get the term straight.
Nutraceutical was coined as a combination of two words, “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical.” It refers to isolated or combined nutrients and herbal products, pro- and pre-biotics (beneficial bacteria), and various powders such as proteins and greens.
The use of nutraceuticals is on a stellar rise. First, complementary natural medicine is rapidly growing. These practitioners use nutraceuticals as tools. Second, the public is using more natural products. Nutraceuticals have a rapidly growing body of science behind them, and most of the time the use of nutrients and herbs have far less potential downstream dangers compared to man-made pharmaceuticals.
Why is this?
Nutraceuticals are based on molecules that the body already uses; they already share a biological history. Pharmaceuticals, on the other hand, are brand-new molecules that the body has never seen before. That’s why we need large randomized trails, performed on large numbers of humans, to try to figure out the potential effects of these new foreign compounds. The upside for the pharmaceutical companies is that these compounds are patentable (and can be sold for high prices) because they aren’t “human.”
But nutraceuticals can have issues too. You can spend money to purchase vitamins, even from pharmacies or some doctor that sells a private line with his or her name on the label, and still there might lurk problems that affect whether you get the benefits you hoped for, or problems you didn’t dream of.
The two most common possible complications of nutraceuticals are:
- The product may not contain as much active nutrient as the label states, so you might not be getting an adequate dosage to produce the hoped-for effect.
- The product might contain possible (and dangerous) contaminants that the label doesn’t reveal (like elevated levels of lead, carcinogenic and damaging solvents, or unhealthy bacteria).
This last week, I drove seven hours to and from Houston to visit with one of the older and most well-respected names in the vitamin industry, Biotics Research. Biotics has been a family-run business for 42 years that hires opinion and thought leaders to educate doctors to learn how to use strategic nutritional (and hormonal) intervention to heal naturally.
Biotics has an impressive scientific lineage. They were hired by the EPA to do the original research on the Love Canal, a massive Superfund environmental pollution disaster area. They are hired by various respectable institutions to do bacterial studies (they test all their products to make sure they are free of bacteria). They have honed, over the decades, a special process where they grow plants (in fields in the back of their manufacturing buildings) to absorb nutrients and enzymes. They use these matrixes as the bases for their tablets and capsules, so nutrient absorption is optimized.
Biotic’s Research has quality-control employees in purple shirts running all over the 100,000 square feet of manufacturing buildings—checking, checking, and re-checking again.
Their in-house labs are run by several smart PhDs that know what they’re doing.
Why did I drive to Houston when everyone who knows me knows I hate to drive in grid-locked traffic?
We were visiting to explore the possibility of my formulating and lecturing for them. I had designed the first natural menopause product in the U.S., and the first FEM line (women’s line for physicians) for Metagenics. Also designed gut and immune products with Dr. Leo Galland, hormone-balancing products with Drs. Wright and Gaby, and more.
Strategic use of nutraceuticals can heal and protect. A few examples: exposure to pesticides before and during pregnancy is linked to higher risk of autism spectrum disorder, but folate supplementation and multi-vitamins taken during pregnancy significantly reduce the risk of autism in the newborn as it matures. High dose melatonin has been shown by numerous studies to act like a natural aromatase inhibitor as well as to enhance various chemotherapeutic interventions. Sufficient dosages of magnesium replacement have been shown to lower incidence of migraines, myalgia (muscle pain), and often reduce the need for NSAIDs (whose recognized dangers are growing monthly). Niacinamide (in specific dosages and protocols) works like a natural and safer NSAID for osteoarthritis. Randomized human trials show that sufficient regular dosages of beta-carotene over a year can heal Barrett’s esophagus, which is often regarded non-healable. And the list goes on.
But to fix these issues, you have to have the dose that the protocol demands. You can’t always know this from the label. On top of that, you don’t want nasty contaminants altering the desired effects or creating worse issues.
Many constituents from which these nutraceuticals are manufactured are originally grown and then exported from India or China. Take turmeric, for example. It’s one of the hottest selling herbs today and mainly comes from India and China, though there are some fields in the U.S. Products from India and China can contain dangerous levels of lead or dangerous solvents. Both can cause cancer and ding brain tissue. As well as being dangerous for your optic nerve.
Dr. J. Wright and his wife Holly invited me to come hang with them as their first houseguest after they built their new home on 7-1/2 Mile Lake in Washington State. At dinner they explained how, out of the clear blue, normally energetic Holly had started to experience severe fatigue. After lots of sleuthing, it turned out that the very respectable turmeric product she had been taking contained high levels of lead. Holly’s blood was tested and showed lead levels that were off the charts . . . even though this product came from a trusted company.
Based on this, Dr. Wright’s store began to request monthly analysis of all the products he uses and sells. There is no getting away from purchasing some products from these countries, but you can test each batch, each step of the way. That is why top lines sometimes have products that get back ordered if they test high in a contaminant; they might need to stop that particular product until they can get ingredients that are completely free of toxins.
Many cancer patients take turmeric. What good would it be if the turmeric is filled with carcinogens?
And there are other nuances of turmeric that I’ll discuss in Part II. For example, it’s best cycled, some forms are only 8% absorbable while others are 80% absorbable. But the most critical is to get curcuminoid (actives within the turmeric plant powder) without being exposed to contaminants.
Quality companies test, test, and test. But many companies do NOT test every step of the critical way. Especially if they are not manufacturers, but purchasers and mixers. They buy powders from other companies and, in essence, then mix and encapsulate their own products. They assume the other companies tested and retested and did their due diligence. Often, this is not the case.
I recently launched my first online course on Redefining Hormones in Today’s Toxic World. Dr. David Brownstein, my guest expert, explained that he had many products tested to see if they had what the label said or if they contained contaminants. What he found shocked him. Even products from some doctors’ lines, said to be the top of the heap, didn’t have the dosage they claimed on the label. Since Dr. Brownstein uses nutraceuticals (along with hormones) as his main healing tools, he was motivated to design his own products for his own patients. David is dedicated to make sure his patients have the best possible chance of getting and staying well.
We don’t want more regulation with nutraceuticals. We should cherish the right to take care of ourselves and purchase what we want without having to see and pay for a physician to write a script. We see what happened with FDA regulation over meds. It’s a quagmire based on maximizing profits over optimizing human health. Safer and less expensive options lose out. This means you, the patient, loses out.
But we do want to know who is doing quality control and what labels can we trust.
Part of the problem is with GMP—Good Manufacturing Practice regulations.
GMP practices are recommended by agencies that oversee the authorization and licensing for manufacture and sale of food, drug products, and active meds. These guidelines provide “minimum” requirements with plenty of wiggle room for things to not be pristine.
For example, many private label products do not have the multi-level of quality control and testing for possible lead or solvents, but they can still be GMP-certified.
An analysis by an independent laboratory of 13 probiotic products sold in the U.S. revealed that only two of the 13 labels accurately listed the number of viable organisms inside the product. Certain products had only 7 to 58% of what the label claimed. Although most products still provided at least 1 billion organisms per serving, which seems to be a baseline effective number, there was discrepancy between label and product content.
What can you do?
- Purchase doctor’s brands as much as possible.
- Purchase from companies that test and make their analysis available upon request.
- Purchase from companies that thought leaders inform you about—those that go way beyond GMP and take multiple steps to turn out safer and more effective products.
- Purchase from companies that manufacture their own products and don’t mix powders purchased from others without testing, testing, and more testing (as much as you can).
- Purchase from companies that have PhDs who test for pathogens, solvents, heavy metals, and consistent dosages, or private lines purchased from companies such as these.
- Don’t ask for more control. That’s a rabbit hole where you would be the one to ultimately lose out.
- It’s difficult to know all these nuances, so buy from companies that you learn operate all these practices even though they don’t have to. They are the ones that care as much about you as they do about profits.
Knowledge is power. Get buffed.
Contaminated turmeric is a potential source of lead exposure for children in rural Bangladesh. J Environ Public Health. 2014;2014:730636.
Consumerlab.com Product review: probiotic supplements for adults, children, and pets. Http:/www.consumerlab.com/reviews/Probiotics_Supplements_Including_Lactobacillus_acidophilus_Bifidobacterium_and_Others/probiotics. Accessed Jan. 11, 2010.
Antenatal nutritional supplementation and autism spectrum disorders in the Stockholm youth cohort: population based cohort study. BMJ. 2017 Oct 4;359:j4273.
Combined Prenatal Pesticide Exposure and Folic Acid Intake in Relation to Autism Spectrum Disorder. Environ Health Perspect. 2017 Sep 8;125(9):097007.