Story Highlights• Americans spend at least $5.8 billion dollars a year on dietary supplements
• Studies have found virtually no evidence supplements improve health your health
• Testing for safety, effectiveness not required for nutritional supplements
By Caleb Hellerman
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Every morning, Dr. Frank Pinto pops not one or two vitamins, not just a handful, but more than two dozen dietary supplements, washing each one down with a sip of water.
When afternoon rolls around, he takes 20 more: all told, nearly 50 pills, every day. Pinto, a dermatologist, and his wife, Rosemary, a family therapist, are chasing life with a vengeance under the guidance of Dr. Ana Casas, an Atlanta-based specialist in "age management." (Watch what scientific evidence says about supplements and aging )
Like millions of Americans, the Pintos, who live in Tifton, Georgia, take supplements in hopes of gaining energy, warding off disease and slowing down the aging process. The federal government says Americans spend at least $5.8 billion a year on dietary supplements.
To look at the labels, you would think that vitamins and supplements are powerful medicine. Yet for all the money spent, and growing interest from mainstream physicians, virtually no evidence exists that supplements can improve your health.
Under the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, nutritional supplements do not have to be tested for safety or effectiveness before going on the market. As long as the manufacturer doesn't claim that a product treats or cures a specific disease, it can advertise any health benefit whatsoever. The next time you're in a health food store, just count the bottles that promise to "strengthen your immune system."
When studies have been done -- conducted by academic researchers, not supplement-makers -- the results are less than impressive. Here are just a few examples:
Vitamin E: In a massive study two years ago involving nearly 40,000 women, the famed Women's Health Initiative found that taking vitamin E supplements they did nothing to improve cardiovascular health or prevent cancer.
Ginkgo biloba:The popular memory aid didn't help 230 people OVER 60 who were tested by Williams College researchers in a 2002 study.
Coenzyme Q10:According to the Web site of the National Cancer Institute, "Coenzyme Q10 has not been carefully tested to see if it is safe and effective."
Or take the whole category of antioxidants. Researchers have long known that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which are full of antioxidants, can lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and cancer. Such a diet has even been shown to lengthen life.
With that in mind, millions of people, including Pinto, pop capsules of vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene. A lot of them were probably stunned to see a study last January, in which Danish researchers found that taking antioxidants in pill form might actually shorten life, not extend it.
Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg is director of the Antioxidants Laboratory at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. He says researchers are only beginning to understand the complexity of food. "There are about 20,000 different antioxidants in our diet.
There aren't 20,000 different pills to take," Blumberg says. "One of the reasons dietary supplements can't replace a healthful diet is because we don't know about what's important to put in every pill."
Dr. Andrew Weil, the alternative medicine guru and author of best-sellers including "Healthy Aging," runs a Web site devoted to selling pharmaceutical-quality vitamins, but agrees that advertising often oversimplifies what pills can do.
"There's a compound in broccoli called sulphurophane, which has been of interest as a cancer-fighting agent, and I have seen bottles in health food stores that have a photo of a bunch of broccoli on the label, and the implication is that this is broccoli in a pill," complains Weil. "It's not broccoli in a pill. It's sulphurophane in a pill, and that's one element of an incredibly complex plant that has all sorts of different things in it."
But Weil isn't willing to wait for scientists to sort it out. He says he has enough anecdotal evidence to recommend several supplements, including vitamin D and selenium to reduce the risk of cancer, alpha lipoic acid to fight off heart disease and diabetes and omega-3 fish oil for brain function and blood circulation. All of those, no surprise, are on Pinto's list. Like Weil, the Georgia physician says he's not waiting for the jury to come in.
But he believes supplements are not a cure-all, either. "It's an all-inclusive thing. If you don't eat right and exercise, supplements are not a replacement."
Caleb Hellerman is a senior producer with CNN Medical News.
Rosemary Pinto and her husband, Dr. Frank Pinto, take numerous dietary supplements in hopes of gaining energy, warding off disease and slowing down aging.
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