When Natural Equals Danger

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Do Your Own Research and Don't Overdose

Mistake #3: Trusting the Manufacturer's Claims

Lose 18 pounds in three weeks? Find peace of mind without taking antidepressants? A recent survey found that 57 percent of regular users of dietary supplements believe that the advertised claims of the manufacturers are generally true. Indeed, some supplements have shown promising results: Vitamin E may protect against certain forms of cancer, and echinacea may diminish cold symptoms.

Yet the survey also discovered that many people so strongly believe in the power of their supplements that they would continue using them even if a scientific study found the remedies to be ineffective. "There is disaffection between the public and the medical profession," says Marianne Legato, M.D., founder and director of the Partnership for Women's Health at Columbia University, in New York City. "The perception is that we are spending less time with patients and so they have turned to alternative sources to maintain and improve their health."

Safety strategy: Don't believe everything you read, at least when it comes to manufacturers' claims. Instead, do your own research: What is the scientific evidence backing the supplement? Have studies been published in respected medical journals? And remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it is.

Mistake #4: Supersizing Your Dosage

It's tempting to think that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to natural therapies. "There are serious downsides of taking too much of anything," warns Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., director of nutrition for the American Council on Science and Health.

More than 10,000 IU a day of vitamin A may damage the liver; more than 100 mg daily of vitamin B6 may cause nerve damage, and 800 to 1,000 mcg a day of selenium may cause depression. As a result, the National Academy of Sciences, which is responsible for establishing the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs), has set tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) levels for many vitamins and minerals-basically, the most you can take without risking your health. For example, the UL for vitamin A is 9,900 IU, for vitamin B6, it's 100 mg; and selenium's UL is 400 mcg.

With botanicals, dosing is more complicated since they've been studied less, and oftentimes the safe or effective dose is unknown. If you're not sure how much of a product to take, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

Another consideration with dosage is whether you're taking the treatment short- or long-term. Consider echinacea. Normally, the herb is taken for a week or two to stunt the duration and severity of colds and flus. However, it's often marketed like a multivitamin, with some manufacturers advising daily doses over an extended time. "It's not a good idea to stimulate your immune system on a daily basis," says Adriane Fugh-Berman, M.D., assistant clinical professor at George Washington University School of Medicine, in Washington, D.C., and author of Alternative Medicine: What Works (Williams & Wilkins, 1997). In fact, some studies of extended echinacea use suggest it may increase risk for colds and flus.

Safety strategy: Do not exceed the UL dosage for anything you take.

Continued on page 3:  Consult Your Doctor


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