By Dr. Mercola
I typically do not focus my recommendations on supplements for the simple fact that the vast majority of supplements on the market are synthetic versions that might do more harm than good in the long term.
It's important to keep in mind that there is a major difference between natural whole-food supplements and pharmaceutical grade, synthetic vitamins and minerals. Additionally, supplements are just that, something taken in addition to, NOT in place of, a healthy diet.
That said, dietary supplements in general have a tremendously strong safety profile. And according to a recent report, making better use of supplements could save the American healthcare system BILLIONS of dollars each year.
The report, titled: "Smart Prevention—Health Care Cost Savings Resulting from the Targeted Use of Dietary Supplements1" was produced through a grant from the Council for Responsible Nutrition Foundation. As reported by Drug Store News:2
"[The report] examined four different chronic diseases and the potential for healthcare cost savings when US adults 55 years and older, diagnosed with these chronic diseases, used one of eight different dietary supplement regimens.
It demonstrated that supplementation at preventive intake levels in high-risk populations can reduce the number of disease-associated medical events, representing the potential for hundreds of millions — and in some cases, billions — of dollars in savings."
Smart Prevention Could Save Healthcare System BILLIONS Each Year
I will review the list below, but before I do, let me mention that the featured report failed to review many other benefits of vitamin D, which is one of the least expensive supplements.
For example, experts estimate it could cut the rate of cancer by half! So, were you to factor that into the calculations, the savings could likely go up by a factor of 1,000 or more, and there would be trillions of dollars of savings instead of billions.
The four chronic diseases included in the review were the following. As stated by the authors, all of the supplements reviewed have strong scientific backing supporting their use, and I've written extensively on several of them. For more information about each supplement's use for the disease in question, please follow the hyperlinks provided:
- Heart disease—Use of omega-3 supplements among adults aged 55 and over diagnosed with coronary heart disease could reduce annual hospital costs by more than $2 billion on average, saving the health care system close to $16.5 billion between 2013 and 2020. Interestingly, vitamin D would also radically lower the cost of heart disease as it has profound benefits in cardiac health. Again, the authors never factored vitamin D in into this equation.
Use of vitamins B6 and B12 among the target population could reduce hospital costs by an average of more than $1.5 billion annually, saving the health care system more than $12.1 billion between 2013 and 2020. According to the authors:
"An average of $4.23 billion per year and a cumulative savings of $34 billion from 2013 to 2020 in avoidable hospital utilization costs is potentially realizable if all US adults over the age of 55 diagnosed with CHD were to use phytosterol dietary supplements at protective levels.
Likewise, potential total cost savings among the same target population given the use of the psyllium dietary fiber at preventive daily intake levels would be an average hospital utilization cost avoidance of $4.38 billion per year and cumulative savings of $35.05 billion from 2013 to 2020.
The potential net health care cost savings of phytosterols and psyllium dietary fiber supplementation, after accounting for the cost of supplement utilization, would be an average annual savings of $3.32 billion per year and $2.48 billion per year, respectively, after accounting for the costs of supplementation utilization from 2013 to 2020."
- Diabetes—Use of chromium picolinate to reduce type 2 diabetes-attributed coronary heart disease (CHD) among adults over the age of 55 who are diagnosed with both diabetes and CHD could save an average of more than $1.2 billion annually, with a cumulative savings of $9.75 billion between 2013 and 2020, assuming that the annual average cost per person experiencing a CHD-related event of $16,690. This is yet another area that vitamin D has well-documented benefits.
- Age-related eye disease—If every person over the age of 55 with age-related eye disease were to take lutein and zeaxanthin at preventive dosage levels, medical savings would average $57.4 million per year. Furthermore, reductions in direct medical costs and post-procedure assisted living costs related to cataracts would average $3.81 billion annually. Please remember that lutein and zeaxanthin are dated and the newest studies show that astaxanthin is FAR more effective at preventing and treating this condition.
- Bone disease—If women over the age of 55 who are diagnosed with osteoporosis were to take calcium and vitamin D supplements at preventive daily intake levels, it could save an average of $1.87 billion annually in avoidable hospital costs. More than $1.5 billion in net annual health care cost savings could be achieved after the cost of the supplements.
Here, I would add that vitamin K2 is another critical component that work synergistically with calcium, vitamin D and magnesium to promote heart and brain health and build strong bones. The biological role of vitamin K2 is to help move calcium into the proper areas in your body, such as your bones and teeth.
It also helps remove calcium from areas where it shouldn't be, such as in your arteries and soft tissues. Anytime you take high doses of oral vitamin D, you also need to take vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 deficiency is actually what produces the symptoms of vitamin D toxicity, which includes inappropriate calcification that can lead to hardening of your arteries.
Use of magnesium supplements at preventive dosage levels could result in an average of $851 million savings per year in avoidable hospital costs. After accounting for the cost of magnesium supplements, the net health care cost savings would amount to more than $595 million per year.
Just remember, to optimize your bone health, it's important to maintain the proper balance between calcium, vitamin K2, vitamin D, and magnesium. Lack of balance between these nutrients is why calcium supplements have become associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
"Chronic disease takes a huge toll on people's quality of life, and the healthcare system spends a tremendous amount of money treating chronic disease, but has failed to focus on ways to reduce those costs through prevention. We already knew that the dietary supplements identified in the report can play a role in reducing the risk of certain chronic diseases; we felt compelled to find out if they could also contribute to healthcare cost savings by reducing the medical events associated with those conditions. This new report says emphatically that they do."
Supplements Used to Treat Brain Injuries
A related news story5 highlights the potential role of simple nutrients in the treatment of acute and severe brain trauma. Dr. Leslie Matthews, a surgeon at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, uses vitamin D and omega-3, both of which are potent anti-inflammatories, to reduce brain swelling in brain injured patients. Eighteen-year old Lacy Adamson, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash, was also given progesterone and liquid glutamine (an amino acid), to help protect against nerve cell damage.
As reported by Fox News:6
"Every brain trauma patient at Grady receives the same supplements... '[B]asically you're giving the body what it needs to heal itself,' said Matthews. 'The body, the way God designed the body, is to heal itself if you give it the right nutrients.' Matthews said that Lacy began to wake up and follow simple commands in three days.
'She was taken off of the breathing machine on day 10. Lacy had to relearn how to walk and talk slowly and she recovered her memory. Fourteen months after her accident, she's almost fully-recovered.' ...Dr. Matthews believes supplements like vitamin D can not only help treat brain injuries, they can help prevent them."
Who Benefits by Scaring You Away from Dietary Supplements When They Could Reduce Health Care Costs by More Than $11 Billion Annually?
Earlier this summer, a flurry of media reports told readers to beware, if not outright afraid, of taking supplements. Two of the primary figureheads in his summer drive of anti-alternative health PR were Dr. Paul Offitt and Senator Dick Durbin. Offitt, notorious for his claim that infants can tolerate 10,000 vaccines at once, penned a New York Times article with the unambiguous headline: "Don't Take Your Vitamins.7"
Senator Durbin, meanwhile, was on the war path against supplements, trying to push through a wholly unnecessary supplement bill that would require supplements to be tested like drugs—a tactic that would surely drive most supplement makers out of business due to the sheer cost-to-profit ratio involved. Either that, or supplements would end up with price tags rivaling that of drugs... Either way, it would be a boon for the pharmaceutical industry.
So, just how dangerous are nutritional supplements? Numerous studies have shown that dietary supplements, on the whole, have an enviable safety profile. You're taking far greater risks taking aspirin than most supplements. Granted, synthetic supplements can be risky in the long-term, which is why I recommend taking high-quality whole-food supplements.
That said, it's worth noting that supplements are FDA-regulated under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA),8 and every single data collection source shows supplements of all types produce far fewer adverse reactions than either drugs or vaccines. Dietary supplements are also required to meet the FDA's Good Manufacturing Practices.
In light of the featured report, combined with studies showing the safety of dietary supplements (see below), it should be abundantly clear that any fears associated with the use of supplements are vastly exaggerated. It also illustrates why the pharmaceutical and medical industries are so adverse against supplements.
After all, according to the featured report, preventive use of just nine supplements could reduce health care costs associated with four chronic health conditions by more than $11 BILLION PER YEAR! This is a truly astounding conclusion! Again, these featured report never even looked at vitamin D for a number of other chronic health conditions. Had they done so, the savings would clearly be in the trillions.
As stated by Chris Shanahan, global program manager of Frost & Sullivan, the economic firm responsible for creating the report:9
"I anticipate this report will fuel the critical conversation around the importance of preventive healthcare practices to control healthcare spending, and the critical role dietary supplements can play in reducing the risk of medical events associated with these diseases. This report provides one more reason for doctors and other healthcare practitioners to open a dialogue with their patients about incorporating supplement usage along with other healthy behaviors. For consumers, it's a wakeup call to talk to their doctor or nurse practitioner, their pharmacist or a registered dietician about smart prevention, including which dietary supplements and what intake levels are right for their individual lifestyle."
Data Shows the Safety of Supplements
The March 2013 GAO Dietary Supplements report,10 for example, showed how incredibly safe supplements are—particularly when compared to drugs and vaccines. Since 2008, the supplement industry has been required to report adverse events to the FDA's adverse effects reporting (AER) system, pursuant to the 2006 Act. Consider the following statistics comparing dietary supplement AERs with drug AERs from the 2013 GAO report for the year 2008:
- 1,080 dietary supplement AERs were reported to FDA
- 526,527 prescription drug AERs were reported
- 26,517 vaccine AERs were reported
When you do the math, there were 488 times as many adverse events reported from prescription drugs as from dietary supplements! In all, the number of AERs is miniscule compared to the hundreds of millions of supplement servings consumed each year.11 In fact, according to a 2007 National Health Interview Survey,12 more than half of American adults (157 million individuals) take nutritional supplements. Further compare that to the statistic that about the same number of people—just over half of all Americans—take two or more prescription drugs,13 and the difference in safety between supplements and drugs becomes even more clear. Other data further supports the remarkable safety record of dietary supplements.
- In 2002, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reversed its long-standing anti-vitamin stance with the publication of two scientific reviews (based on 30 years' worth of scientific papers looking at vitamins in relation to chronic diseases), both of which recommended daily multivitamin supplementation for all adults.14
- Data from the US National Poison Data System's annual report, which tracked data from 57 U.S. poison centers, showed vitamin and mineral supplements caused zero deaths in 2010. For comparison, pharmaceuticals caused more than 1,100 of the total 1,366 reported fatalities.
- FDA-approved drugs cause 80 percent of poison control fatalities each year.15 Poison control centers report 100,000 calls, 56,000 emergency room visits, 2,600 hospitalizations and nearly 500 deaths each year from acetaminophen (Tylenol) alone.
- Data from the European Union indicate that pharmaceutical drugs are 62,000 times as likely to kill you as dietary supplements. You're actually more likely to be struck dead by lightning or drown in your bathtub than have a lethal reaction to a dietary supplement.
When Greed Rules, Obvious Solutions Are Ignored...
I hope the featured report is remembered the next time public discussion turns to the use of supplements, and is brought to the fore when legislative efforts to regulate nutritional supplements off the market are initiated. Remember, nutritional supplements are NOT drugs—they're nutrients. And provided you're buying high-quality products made from whole foods, they're essentially equivalent to concentrated food products.
Granted, there are poor-quality products out there—many of which, by the way, are produced by large pharmaceutical companies—that are made with synthetic ingredients that could potentially do more harm than good, especially in mega doses, which I don't recommend. Yet the overall safety record of supplements, despite some inferior products being used, really speaks volumes... The same cannot be said for drugs, where even drugs perceived as more or less harmless, such as aspirin, actually cause more adverse event reports than supplements.
Furthermore, about 90 percent of each dollar Americans spend on food is spent on government-subsidized, disease-inducing denatured processed foods that leave many vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies. Drugs clearly cannot fix this problem, although conventional medicine surely tries by throwing prescriptions at each and every symptom that is, ultimately, rooted in poor nutrition.
I also hope that these, or other researchers, will do similar investigations and do formal analysis on the economic impact of optimizing vitamin D levels on a national basis, as there is no doubt in my mind the savings would be at least 10 percent of the health care budget, which would put the savings at $3 trillion dollars.
Truly, it's a topsy-turvy world when nutrients are regarded as dangerous substances while pharmaceutical drugs, made from synthetic chemicals, are touted as "essentials" for health and disease prevention... If the featured report does anything, it illustrates the power of nutrients as disease-preventers. Ideally, you'd get most or all of these nutrients from whole food, but there are cases in which a supplement can be helpful to counteract a deficiency. If you're eating a wholesome diet you're FAR less likely to end up with nutritional deficiencies, however.