Be Smart About the Nutritional Supplements You Take

Friday Author: Seth Kaplan

Those of you who read The Wall Street Journal may recall last week’s article by Laura Landro, entitled, “How Your Supplements Interact With Prescription Drugs.” At first, I thought the article would continue the periodic attacks on nutritional supplements that appear in popular media. Instead Ms. Landro, a fine reporter and writer, chose to provide general factual information about interactions between prescription drugs and nutritional supplements.

At first, I thought the article would continue the periodic attacks on nutritional supplements that appear in popular media. Instead Ms. Landro, a fine reporter and writer, chose to provide general factual information about interactions between prescription drugs and nutritional supplements. It is important to know that much of these data existed years ago, although some of the interaction information she cites is new. Some questions to bear in mind about nutritional supplements are:

  • Does my doctor know enough about supplements to counsel me about their use with allopathic medicines?
  • Are these interactions applicable to everyone, only to some, or to my case specifically?
  • Why write about these interactions now?

Here is information about the nutritional supplements Ms. Landro covered in her article: 

Echinacea

You probably know this flower in connection with treating colds, flu, infections, and inflammation. Ms. Landro mentions that there is a possible interaction with a breast cancer drug and other chemotherapy treatments that could reduce these drugs’ effectiveness. But, as Phyllis Balch points out in “Prescription for Herbal Healing,“ “There is no evidence that echinacea is useful for those who are at increased susceptibility to infection due to . . . radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.”

“There is no evidence that echinacea is useful for those who are at increased susceptibility to infection due to . . . radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.”

Echinacea

In other words, if you have cancer, you should not be taking echinacea in the first place without telling your doctor(s). Presumably, your medical oncology team will treat any infection other than cancer in a non-harmful way. Also, do not take echinacea for more than three consecutive weeks for any condition. This assumes that the doctors know about supplements and what they do. This is not always a good assumption.

Kava Kava

Extracts of this plant, used for over 3,000 years, provide calmness, improve mental acuity and, oddly, induce sedation. Mostly kava kava affects the brain and urinary tract as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. BUT, and it’s a big but, you will recall that life spans back then were either short or shorter. I suspect one reason might be inconsistent or long-term use of herbal or plant extracts like kava kava.

Mostly kava kava affects the brain and urinary tract as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. BUT, and it’s a big but, you will recall that life spans back then were either short or shorter. I suspect one reason might be inconsistent or long-term use of herbal or plant extracts like kava kava.

Kava Kava

Today, the FDA associates long-term use of kava kava with damage to eyes, skin, liver, and spinal cord. No one taking any sort of pharmaceutical for any mental condition—e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.—should take kava kava. The @WSJ article asserts that kava kava can interfere with a breast cancer drug. Herbalists know not to mix kava kava with chaparral, pennyroyal, comfrey, and other herbs and plants. How many doctors know this information is unclear because allopathic and alternative providers began exchanging research only recently. 

Ginkgo Biloba

The Wall Street Journal article misspells it as “gingko,” and says it purports to help with “asthma, heart disease, memory loss & sexual dysfunction.” Unintended consequences listed include altering insulin secretion and therefore sugar levels, and possible amplification of anti-depressants. This information is sketchy, partly because of space limitations.

Ginkgo’s use goes back about 5,000 years in Chinese herbal medicine, which prescribed it for mental acuity, respiratory problems, and erectile dysfunction. So, it has a track record of benefit that is especially notable because back then there were no pharmaceutical blood thinners—e.g., Coumadin—or anti-psychotic medications or reliable treatments for cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s disease.

Gingko Biloba

Ginkgo’s use goes back about 5,000 years in Chinese herbal medicine, which prescribed it for mental acuity, respiratory problems, and erectile dysfunction.

So, it has a track record of benefit that is especially notable because back then there were no pharmaceutical blood thinners—e.g., Coumadin—or anti-psychotic medications or reliable treatments for cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s disease. (Recall a previous blog post about Alzheimer’s as Type III diabetes). The rule of thumb here is to talk to your doctor before taking ginkgo biloba, because this is one extract with which they are familiar.

Turmeric

The WSJ article faults turmeric for inhibiting cancer drug and blood-pressure medication effectiveness. Maybe. Certain cancer centers use turmeric to help chemotherapy patients with nausea, but it is on a patient-by-patient basis. From a supplement standpoint, the most common use of curcumin, the extract from the turmeric root which contains curcuminoids, is as an anti-inflammatory. It is especially helpful for arthritis in all its forms and for generally reducing overall body inflammation. To increase absorption of turmeric, be sure to take it with bioperine (a black pepper extract) or a fat, like olive oil or coconut oil.

The WSJ article faults turmeric for inhibiting cancer drug and blood-pressure medication effectiveness. Maybe. Certain cancer centers use turmeric to help chemotherapy patients with nausea, but it is on a patient-by-patient basis. From a supplement standpoint, the most common use of curcumin, the extract from the turmeric root which contains curcuminoids, is as an anti-inflammatory.

Turmeric Root and Powder

Absorption is important because, according to Dr. Russell Blaylock, a former neurosurgeon who publishes a monthly newsletter, turmeric inhibits viral growth, and improves immunity, as well as protecting synapses, microglia, and macrophages. It also inhibits excitotoxic damage to the nervous system, and protects the blood-brain barrier, which helps prevent strokes.

Even low doses suppress mutated prion damage to neurons. He observes that turmeric alleviates insulin resistance, thereby improving Type II diabetes. It enters the brain easily from the gut and accumulates in parts of the brain known to be affected by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Doctors are becoming familiar with turmeric, so consult with yours before adding it to your regimen. 

Garlic

Unani—Persian traditional herbal medicine—considers garlic to be the most important herb for upper respiratory tract and gastrointestinal complaints. Ayurvedic medicine also uses garlic to treat joint pain and fever. Homeopathy has garlic preparations for many of the same areas.

Evidence-based allopathic medicine acknowledges some benefits to some people. In the man, however, it cautions against using garlic in several areas:

  • Post-operative hemorrhage: discontinue garlic use two weeks before surgery
  • Garlic can counteract the beneficial effects of probiotics
  • Garlic use, in some people, induces headache, vertigo, pain, and fatigue
  • Do not take garlic if you take a blood thinner like Coumadin because it can increase the drug’s effect
Unani—Persian traditional herbal medicine—considers garlic to be the most important herb for upper respiratory tract and gastrointestinal complaints. Ayurvedic medicine also uses garlic to treat joint pain and fever. Homeopathy has garlic preparations for many of the same areas.

Garlic

A key to understanding the possible benefits of nutritional supplements is this:  Supplements work for some people.

The only way to find out if you will benefit is to try a nutritional supplement you and/or your doctor think may be relevant to a condition. Next week, I shall add to this information by covering magnesium, red clover, saw palmetto, fenugreek, and quercetin.

 

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