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Health supplements - Where is their place?

By Dr Fisayo Aturamu

This story demonstrates how people use popular health supplements for a range of problems. But are they right to do so? Let's begin by looking at Gbolahan's story:

Relationship


Meet Gbolahan

Gbolahan Jones is 35 years old. He works with Assurance Bank where he recently got promoted to the rank of Branch Manager. This promotion has brought him to Lagos, with a need to accustom himself to the city's hustle and bustle.

Life in the city is nothing like what he was used to in Ondo town where he was rarely stuck in traffic and his commute to and from work was about 20 minutes. Ever since the move, he’s hardly had time for anything besides work.

He leaves home by 5.30am to make it to work by 7.45am. He leaves work by 4.30pm and is usually stuck in traffic for about 2 hours afterward.

Therefore, he is always exhausted after work daily. Even his weekends aren’t exactly free; as he works on most Saturdays.


Bright Expectations

Gbolahan has been in Lagos for a little over 6 months now but he hasn’t been to any of the cool spots that he had heard about before his move.

All that would change in a bit though, as his fiancée, Funmi, would be coming to Lagos for a 2-week visit which coincides with his annual leave so they would explore Lagos amongst other things.

Funmi and Gbolahan have been engaged for about 2 years.

They plan to get married as soon as she is done with her Master’s program.

She schools in the UK and has been away for a year.

He already planned an itinerary for her stay with him as he wanted every bit of it to be memorable for both of them.

They would try go-karting, binge-watch their favourite Netflix shows and visit that jazz club his colleagues wouldn’t stop talking about.

After the 2 weeks together in Lagos, they would drive down to Ondo where their parents reside to spend time with both families.

He had even planned a surprise 2-day romantic getaway at a seaside resort that newly opened in the outskirts of the town.

After 12 days in Ondo, they would return to Lagos so he can resume work and Funmi would return to the UK.

The D-day is finally here and Gbolahan was already at the airport 30 minutes before Funmi’s flight landed.


Unexpected Disappointment

He was all shades of excited when he sighted Funmi in her pretty yellow wrap dress looking as beautiful as ever.

She ran into his arms and he lifted her into the air and spun her around.

They were all giggles as they made their way to the car and drove home.

Getting home, they wasted no time heading to the bedroom but alas, things didn’t pan out as he had imagined.

Later on, he kept replaying things in his head and how he had to apologise to Funmi for being unable to get it up.

Gbolahan loved having Funmi around so he really could not fathom why things in the bedroom weren’t going as smoothly as it had been with them before.

Funmi was cool about it though, she told him she didn’t mind but he was scared she really did.

He even considered getting some ‘agbo jedi’; he remembers such concoctions being a thing amongst his coursemates back in uni but he'd always been a little skeptical of things like that.

Funmi needed some toiletries so he headed to the nearby pharmacy to get some.


Natural Options for Libido Boosting

Next to the aisle where he found the brand of shaving cream which she'd requested for were some medical supplements.

He decided to check them out and found a ‘Libido booster’ which he added to his shopping cart.

He saw another one ‘Glucocrash’ which contained garlic, ginger and moringa.

It claimed to be a cure for diabetes.

Remembering that his mum, who was diabetic, cooked a lot with herbs like ginger and garlic anyway, he decided to get her one too.

The two week holiday with Funmi went by pretty fast but even with his use of the 'Libido booster' nothing changed; things weren’t going as desired.


Things are looking Up again

They soon traveled to Ondo where he dropped Funmi off at her house first and went on to his parents' afterward.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones were really happy to have their son back home albeit for some days.

He gave his mum the supplement he'd bought the night he got back home.

Incidentally, she had an appointment with her doctor that week and made a mental note to check she could take them with her other medicines.

Dr. Ajayi, the family doctor was glad Mrs. Jones brought the supplement with her to the clinic and explained to her that it was not a cure for her condition.

They had quite a lengthy chat which she found quite helpful as she relayed later to her family.


Doctor Weighs in ...

Apparently, there was hardly any conclusive data that these supplements actually control blood sugar in the way they were usually promoted on TV or online.

Rather, medical professionals were concerned that they could be harmful because first: it is not really known how these supplements work.

And, while some herbs have been shown to be beneficial in treating some ailments, they have not been demonstrated to show sustained benefit for many other conditions.

He recommended she stick with her antidiabetic medicines and a reasonable, healthy diet.

Her diet would provide her with most of the supplements that she required, and vitamins could be added if need be.

He concluded that the antidiabetic medication are specifically developed for treating the condition.

They were also constantly being tested and reviewed to ensure their appropriateness for use and detect potential side effects.

Meanwhile, the romantic getaway with Funmi was in a week and Gbolahan was really anxious about it.


Don't Be Afraid To Seek Help!

As he did not want to disappoint Funmi, he decided to talk to Dr. Ajayi about it.

They spoke at length about his problems and the doctor attributed it to stress from his work and performance anxiety.

The doctor’s verdict was like music to Gbolahan’s ears and he left the clinic after his examination and tests were concluded with normal results.

The doctor advised him about keeping a healthy work-life balance and getting his exercise regime back in place.

He was sure that Gbolahan's sexual performance would be fine if he relaxed.

Feeling reassured, Gbolahan went on – and sure enough, all went well during the getaway, he got his groove back.

He and Funmi were pleased with their lovemaking and all Gbolahan’s fears were cast away.

He left Ondo feeling happier than he had in a long time. They soon returned to Lagos and Funmi to the UK a day later.


What are Medical Supplements?

A supplement is a broad term that ‘refers to tablets, capsules or fluids that contain one or more dietary ingredients.

These are usually herbs, vitamins, amino acids, fatty acids, minerals, trace elements, fiber and other ingredients like yeast’. [1]

Unless a medical supplement is recommended by your doctor, you do not need one.

This is because most medical supplements contain substances that can be found in a balanced diet but in a higher concentration.

Over the years, medical supplements have been advertised as a necessity because they supposedly contain large amounts of vitamins like vitamins A C, E, and minerals like selenium, copper, and zinc.

What all these have in common is that they are antioxidants known to repair damaged cells and boost the body’s immune system.

However, medical supplements cannot cure medical conditions like Diabetes Mellitus, Erectile Dysfunction and Cancer.

This is because diseases like Diabetes and Erectile Dysfunction affect particular organs of the body.

Therefore their management is usually a combination of lifestyle modification and use of medications that are specifically directed at improving the functions of these parts of the body.[2]

The cause(s) of Cancer are unknown in a lot of cases. We know this involves genes, environmental factors, lifestyle habits and others.

In addition, some of the changes in the body's cells that lead to Cancer include free radical elements that can cause cell destruction.

Scientists believe antioxidants can neutralise these free radicals, but there is insufficient evidence at present to recommend their use in preventing or treating Cancer.


Are Medical Supplements Really Safe?

Medical supplements are readily available for sale without a prescription.

However, a lot of them have not undergone stringent testing through clinical trials like most prescription medication.

So it's important we use them with care - as we don't know the full extent of their adverse effects.[1],[3]

Most medical supplements claim to be ‘organic/all natural’, containing plant or animal products but some are synthetic.

In fact, studies like the one by the University of Guelph in Canada have shown that some medical supplements do not contain the ingredients listed on their labels and may contain ingredients other than those listed on the labels. [4]

This could be detrimental to the health of the consumers of such medical supplements.

High doses of some medical supplements may interfere negatively with your prescription medication or cause an accumulation of its ingredients in the body which may disrupt normal body metabolic processes thus causing more harm than good.

For instance, most people believe vitamin C is a 'cure' for the common cold, so some people take lots of vitamin C to treat or prevent it.

However, an excessive intake of vitamin C can cause an accumulation of a substance called oxalate in the kidneys which may eventually cause kidney stones. [5]


The Truth about Diabetes Mellitus and Medical Supplements

Diabetes Mellitus is a chronic disease which develops from an abnormality in the way our bodies make the hormone Insulin. Insulin regulates the blood sugar.

The disease may also happen because the body is unable to respond to the hormone, Insulin.

The major treatments for Diabetes Mellitus include lifestyle changes through:

  • diet and exercise and
  • the use of medications such as insulin and other drugs depending on the condition of the patient.[6]

A lot of medical supplements peddled in Nigeria as the panacea for numerous diseases (including Diabetes) claim to contain natural ingredients like garlic, ginseng, aloe vera, etc.

Garlic and ginger, albeit natural spices, known for some medicinal values cannot cure diabetes and their use should never replace antidiabetic drugs.

As a matter-of-fact, garlic may interact with antidiabetic medication by causing blood sugar to be too low which could be potentially dangerous [7].


Much Ado about Cancer and Medical Supplements

Cancer refers to an abnormal growth of cells due to micr changes that cause an uncontrolled growth and multiplication of cell.

The signs, symptoms, and treatment of the disease differ and depend on the type of cancer.

Remember:

Contrary to popular opinion about the use of antioxidants in preventing cancer, an 8-year study on antioxidant use to prevent lung cancer in male smokers published in 1994 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) showed NO evidence of a beneficial effect from the use of supplements containing vitamins A and E.[8]

It has also been proven that taking doses of these supplements that exceed the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) can be potentially fatal as shown in a 2012 review of about 80 clinical randomized clinical studies.[9]


Can Medical Supplements Cure Erectile Dysfunction?

Erectile dysfunction refers to the inability to achieve or maintain an erection long enough for the desired period of sex.

It has different causes ranging from stress to other underlying health issues therefore, treatment usually begins with treating the primary cause.

Most medical supplements people take to cure erectile dysfunction contain Yohimbine.

Yohimbine comes from the bark of a West African tree. [10]

Yohimbine increases the amount of blood flow to the blood vessels of the penis but causes anxiety, increased heartbeat and increased blood pressure.

Therefore, Yohimbine is not the recommended treatment for erectile dysfunction due to its potential side effects, some of which could be fatal.  [11]

In conclusion, taking a medical supplement without any indication from your healthcare provider is a form of drug abuse.

You may ask your doctor to refer you to a dietician to advise you on foods rich in such nutrients in amounts safe for consumption.

This is preferable to taking supplements without regulation in doses higher than the RDA to avoid unnecessary drug interactions and disruption of normal body metabolic functions.

Would you like to learn more about your medications or which drugs are safe to use in particular scenarios?


More Reading:

References:

1. Northwestern Medicine,2019. ‘Sup with Supplements?
 
2. NIH News In Health, 2013.
 
3. Dietary Supplements: A Framework for Evaluating Safety, [e-journal]
 
4. DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products.  
 
5. Ascorbic Acid Intake and Oxalate Synthesis.  
 
6. Herb-drug interaction in diabetes: a bane or a boon.
 
7. The Alpha-Tocopherol Beta Carotene Cancer Prevention Study Group, 1994.
 
8. Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases. [e-journal]
 
9.Dietary supplements for erectile dysfunction: A natural treatment for ED? 
 
10. Clinical guidelines panel on erectile dysfunction: summary report on the treatment of organic erectile dysfunction.

Editing By AskAwayHealth Team

Disclaimer

All AskAwayHealth articles are written by practicing Medical Practitioners on a wide range of health care conditions to provide evidence based guidance and to help promote quality health care. The advice in our material is not meant to replace management of your specific condition by a qualified health care practitioner.
To discuss your condition, please contact a health practitioner or reach us directly through info@askawayhealth.org

Image from @Canva

 

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