a man trying to open a pickle jar. Trust me: it's funnier if you can see it.

Struggling with health and nutrition?  Allow us to loosen the jar of your comprehension.  (As soon as we saw this free illustration on the internet, we knew we needed to use it SOMEwhere on the website…)


After more than two years of writing these health columns for the newsletter, I’m finally going to have a little fun, get a little preachy, and offend some people. I can’t wait to get started! But before I do, the following disclaimer: these are my opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of anyone else at the store, including management (Debra). Some people, including friends, people I respect, are going to disagree with some of these (see #3 and #6). But that’s their problem, because as long as I’ve got access to this soap box, I intend to use it for all it’s worth. So, in no particular order, here goes:

1) Supplements Aren’t Regulated by the Government

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must approve any new supplement ingredient before it can be marketed. It must approve any health claim before it appears on a bottle. It can pull any supplement off the market it deems unsafe. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates false advertising of supplements no differently than it does any other products. So who’s unregulated, exactly? Of course no system is foolproof, and there is the occasional scandal when a supplement doesn’t meet label claims. But what about the drugs? For example, the thyroid replacement drug, levothyroxine, has been subject to ten recalls since 1991 for not being at its stated potency. And three years ago, the manufacturer of one brand (Synthroid) settled a class action lawsuit for $87 million because their product was up to 30% below its stated potency. And Synthroid was the number-two-selling drug in the country! Yet nobody thinks to call pharmaceuticals unregulated…

In fact in some ways, supplements are overregulated! With less than a half-dozen exceptions, it’s still illegal to say that a supplement will benefit an actual disease, at least on the bottle. So instead of saying that glucosamine can benefit osteoarthritis (a disease), you need to use ambiguous wording about ?joint health.? You can’t say that CoQ10 or Hawthorne help in cases of congestive heart failure (a disease), just that they ?promote a healthy heart.?

2) More Research Needs to be Done (Before We Can Act)

I love science, the scientific method, and the ?gold standard? of proof provided by double-blind, placebo-controlled scientific studies. But what do we do in the absence of this absolute proof? Do we simply wait, paralyzed by indecision?? Or can we act on what we do know? Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

1. Studies have correlated cows’ milk consumption during infancy with an increased risk of developing type I (insulin-dependant) diabetes. 2. Test tube evidence has shown that a certain component of cows’ milk can trigger the immune system to attack and destroy the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, just like what happens in type I diabetes. 3. An infant’s gut is ?leakier? than an adult’s, making it easier for proteins to be absorbed whole into the bloodstream, where they can trigger an immune response.

Okay now, add those three facts up in your head. Even though they don’t absolutely prove that dairy causes type I diabetes, I say they’re compelling enough. In other words, we know enough right now to keep infants away from cows’ milk products. Just like we know enough now to say that cell phones cause cancer and vitamin C helps prevent it; that aspartame (?Nutrasweet?) is dangerous, organic is better, and fluoridated water is a public health risk. Just like we knew enough five years ago to strongly question the safety of hormone replacement therapy (estrogen). Just like we knew enough three decades ago to call cigarettes addictive and carcinogenic.

The ongoing search for scientific proof is one of our noblest human endeavors. It brought us out of the dark ages and taught us the earth isn’t flat. But we must not let it blind us to what we already know.

3) My Low Fat/Low Carb/Vegan/Macrobiotic/Fad Diet is Good for Me

Sure, you can eat macrobiotic if you have cancer, or ultra-low-carb if you’re trying to lose weight. But when all’s said and done, for a healthy person, it all comes back to that perennially unfashionable way of eating, i.e. THE BALANCED DIET! More important even than the precise balance, is that everything you eat be natural, unrefined, fresh or fermented quality food, prepared without artificial chemicals or other junk. Sure, you can be healthy on a restrictive diet, but it’s a lot harder.

4) Doctor’s Orders

A few weeks ago, a woman came into the store looking for something to lower her cholesterol – and quick! ?Why such a hurry?? I asked her. ?Well,? she said, ?my doctor says he’s only giving me six weeks to lower my cholesterol, and if I can’t, I’m going to have to go on the drugs.?

He’s ?giving? you?!? You’re going to ?have? to?!? Let me just clarify, when it comes to your health: They are all your decisions to make!

Now obviously, you see a doctor for a reason. He or she spent four years in medical school, often even more in an internship, and countless more in clinical practice. So your doctor knows a lot – probably a lot more than you! – about health and sickness, how the body works, what’s going to kill you, and what to do about it. But he or she can be tired sometimes, uninformed, misinformed, or just plain wrong. Or he or she can simply have different priorities than you. If you think your doctor is wrong, speak up politely but firmly. Or get a new doctor. And the same goes for chiropractors, nurses, nutritionists, herbalists, homeopaths, psychic healers, massage therapists, your Aunt Gerta, and even the guy who writes for the health food store newsletter, too.

5) We Don’t Really Know What These Herbs Do, Do We?

I once had a professor get up in front of the entire class and announce that there was only one study ever published on the herb, Gingko Biloba. She was a PhD, incidentally. She taught at Harvard. Yet it only took me five minutes on a free, government-run medical database to find over two dozen. It’s amazing how people feel they can say these things without ever looking at the research.

6) I Can Use Applied Kinesthesiology (?Muscle Testing?) and/or a Pendulum to Assess Supplements Before I Even Take Them Out of the Bottle!

See under: placebo effect.

7) My Vitamin Gives Me 100% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), So I’m All Set.

In actuality, the RDA for most nutrients is pretty useless. Bear in mind, RDAs were set to prevent overt deficiency diseases, not to promote optimal health. In other words, while 100% of the RDA of vitamin C might keep you from getting scurvy tomorrow, it won’t do much to head off that heart attack in 30 years. And RDAs don’t account for nutrient depletion, such as smoking depleting vitamin C, or birth control pills depleting vitamin B6. They don’t take into account special needs, like how kids with ADHD or acne need more zinc, or women at risk of cervical dysplasia are able to lower that risk with vitamin A. Of course there are some RDAs you don’t want to exceed by much, calcium for example. (If you’re wondering about a particular supplement, The Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements, by Michael Murray is a great place to look this stuff up). But as a general rule, healthy people shouldn’t be scared of multivitamins, no matter how big and scary the ?percent? number might look.

In addition, good nutrition requires more than just the two-dozen or so nutrients with established RDAs. Take for example, the mineral boron, which is necessary for your body to convert vitamin D to its active form (think osteoporosis). Yet an RDA hasn’t been established for boron yet. There’s no RDA for bioflavonoids, yet bioflavanoids can double, triple, or quadruple the efficacy of vitamin C. There is an RDA for vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), but there isn’t one for its close relative, gamma-tocopherol. Yet it’s the gamma-tocopherol which is so important for heart health. In short, the RDAs promote a sort of reductionist approach to nutrition, by implying that 60 mg of vitamin C ?equals? an orange. But isolated chemicals don’t take the place of whole food!

8) I need a pill

There is research showing that behavioral therapy is more effective than drugs (and presumably, herbs) at dealing with chronic insomnia; and just as effective with high blood pressure and some headaches. Weight-bearing exercise is as important as calcium for the prevention of osteoporosis. Older people living alone do markedly better when they have a dog. The list goes on and on.

9) Alternative? Medicine

Alternative to what? Listen, either it’s good medicine or it isn’t. Supplements, nutrition, exercise, bodywork, and meditation all have their place; as do antibiotics, surgery, and X-rays. Over the years, I’ve seen so many people who approach health with this partisan, ?us-and-them? mentality – from both sides of the issue. Bottom line is, it’s either good medicine, or it isn’t. Period.


10) “Antacids & Acid Blockers for Heartburn and Reflux”

Read more about #10 in next month’s newsletter.