The war on the supplement industry by conventional medicine rages on. Over the past few years, conventional medicine researchers have meta-analyzed a variety of supplement studies, and their results have poked holes in some of the basic assumptions that supplements were healthy–concluded over several decades of research.
The supplements that have undergone meta-study analysis have included vitamin E, iron, vitamin A and others. Each negative review brought up possible weaknesses in prevailing thinking on the nutrient, or perhaps a side effect unknown beforehand.
This is not to say these studies are not important. It is important for the nutritional industry to be clear on their assumptions, and also understand the possible side effects of high doses of isolated supplements.
On the other hand, conventional medical researchers have a way of approaching supplements in the same way they approach pharmaceuticals: They try to isolate their effects for objectivity. This has inherent weaknesses. More on this in a minute.
The latest in this foray of supplemental nutrients to be engaged is calcium. In a study published in this month’s British Medical Journal, researchers from New Zealand’s University of Auckland Medical School and Dartmouth Medical School compiled fifteen studies on calcium, and of 11,921 total participants over an average of four years of supplemental calcium use, 143 people experienced myocardial infarction. In comparison, the placebo portion of the study group only 111 experienced heart attacks.
As a result, the researchers concluded that supplemental calcium in doses over 500 milligrams per day increases the risk of heart attack.
Open and shut case, right? Wrong.
What is a meta-study anyway? A meta-study is not really a clinical study at all. It is a compilation and analysis of a group of selected clinical studies. A group of researchers accumulates a number of studies under certain criteria, and then summarizes the results of these studies into one result. That result is then concluded upon. In the case of this calcium meta-study, for example, 11 studies were started with, and those were filtered down to five studies. This is even though many more than 11 studies have been done on calcium over the years. Why were some eliminated from the final analysis and why were some not included at all?
Robert Hearney, M.D., a calcium researcher and professor at Ceighton University in Nebraska, who headed up one of the studies included in this calcium meta-study, was quoted saying in an article by Hank Schultz in Functional Ingredients (7-30-2010): “The paper is highly suspect. We provided some data for the authors. The senior author rejected some of the cases we provided. In all our studies, our findings were the exact opposite. As always with meta-analyses, it depends on which studies you include and which you do not.”
The answer as to the accuracy of a meta-study lies in the criteria set up by the meta-study researchers. Yes, that’s right; the researchers set up the criteria for the inclusion of some studies. Yes, these are the same folks who make the conclusion about the meta-study. While the studies may be blinded, does this inclusion process of meta-studies have “double-blindedness” or “randomization”? Maybe, or maybe not.
In addition, researchers typically come up with a hypothetical conclusion before their study. This means, for example, if the researchers came up with a conclusion that calcium might increase the risk of heart attack, they would then want to prove that hypothesis, correct? Maybe, or maybe not.
These “maybe’s” present some of the bigger gaping holes in these meta-studies. Many meta-studies are done at or by medical school students and their professors. Most medical schools do not have nutrition courses, however. Why? Because medical schools study primarily diseases and the pharmaceuticals that treat those diseases. Their emphasis is in disease rather than health. So naturally, they often see supplements in the same way they see pharmaceuticals: As medicines.
This isn’t necessarily bad. Supplements should also be tested as if they are medicines, especially if they are being used or promoted as medicines by the public and nutrition industry.
Nutrients are different from medicines. Nutrients are synergistic. They need other nutrients to do their job of increasing health and vitality. An isolated nutrient such as vitamin E or calcium may cause side effects if the nutrient’s supporting nutrients are insufficient. This creates an imbalance in the body’s nutrients. Imbalances almost always produce side effects as the body works to rebalance itself.
Supplements should only be used as medicines if they are proven useful as medications and they are supervised by a health professional. If they are not, then they should be used only as described in the word “supplement:” A supplement to our food nutrition if our diets are lacking in combined nutrients.
In other words, our diet should contain a healthy dose of calcium. A healthy diet that contains sufficient calcium will almost certainly also contain the supporting nutrients that help calcium become absorbed into the bones and tissues. Healthy diets also contain healthy doses of vitamin E, vitamin B, zinc, boron and all the other nutrients. People who take calcium for osteoporosis often don’t realize that calcium is not the only bone nutrient. Zinc, boron, vitamin D and other nutrients are also critical for bone formation.
A healthy diet with plenty of dairy foods and plenty of sunshine for our body’s to produce vitamin D should result in adequate nutrients to keep our bones as healthy as our age allows. If we are not getting enough nutrients, we can choose a healthy multi-vitamin or mixed nutrient supplement that contains an array of supportive nutrients.
Meta-studies attempt to accomplish the opposite of this. By their nature, they attempt to isolate the use of the nutrient from any other nutrient. If the supplement studies use many nutrients to support the nutrient, then the researchers will not know which nutrient caused the side effect. So they have to study the use of isolated nutrients, which create imbalances in the body.
Where is the proof for this? Large scale diet studies have shown that diets with plenty of fruits and vegetables lower the risk of heart disease. For example, in a 2009 study from Europe studied 41,078 people from 29-69 years old. Those who consumed a Mediterranean diet had a significantly reduced risk of heart attack. For every 1-unit increase in the Med diet came a 6% reduction in cardiovascular disease (Buckland et al. 2009).
When supplementing, consider first your diet. Make sure you have a well-rounded diet with enough calcium. Dairy is not the only source of calcium. Broccoli, carrots, cabbage, almonds, figs, bread, apricots, and many other foods contain considerable calcium along with the supporting nutrients such as zinc, magnesium and boron that support calcium assimilation and use in the body.
To stabilize your nutrient consumption and guarantee that you are getting all necessary nutrients, consider taking a whole food supplement either daily or every other day. Whole food supplements are produced using food bases. These are naturally-occurring nutrients.
Most whole food supplements contain only moderate doses of vitamins, rather than hyper-doses. Remember that the effectiveness of the nutrient comes from its synergy with others, rather than hyper-dosages.
That’s because supplements are not the same as medications.
This information is for research purposes onlynot intended to treat or cure any disease.Be sure to consult your health professional if you suspect you or your family members have any disease, and before making any significant changes to your diet, lifestyle or supplements.In no case should a person consume castor oil without the consent of a qualified health professional.
Buckland G, González CA, Agudo A, Vilardell M, Berenguer A, Amiano P, Ardanaz E, Arriola L, Barricarte A, Basterretxea M, Chirlaque MD, Cirera L, Dorronsoro M, Egües N, Huerta JM, Larrañaga N, Marin P, Martínez C, Molina E, Navarro C, Quirós JR, Rodriguez L, Sanchez MJ, Tormo MJ, Moreno-Iribas C. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet and risk of coronary heart disease in the Spanish EPIC Cohort Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2009 Dec 15;170(12):1518-29.
Bolland MJ, Avenell A, Baron JA, Grey A, MacLennan GS, Gamble GD, Reid IR. Effect of calcium supplements on risk of myocardial infarction and cardiovascular events: meta-analysis. BMJ 2010 29 July 341:c3691.