Kent & Queen Anne's Hospital
Recent News

July 30, 2001

FOR RELEASE: Immediately

Do Alternative Nutritional Supplements
Really Work?
Mary Schmitt, RD, CDE

Many people are experimenting with herbs and other types of "natural" alternative nutritional supplements to cure or treat certain conditions or diseases because of their concern about the side effects of many conventional medications and therapies. But many do not realize some of these alternative supplements may also have side effects or may interact with conventional medications. There are many media and marketing claims about these supplements; some claims may be true, some may be exaggerations and some may actually be false. Due to lack of research studies, many of the claims cannot be substantiated. The American Dietetic Association has reviewed some of these supplements and the following are their guidelines on several popular ones.

Acidophilus/Lactobacillus - Is a "good" bacteria, naturally found in the gastrointestinal tract. Antibiotics, oral contraceptives, physical stress and malnutrition may affect the delicate balance of microflora in the intestine. Acidophilus/Lactobacillus can be found in yogurt, kefir and acidophilus milk where the labels state "live active cultures."

Media and Marketing Claims:
  • "Improves digestion of dairy products, reduces diarrhea"
  • "Prevents antibiotic-associated diarrhea"
  • "Prevents vaginal yeast infections"
  • "Lowers cholesterol"
  • "May protect against cancer"
  • "Clears up skin problems"

What relevant research has shown:

  • There is evidence that Acidophilus/Lactobacillus cultured dairy products may improve absorption of lactose and reduce the associated symptoms such as cramps and diarrhea in individuals with lactose intolerance.

  • Several review articles indicate that Acidophilus/Lactobacillus may reduce diarrhea associated with antibiotic use.

  • There is preliminary evidence that Acidophilus/Lactobacillus may reduce episodes of vaginal yeast infections.

  • There is preliminary evidence that Acidophilus/Lactobacillus may reduce cholesterol levels in individuals with high cholesterol and those with normal cholesterol readings. Larger control trials are needed.

  • Although there is preliminary evidence from observational data and animal experiments that Acidophilus/Lactobacillus may have anti-cancer properties, no clinical studies have been done with humans.

  • Because of a lack of studies, there is no evidence linking the use of Acidophilus/Lactobacillus to treat skin disorders such as acne, dermatitis, etc.

  • Safety: There have been no reports of any negative side effects in human studies.

Coenzyme Q 10 - Coenzyme Q 10 has been investigated in cardiovascular disease, exercise performance, cancer, AIDS/HIV and neurodegenerative diseases.

Media and Marketing Claims:

  • "Strengthens the heart"
  • "Enhances exercise performance"
  • "Reduces breast cancer risk"
  • "Slows the aging process"

What relevant research has shown:

  • Evidence from controlled human studies suggests that CoQ10 supplementation may improve the symptoms and outcome of cardiac surgery, myocardial infarction and congestive heart failure. More studies are needed to determine dosage, timing and safety in this population.

  • Controlled trials do not support CoQ10 supplementation for athletes because it does not appear to enhance exercise performance.

  • Controlled trials are lacking to support the claim that CoQ10 prevents or treats cancer.

  • Although CoQ10 concentrations appear to decline with age, there is currently no evidence suggesting that supplements slow the human aging process.

  • Safety: In studies, CoQ10 has been apparently well tolerated for up to one year with no reported serious adverse events. Some subjects have reported mild gastrointestinal distress.

Echinacea -Most clinical research on echinacea has been done in Germany, where it is used for colds and chronic infections of the respiratory and lower urinary tract.

Media and Marketing Claims:

  • "Boosts the immune system"
  • "Protects against the common cold and flu"

What relevant research has shown:

  • Animal and in vitro studies suggest that echinacea enhances immune system function. Human studies completed in Europe have also suggested immune enhancement; however, many of these trials have been criticized for poor design.

  • Clinical studies have reported conflicting results on the role of echinacea in preventing or reducing symptoms of upper respiratory infections. Additional studies are needed to verify the claim that echinacea protects the immune system against upper respiratory infections and influenza viruses.

  • Because there are many varieties of echinacea with varying levels of potency, future studies must control these variables to provide accurate information.

  • Safety: Oral echinacea appears to be well tolerated, although the safety of long-term use is unknown. It is recommended that echinacea should be taken orally no longer than eight weeks at a time.

Fish Oil - Fish oil is a rich source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with lower rates of coronary artery disease.

Media and Marketing Claims:

  • "Reduces risk of heart attack, stroke, atherosclerosis"
  • "Decreases blood pressure"
  • "Improves rheumatoid arthritis"
  • "Treats inflammatory diseases such as ulcerative colitis and psoriasis"

What relevant research has shown:

  • There is considerable evidence that fish oil reduces plasma triglycerides.

  • Some studies have shown that fish oil may reduce blood pressure slightly, especially in hypertensive people.

  • There is evidence that even low intakes of fish oil may reduce the risk of heart attack and death in people with coronary heart disease.

  • There is preliminary evidence that fish oil may have mild beneficial effects on rheumatoid arthritis. More research is needed.

  • There is evidence that fish oil provides modest improvements in people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. More research is needed.

  • Although fish oil has documented anti-inflammatory effects in studies, controlled trials have not shown clinical improvement in people with psoriasis.

  • Safety: Some fish oil supplements may prolong bleeding time. Fish oil from halibut and shark liver oil may contain unsafe high levels of Vitamin A. In another study, consumption of 10-20 ml of refined fish oil per day for seven years had no serious side effects. People with conditions shown to benefit from omega-3 fatty acid should discuss this with their physicians. Eating two to three servings of fatty fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, etc.) per week while limiting saturated fats will increase omega-3 fatty acid content of the diet.

Studies are still needed on most alternative supplements and herbs so before using them check with your physician.

Mary Schmitt, a registered clinical dietitian at Kent & Queen Anne's Hospital, is a graduate of University of Wisconsin. She specializes in wellness nutrition and has recently become certified as a diabetes educator (CDE). She also provides consultant dietitian services to Magnolia Hall Rehabilitation & Nursing Center.