• Deborah Smart

Are your supplements making you sick?

Updated: Jan 28

There's a reason why so many Australian Drs are wary of complimentary medicine. While the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) regulates the use of pharmaceuticals and complimentary medicine in this country, the internet abounds with access to overseas nutraceuticals that are not regulated, some of which have not been approved for use in Australia, for very good reason.

Some of these reasons include:

1. The quality of the product and dosing has a huge bearing on its safety and efficacy and the TGA screens companies for their quality control and regulates dosing.

2. The use of the substance with other prescription medications may be harmful.

3. The use of the substance for certain subsections of the population may be dangerous or cause unwanted side effects.

I have seen some frightening outcomes for desperate people, looking for help with their health, who 'self-prescribed' something being touted on the internet as the next 'big thing'.

1. A young woman purchased online a type of acid that claimed it could open the blood brain barrier and help the brain to 'detox'. She caught a virus, which very quickly turned to meningitis, and ended up in the ICU. She believes the product was the cause of the severity of her illness.

2. A concerned mother purchased for her son, a herbal product that was advertised as being helpful for the prostate. Instead of using it for just a couple of weeks, as a practitioner might have advised, he used it for 2 years. It happened to also be estrogenic and he developed significant breast tissue.

3. A woman with a neurological disease purchased a herbal product online for personal deworming for her family. It contained wormwood which is contraindicated for used in conditions affecting the nervous system. She triggered a relapse of her disease and developed paralysis.

The problem is not going to go away, with over 40% of Australians using supplements (50% of women). Many of us have experienced the benefits of using supplements and know how powerful they can be in the pursuit of health and healing. But gone are the days when safe and simple vitamin C, garlic, B vitamins, cod liver oil, and mineral products were the mainstay of anyone using supplements. You've only got to visit your local pharmacy, where wall after wall of nutraceuticals greet you, to see that our choices in this area have exploded in the last 10-20 years. Powerful 'drug like' nutraceuticals extracted from food sources, like curcumin, or bioidentical substances replacing things our body is supposed to make, like coQ10, are easily available in our chemists and health food stores. But are even those approved for general use in Australia, really safe for self-prescrition by your average Aussie?

Let me give you some examples...

1. Depression - Many 'natural' anti-depressant substances or seratonin boosters, such as St John's Wort, cannot be used together with prescription anti-depressants. Combining these can cause 'seratonin syndrome', symptoms of which include: agitation, racing heart, diarrhoea, high blood pressure, headaches, muscle twitching.

2. High Blood Pressure - Blood thinners are popularly used in this condition, but there are many 'natural' blood thinners on the market, that should be used with great caution, or not at all, if you are on prescription meds. These include high dose fish oil, garlic, and vitamin E.

3. Autoimmune disease - Powerful anti-inflammatories like curcumin are often used to reduce systemic inflammation in chronic disease states. The market is flooded with 'tumeric' capsules, some of which are as useless and as harmless as a tiny amount of ground up tumeric root. The extract of tumeric that has been shown to be so useful in addressing inflammation, inhibiting cancer cell growth, and slowing the progression of neurological degeneration, requires a high-tech delivery mechanism to get it into the blood stream so that it can have a therapeutic effect. Some of these delivery mechanisms can be harmful to certain people. In fact certain genetics also warrant caution in the use of any kind of tumeric extract, such as those with COMT downregulation.

In summary, every person is unique in their biochemistry, their genetics, and their particular disease battle, and a supplement that does wonders for one person, may harm another. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that because it's 'natural' it must be safe. These days there is a very fine line between a high-tech nutraceutical and a prescription drug, which is why the health industry is trying to self-regulate the use of nutraceuticals by making some available by practitioner prescription only in Australia. Health practitioners like myself have spent many years studying at bachelor degree level, pharmacology, chemistry, and biochemistry in order to navigate the complex world of nutraceuticals and chronic disease management.

So be discerning people! If the website you are getting your information on a substance from is trying to sell you anything, DO NOT trust their information without further research. ALWAYS check with your doctor, pharmacist, or other trained health professional before adding a supplement to your prescription medicine routine.

And best of all, get professional advice before spending a small fortune on nutraceuticals that may or may not be right for YOU. You will save the consultation fee in unwanted product, over and over again.