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Inside CBS' News Story: Are Herbal Supplements Hurting You? News Or Nonsense?

A health topic like this deserves more coverage by the media, because the news is about how dietary supplements benefit health. Get the facts about supplements and how Mr. Hurley's book is being dismissed. Read on...

News Or Nonsense?

CBS Evening News

A series of news segments produced by CBS Evening News featured an author who wrote a sensationalized book about the dietary supplement industry.

The news segments were only a few minutes long and also featured representatives from health product trade organizations to provide their positions about the critical comments. But these representatives only had seconds to state their positions; not much time to review such a comprehensive and important subject.

A significant health topic like this deserves lengthy coverage by the media, because the real news is about how dietary supplements benefit health. The health benefits of dietary supplements are well established.

There are thousands of studies published in support of the numerous health benefits dietary supplements have to offer. For example, the International Bibliographic Information on Dietary Supplements (IBIDS) is a database of such scientific studies.

The IBIDS database contains over 730,000 citations on the topic of dietary supplements from four major database sources:

  1. Biomedical-related articles from MEDLINE.
  2. Botanical and agricultural science from AGRICOLA.
  3. Worldwide agricultural literature through AGRIS.
  4. Selected nutrition journals from CAB Abstracts and CAB Health.

The Scope Of IBIDS Includes:

  • The use and function of vitamin, mineral, phytochemical, botanical, and herbal supplements in human nutrition.
  • The role of nutrient supplementation in metabolism in normal nutrition and disease states.
  • Animal studies that relate to the function of dietary supplements in human nutrition.
  • Chemical composition, biochemical roles, and antioxidant activity of botanical and nutrient supplements.
  • Fortification of foods with supplemental nutrients and health-related effects.
  • Nutrient composition of herbal and botanical products.
  • Surveys on dietary supplement use by various populations.
  • The growth and production of herbal and botanical products used as dietary supplements.

Dietary supplements are especially well suited for athletes, who as a group have special nutritional requirements that are typically not being met by food alone. In addition to promoting good health, certain supplements are research proven to improve muscle, strength and endurance.

For example there are about 200 studies that prove the effectiveness of creatine; refer to my Creatine Super-Feature for a review of the recent research studies, then there is carnitine with a range of health and athletic performance benefits, which is now considered a conditionally essential nutrient by the National Institutes of Health.

Creatine Super Feature. Creatine Super Feature.
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All About Carnitine. All About Carnitine.
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You can also review my 10 section Sports Nutrition Guide for an overview of more research proven sports nutrition products and approaches.

Sports Nutrition Guide. Sports Nutrition Guide.
With High Intensity Interval Training you can burn more fat while spending less time in the gym. I will explain how you can get the best results from this.
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Research Results Are Normally Variable

When it comes to researching the potential health benefits of foods, drugs or dietary supplements a range of results is expected. In other words, a substance or product may be beneficial for some uses but not necessarily for others.

For example, the author mentioned that a study for a botanical, St. John's Wort, did not show any improvements for severe depression.

What the author failed to mention was that many other studies have reported that St. John's Wort is effective in treating mild to moderate depression. But keep in mind that technically this is considered a drug claim, and even though this use for St. John's Wort has scientific substantiation, dietary supplements cannot be sold to treat a disease; drug use approval would be needed for this, as reviewed below.

    View St. Johns Wort Products Sorted By Top Sellers Here.

Regulatory distinctions aside, here is a press release from the Council for Responsible Nutrition to get a flavor about how these news shows were portrayed. Note that on the first news segment about herbal supplements a representative from CRN appeared to convey that dietary supplements are safe and effective for many uses.

Industry Group Pans Book on Dietary Supplements
Anecdotes, Absence of Science Make Natural Causes 'Not Credible'
WASHINGTON, D.C., January 16, 2006

A newly released book on dietary supplements was dismissed today by a leading authority on dietary supplements as "not credible," because of its lack of science, historical inaccuracies and emphasis on anecdotal evidence and opinion.

"The book 'Natural Causes' cannot be considered a credible, scientific work," said Steve Mister, president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), a national trade association for the supplement industry. "This is an assortment of extreme anecdotes that exploit rare and tragic misfortunes in an agenda-driven attempt to sell books."

Mr. Mister described the book as one in which science is "largely absent," and noted that author Dan Hurley relies primarily on "Personal opinion and isolated incidents to falsely imply that these cases represent the experience of the more than 150 million Americans who take safe, beneficial dietary supplements as part of their healthy lifestyle choices."

According to Mr. Mister, the author demonstrates a lack of knowledge about dietary supplements that is reflected in the book's opening chapter, in which he examines the use of bloodroot as a topical ointment for treating cancer.

Bloodroot, when used as a salve, is not a dietary supplement. "He either has an appalling lack of understanding about even the most fundamental aspects of dietary supplements, or purposely chooses to mislead consumers in order to draw his conclusions," said Mr. Mister.

Footnotes in the book further demonstrate the volume's absence of science in drawing flawed conclusions. "The book includes more than 200 footnotes, but a cursory examination shows the author repeatedly footnotes his own inquiries, other people's opinions and people who spoke anonymously," said Mr. Mister.

"This is not the bibliography of a serious piece of work." Mr. Mister also questioned the propriety of advocating censorship, noting that Mr. Hurley claims it is "inexcusable," for news reporters and editors to quote CRN on matters of science. "Our organization is predicated on science," said Mr. Mister. "It's just wrong to try to censor fact-based viewpoints in an effort to push an unfounded regulatory agenda."

Regarding Claims & Use

From viewing the news segments and other previous coverage of dietary supplements in the media, there appears to be some perpetually confused issues about what dietary supplements actually are and what they are supposed to do.

For example, dietary supplement products are not drugs, and technically cannot be sold to treat diseases. However, consumers often self prescribe dietary supplement products on their own or in conjunction with their health professional as supportive treatment of certain diseases.

On the other hand, dietary supplements can be sold to prevent diseases, in particular nutritional deficiency related diseases. But also other types of diseases, under the health claim provisions of the regulations. These types of claims are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Like foods and drugs, dietary supplements are a highly regulated, as I wrote about in a previous article.

See my "FDA Authorized Claims That Can Be Made for Foods and Dietary Supplements" article for details about this.

FDA Authorized Claims That Can Be Made For Foods And Dietary Supplements! FDA Authorized Claims That Can Be Made For Foods And Dietary Supplements!
Yes, claims for foods and dietary supplements are FDA (Food and Drug Administration) authorized and regulated, contrary to what the media would have you think...
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The Natural Products Association provides an independent overview of some of the issues regarding the regulation, substantiation and safety of dietary supplements.

So while the research about how nutrients and other legal ingredients used in dietary supplements and foods can be effective in treating a variety of diseases, products for these types of uses would have to be pre-approved by the FDA, and sold as drugs. And because the drug approval process in the USA is very expensive, there is a lack of incentive to get supplement type products approved as drugs.

With all of the research supporting the use of dietary supplements for the treatment of diseases, there is a need for a new category of natural drug type products.

Looking outside the USA for examples, Canada recently created the Natural Health Product category of products, which includes the use of vitamins, minerals, botanicals, amino acids, and metabolites for approved uses to treat a variety of diseases. You can visit their website to review the monographs for the currently approved Natural Health Products.

When you review these monographs you will discover that based on the Canadian Government's expert review, here are some examples of Natural Health Product approved ingredients and their approved uses/claims.

Black Cohosh:

  • Traditionally used to help relieve menopausal symptoms.
  • Helps to relieve premenstrual symptoms.
  • Traditionally used to relax skeletal muscle and ease nervous tension.


  • Helps in the maintenance of bones and teeth, especially in infancy and childhood.
  • Helps to prevent bone resorption and osteoporosis.

Chondroitin Sulfate:

  • Helps relieve symptoms of bone and joint pain.
  • Helps in the formation of connective tissue.


  • Traditionally used to help prevent recurrent urinary tract infections.
  • Helps to prevent recurrent urinary tract infections.


  • Traditionally used to fight off colds, flus and infections.
  • Acts as supportive therapy in the treatment of colds, flus, upper respiratory infections and urinary infections. Traditionally used for the relief of sore throat due to colds.


  • Clinically shown to help reduce the severity and/or frequency of migraine headaches and associated nausea and vomiting when taken as a prophylactic.

Fish Oil (Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) & Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)):

  • Source of EPA and/or DHA for the maintenance of good health.
  • Helps support cognitive health / brain function.
  • Helps support the development of the brain, eyes and nerves.
  • Helps maintain / support cardiovascular health.
  • Helps to reduce serum triglycerides / triacylglycerols.
  • In conjunction with conventional therapy, helps reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis.


  • Helps to relieve joint pain associated with osteoarthritis.
  • Protects against the deterioration of cartilage.
  • Factor in the building of healthy cartilage.

Horse Chestnut:

  • Traditionally used to treat slack veins and hemorrhoids.


  • A factor in the maintenance of good health.
  • Helps in the normal function of the thyroid gland.


  • A factor in the maintenance of good health.
  • Helps to form red blood cells.
  • Helps to prevent iron anaemia (shortage).


  • Helps in the management of some forms of stress (physical, psychological, sleep depravation, multitasking etc.).


  • Helps increase the total sleep time (aspect of sleep quality) in people suffering from sleep restriction or altered sleep schedule, e.g. shift-work and jet lag.
  • Helps relieve the daytime fatigue associated with jet lag.
  • Helps to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep (sleep onset latency aspect of sleep quality) in people with delayed sleep phase syndrome.
  • Helps re-set the body's sleep-wake cycle.


  • Traditionally used as a digestive aid.
  • Traditionally used for the relief of flatulence and/or bloating due to excess gas production.
  • Traditionally used for symptomatic treatment of digestive disorders.

Saw Palmetto:

  • Helps to relieve the urologic symptoms associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia.

Stinging Nettle:

  • Traditionally used as a diuretic aid to help increase urine volume and flow, and to irrigate the urinary tract.
  • Helps reduce symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).


  • Traditionally used as an anti-inflammatory.
  • Traditionally used to relieve stomach complaints such as nausea, cramping and flatulence.


  • Traditionally used as a sleep aid.
  • Used as a mild sedative and sleep-promoting agent.

Regarding Safety

Like foods, depending on the ingredients being used, dietary supplement products do not require pre-marketing approvals. Like foods, the ingredients for use in dietary supplements are already considered to be safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Before a new ingredient is used in a dietary supplement product, safety data must be submitted to the FDA under the New Dietary Ingredient requirements of the dietary supplement regulations.

Based on the safety data submitted, FDA can permit the use of the new ingredient or deny the use of the new ingredient. This follows the similar process for new ingredients to be used in conventional foods.

It is important to realize that aside from this starting point of using ingredients already considered to be safe, the FDA does have that authority to remove an ingredient or product from the market if there is an adverse health concern. The FDA has this authority for all of the products it regulates, such as foods, dietary supplements, drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, and veterinary products.


The dietary supplement regulations are the way they are because this is what American citizens wanted. Members of Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 based on both scientific support and overwhelming public support.

As with all aspects of society, there will be reevaluation and refinements along the way. For example, in December 2006 President Bush signed into law the Dietary Supplement and Non-Prescription Drug Consumer Protection Act (the "AER bill"), S. 3546.

The legislation amends the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to require the reporting of "serious" adverse events for both over the counter (OTC) drugs and dietary supplements to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Keep in mind that companies manufacturing FDA regulated products have been required to keep track of even the most minor health related customer complaints, before this new law.

As an industry insider, I see an emerging opportunity to create a claims approved category for dietary supplements. Currently, each company creating dietary supplement products and foods relies upon their own evaluation of the scientific evidence to determine ingredients, ingredient combinations, product claims and dosages; except for health claims, which are approved by the FDA.

While this approach is working well, sometimes lines get crossed in the market place. For example, the benefits of ginkgo are well established in promoting mental wellness, and there are some high quality, research tested products on the market. But, there are also a variety of unstandardized ginkgo products, and while these are lawful products, they may not have the potency to produce the same health benefits as the standardized, research proven ginkgo products.

    View Ginkgo Biloba Products Sorted By Top Sellers Here.

Then there is the opportunity to create an entirely new product category similar to Canada's Natural Health Products. In this way, we can enjoy the many benefits that natural products offer for treatment of diseases, in most cases in ways that conventional drugs cannot.

For The Sake Of Our Health:

    For the sake of our health, it is time to put publisher and media driven confusion and self motivated controversy aside. It is time to focus on promoting the proven health benefits that dietary supplements have to offer, and continue research in this regard.

    After you spend time reviewing the research summaries stored in the IBIDS searchable database, the vast health benefits dietary supplements and related products has to offer is conceivably limitless.

    Yes, Hippocrates, the Father of Modern medicine, was correct when he said; "Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food." The updated version of this famous quote could be,

    "Let food and dietary supplements..."

    You can visit Awesome Muscles to hear about the latest and greatest information about training and nutrition for sports, fitness and health. This is a Podcast seminar series, which you can also listen to online or download on to your computer.

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Notice and Disclaimer: This article is not intended for use as a substitute for consultation with a qualified medical practitioner. If you have symptoms of any illness or injury, it is essential that you see your doctor immediately for proper treatment. This information is for education and entertainment purposes only. We strongly recommend that you consult for matters of health.