Health / Reference

Being Your Own Health Advocate

Wine is good for you! No it isn’t! Coffee is bad for you! No it isn’t! Seemingly every day a new headline comes out on the health benefits (or lack thereof) of some supplement or food. How can a person get through all this misinformation?

There is a lot of medical information and misinformation out in the world today. Websites, usually with names containing “truth,” purport to have real information about health and supplements. The real “truth” is that most supplements and other “health” fads are nonsense. But we don’t like to hear that. We want a pill that will fix everything that is wrong with us, and we’ll try anything if we think it will work.

Sorry, but that’s not going to happen any time in our lifetime.

The “truth” is that a healthy lifestyle: eating right, getting plenty of water, rest, and exercise, and reducing stress, are still the only tried and true ways of getting and staying healthy. Hence, this blog.

But what about those supplements? Are any of them helpful or are any of them harmful? Well, yes and no, and it can be hard to determine which is which. What is a curious, health-conscious person to do?

Be your own advocate. Many of us, who lead alternative or divergent lifestyles are already used to being our own advocates. We have to stand up to people who try to beat us down for our sexual orientation or our gender identity. A few of us have challenged employers, or even the government, to get the rights we deserve. We must deal, respectfully and professionally, with employers who keep asking us to change our hair, remove our piercings, or cover up our tattoos.

So why can’t we be our own advocate for our health?

Because it’s hard. Of course, being your own advocate is always hard, but health and science is another matter. Our schools don’t teach us how to read and interpret scientific papers, and we must rely on the (not very accurate) reporting of scientific findings by the media (for example, CNN repeatedly calls anthrax a virus, when it is not. Would you trust these people to report important health information, information that you rely on to make critical decisions about your health?)

I’m here to help!

No one has the time to comb through decades of research about one particular supplement, let alone all of them, except other scientists. So let them do the work for you. In scientific journals, these articles are called reviews. They condense many years, sometimes decades, worth of research on one topic into one paper, discussing the merits and demerits of the findings.

Here’s what you do:

  • Go to PubMed, a website repository for all of the research funded by the NIH (and more)
  • Search for articles about your supplement of interest (best to use the name of the condition you are hoping to improve, as well)
  • Find the ones marked [Review] (on the left menu is a “Article type” menu which allows you to choose reviews)
  • To help with the search (especially on hot subjects that may have hundreds of articles), stick to research that has come out only in the last five years or so. Science moves at a breakneck speed, and sometimes new techniques come out that can invalidate previous data (it doesn’t make that data wrong, it’s just that scientists did not have the proper tools at that time to really figure out what was going on)
  • Download the article as a PDF (articles on PubMed aren’t always free, but many are. PubMed Central is another good place to look for free articles)

Reviews aren’t guaranteed to be easy to understand, but at least you won’t have to wade through sections on methods, subject recruitment, and ten pages of incomprehensible graphs and charts. Read through the review and see what conclusions are reached.

Most of the time, the results will be inconclusive. The supplement may not be harmful, but it doesn’t seem to be helpful, either. While there might not be anything wrong with taking the supplement, you might be wasting your money.

On rare occasions, you may find a supplement actually works. In that case, check and make sure about the following:

– What dosages were used? In order to create a noticeable clinical effect, extremely high dosages may have been used in the study. Supplements may not be easily or cheaply available at that dose, or they may not be safe to use long term at that high of a dose. The reviewer might comment about the dose if it is high.

– Were human subjects used? It is an unfortunate aspect of science that a large amount of research is done on animals. Not all animal research translates into humans (for instance, we can cure cancer in the mouse, but those very same techniques don’t work so well in humans).

– If humans were used, how many? And what type of trial were they enrolled in? The more people enrolled, the more likely it was a full clinical trial. If 15 or 20 people were in a study, it was likely a pilot, and is too small to draw useful conclusions. Also check to see if placebo was given. Studies that have effects over placebo are more rigorous.

– How many studies were used in the review? The more studies, the better. A supplement that only has four or five studies may not have been used in enough people to see what its true effect is. A review with dozens of studies is going to be more scientifically rigorous and therefore more trustworthy.

It is the reviewers’ job to point out the merits and shortcomings of each study they review. If you find the reviewer to be overly critical, there is usually a reason. Science must be very rigorous in order to be trustworthy, and you should take the reviewer’s critiques seriously.

Cochrane reviews are another type of review for clinical trials, and many supplements have been reviewed in the Cochrane database. Abstracts and plain language summaries are available for free on the site, as well as the full review (which are usually quite long).

In the end, we must all be advocates for our health. Doctors may be critical of supplements due to either not knowing the science behind them or being skeptical of alternative medicine in general. Healthy skepticism is, well, healthy. But some supplements do work, and can be a viable option for those looking for a way to improve their health.

Of course, always check with your doctor or pharmacist before starting supplements. If you are on prescription medications, some supplements may interfere. No advice on the Internet or even in medical journals substitutes for an appointment with your doctor.

photo credit: Carsten Schertzer via photopin cc

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