24 September 1999

What is normal eating these days?

by Kate Melville

Who amongst you eats what nutritionists recommend? If a straw poll in the Science A Go Go office is anything to go by then the answer is no one!

One things that is for sure is the rapid growth in dietary additives. The market is huge in most western countries and if we could figure out how to link the Internet to dietary supplements the management would all be very rich indeed.

While herbs and dietary supplements appear to have many beneficial effects on things like depression, anxiety, insomnia and memory problems, some new research shows that some pretty serious potential side effects exist.

Millions of depressed and or sleepless patients mix prescription medicines with alternative therapies and most do so without informing their doctors. According to Dr. Jerry Cott, of the US National Institute of Mental Health, "Most users of alternative therapies do not inform their physicians. Almost one in five prescription drug users are also using herbs and/or high-dose vitamin supplements. This raises the concern of herb-drug, herb-herb, and nutrient-drug interactions, about which little is known." Dr. Cott's team found a growing body of scientific evidence that over-the-counter remedies often work.

However how they work and what dangers they pose remain poorly understood. In 1997 42% of American consumers used alternative. Consumers used these therapies mostly for chronic pain, anxiety, fatigue, and other long-term ailments. They invested vast sums of money:

$90 million for gingko, a memory enhancer

$86 million for energy-boosting ginseng

$48 million for St. John's wort, an antidepressant.

So before you go off and try to fix your diet or other problems with these supplements you should really discuss the move first with your doctor. There is also a web site run by the former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop that is worth checking out (www.drkoop.com - under Health Resources). While it's a pretty commercial site and completely US oriented it does have some very cool information on potential drug interactions as well as general medical information.