Supplements Are Not “Magic”

A response to author and doctor Paul Offitt’s new book, Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

Dr. Paul Offitt is Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is also the author of several popular books. In his new book, Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, he is not shy about his feelings on alternative medicine. But, Dr. Offitt’s opinion actually represents the mainstream opinion of physicians – they want proof of effectiveness before considering any form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Until recently, I counted myself among those physicians.  But years of research and personalized patient care have broadened my thinking. I now try to balance both the worlds of pure scientific proof and observational science based on the latest advances in my field - bone health.

Photo Credit: HarperCollins, 2013

The good news is that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are finally funding some unbiased studies on complementary and alternative medicine. Also, major medical centers like Harvard, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and others have recently established Centers for integrative medicine for treatment and research. The bad news is that uninformed physicians might use Dr. Offitt’s heavy-handed argument to ignore proven advances in alternative medicine. This has caused me to think, “Why are mainstream physicians repulsed by alternative healthcare and integrative medicine?”

The reasons for physician bias against alternative and integrative medicine are not clear. As a professor and participant in the design of the curriculum for our local medical school, it became apparent that we cannot teach doctors everything in four years. The primary role of the physician is to diagnose and treat diseases, and that is the priority in medical education. This is a huge responsibility and American doctors are the best in the world when you are sick and need help. The rise of the pharmaceutical industry has also improved our lives in countless ways and continues to do so with advanced scientific methods that would be impossible without an open business environment. Although the politics of healthcare in America need serious attention, no matter what side you are on, people who do receive medical care in the U.S. have the best in the world.

So, whose responsibility is it to prevent disease? As Americans we leave that up to individuals through healthy lifestyle, injury prevention, regular exercise, and regular health checkups. One reason doctors are skeptical of alternative medicine is that they have received very little education in this area and there are limited financial resources for preventive and integrative medicine. The costs are high and the reimbursement is very low. Who earns income when people stop smoking, exercise regularly, and eat healthier foods? There is also a lack of structure when it comes to supervising these efforts, and that reduces their success rates.

Not surprisingly, this leaves the public to discover alternative healthcare options for itself. Funding is limited for pharmaceutical firms or research centers, because there are no products that can be patented. For example, the discovery that broccoli helps prevent cancer does nothing for “the bottom line” because that discovery cannot be patented and sold as a medicine. All sorts of strange ideas pop up from the public, and they are difficult to prove or disprove because of inadequate funding. That uncertainty  influences scientifically trained physicians who are unlikely to recommend them without proof. It takes years for alternative and preventative approaches to sort themselves out and become accepted as medical advances. That may compromise patient care in the process but it also protects patients from scams and dangerous trends that arise in popular culture.

Dr. Offitt identifies many very bad connections that have been made between cause and effect, like efforts to associate vaccines with autism, or silicone implants with immune disorders. Those have been proven wrong, and many other aspects of alternative medicine are nonsense. Human observation is inherently faulty which is why doctors prefer proof. If you believe humans are not easily fooled, think how long people claimed the World was flat. The Earth certainly looks flat until you see it from outer space. Our ability to make correct observations requires scientific rigor, but that scientific rigor must begin with an idea that seems impossible at the time.

Specifically, let’s address some known facts about the nature of nutritional supplements, a category of alternative medicine:

•    Healthy foods are the best way to take in nutrients
•    Scientific research has identified optimum values for many vitamins and minerals
•    Scientific research has identified the typical food habits of  Americans
•    More than half of Americans do not eat enough healthy foods to meet the optimum intake of vitamins and minerals
•    It is difficult to get some of the most important vitamins and minerals from foods alone
•    Certain dietary supplements have been proven to have health benefits

For these reasons alone, one should not condemn all supplements, or condemn all alternative healthcare. Some supplements are potentially harmful, as Dr. Offitt has identified. In bone health, it is well established to avoid herbal remedies and potentially harmful ingredients like plant extracts as well as minerals including strontium and lead, that are in some “natural” forms of calcium currently on market.  These ingredients are not essential for bone health like food-based vitamins and minerals. However, they are commonly sold as “natural” because they seep into foods and water that are commonly and perhaps unknowingly consumed. Lead is natural, but it should not be consumed. The Institute for Better Bone Health is committed to providing healthy supplements that rely on proven nutrients that have a great safety margin.

My hope is that Dr. Offitt’s book will be read with an open mind toward increasing scientific research into alternative medicine to prove or disprove common assumptions, faster, so that the public can make safe healthcare decisions.

As the Council for Responsible Nutrition points out, the term “Alternative Medicine” might be outdated and part of the misunderstanding. To read their official response to this topic, visit http://www.crnusa.org/CRNPR13-ResponseNewBookAltMed061813.html

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