Here in the 5th decade health gets real. This is typically the decade when our bodies cry out for more attention and we listen because we want to stay for the whole party. Vitamin and herbal supplements advertise benefits especially attractive to people seeking good health, better memory, more energy, and heightened immunity. In 2015, U.S. consumers will spend 21 billion on vitamin and herbal supplements with no proof of positive benefits. Not that there is shortage of research; there is plenty. Once manufactured and put on the shelf, the FDA monitors herbal supplements for consistency, quality, and unsafe ingredients. However, recent investigations of supplements sold by GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart were found to include very little to none of the herbal listed on the bottle. Each brand of herbal supplement is a unique cocktail, each company with their own recipe of leaves or roots or both. These manufacturers are like the kid that passed off oregano as marijuana in high school. Some people swore they got a buzz, and some people experience benefits from supplements that claim to get rid of a virus faster, lift depression, or help memory. Lemon water, a long walk in the sunshine, and brain teasers may be just as helpful, but not nearly as quick. Still others experience how ginkgo biloba lowers sugar levels or how ginseng causes anxiety or headaches. Working with emergency room staff I learned how important it is for physicians to know all the supplements a patient takes due to drug interactions. Often supplements have unintended effects when they interact with a prescription drug. If you take a blood thinner, taking ginkgo biloba or vitamin E can make your blood too thin. I have a hyper immunity which attacks the synovial tissue around my joints and causes inflammation throughout my body including my organs and brain. Echinacea, Vitamin C, and other supplements that strengthen immunity promote my disease and work against the prescription medicine I take. I prefer gaining benefits from anti-inflammatory herbs, like turmeric or cayenne, by adding these spices to recipes. Doctors recommend getting our vitamins and minerals through good dietary habits, which again, is more time-consuming than swallowing a pill or three. Preparing food is mindful self-care. Many of us claim organic food is “too expensive”, but if we add the cost of protein supplements to that of herbals and vitamins, Americans spend more on supplements than on organic food.
Recent research indicates no benefits for adults taking multivitamins, citing they may actually shorten our lives. So why does the mega vitamin and herbal supplement industry thrive? I think it takes time to accept new information that argues with long-held beliefs. Cigarettes and cocaine were once thought to be advantageous to our health, in large part due to expert advertising. In Shape and Men’s Health magazines supplement ads cuddle up to healthy recipes and ab exercise programs. Seniors taking Centrum Silver multivitamin are fit and ride bikes with their active friends. Vitamins are the fountain of youth, which may be why we don’t want to let them go.
Two studies published last month in the British Medical Journal found no evidence that calcium supplements improve health or decrease bone fractures. This is huge news for every woman who believes taking a combination of calcium and vitamin D helps slow bone loss after menopause. Sadly, increased calcium in our diets does not make any measurable difference in bone density, either. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends exercise for building and maintaining bone density and preventing falls resulting in fractures. Exercise is also a prescription for better sleep, improved creativity, depression, and anxiety.
Aging healthfully is an evolving science, yet a consistent practice of exercise and good nutrition is guaranteed to keep us at the party as long as possible.