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HeadWay, Issue #127 -- Are Your Supplements Fake?
February 21, 2015

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In this issue:

Are Your Supplements Fake?

Headlines at Headache and Migraine News

Say what?!  Supplement

Are Your Supplements Fake?

The shocking news came out of New York this month. The State of New York Office of the Attorney General sent letters to Walmart, Target, GNC and Walgreens, warning them that they should stop mislabelling supplements.

A selection of supplements from each store were tested to see if they actually contained what they claimed to contain. Only 12.5% of the supplements tested yeilded unqualified positive results - the rest contained little or none of the supplement on the label.

The test included supplements such as garlic, gingko biloba, and St. John's Wort.

For more on this news story, see Fake Supplements at Major US Retailers?

Many people who have been diagnosed with headache disorders rely on supplements. Many have been greatly helped by herbs and vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, feverfew, and ginger.

But when we find out that our "gluten-free" supplement may contain wheat, or that our "garlic" supplement may contain a common houseplant and no garlic at all, there's reason to wonder if we should avoid supplements altogether.

When tests like this are done, only a few supplements are tested. They may be removed from shelves, but what about all the rest? And what if the supplier of a supplement changes, and the source of the product changes, even when the label doesn't?

Here are a few things to think about before purchasing your next herbal treatment:
  1. Supplements are generally "safe". Supplements generally seem to be "safe", in the sense that they won't seriously harm most people, if generally accepted doses are taken. That doesn't mean that a supplement can't hurt an individual - if you're allergic to an "unreported ingredient", for example. Or if you purchase a supplement from a sharp, professional looking website of a company you've never heard of that disappears in a week. However, for most people, buying a supplement at your local retail store won't seriously hurt you, even if it won't help.
  2. Oversight of supplements is limited. Even if regulations on drugs aren't perfect, they are far beyond regulations of supplements.
  3. There is excellent scientific evidence behind supplements. Some people think that drugs are "scientific", whereas herbal supplements are "all in your head". In actual fact, there are excellent, well-designed scientific studies behind many supplements, and we report on these studies often at Headache and Migraine News.
  4. Politics and Money. There is money in drugs and supplements - big money. Many of the headlines you see - both in favour of a supplement or against it - are not purely from scientific research or concern for patients, but from political and economic concerns. Beware even the "studies and trials".
  5. Many, many headache and migraine sufferers have been helped by supplements. There is no doubt that many non-drug treatments have helped many many patients. This is not the time to throw out all these treatments because some appear to be fraudulent.
  6. Beware the cheap alternatives - and sometimes the expensive ones too. Although some pricey supplements are frauds, this recent story indicates that the cheap, convenient alternatives are often using cheap fillers and unreliable suppliers. Many people will be avoiding the retail brands after this study. Sometimes the older, boring, well-known mid-range supplement from a specialized company is the best.
  7. Consider brands recommended by experts and doctors. There are usually good reasons why a particular product is recommended. Though this isn't a perfect solution, it is a help. (Bonus tip: Your favourite singer/actress is probably not an expert)
  8. There are no easy answers. Although I am very cautious about the products I recommend, I don't have the resources to regularly test the products in a lab. And here's the catch - neither does the company making them. And neither does the retail store selling them. And neither does your government. Do your research, choose as wisely as you can, and be willing to try other brands if one doesn't seem to help. (Bonus tip: this is even true for medications, which may vary less but still vary from brand to brand).
For those looking for an easy solution, there aren't any. Although caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) always applies, when there is a lack of trust in the marketplace, it hurts everyone, especially the patient.

There are still many excellent supplements out there that are helping migraine and headache patients. Let's help one another find the quality products, while being aware that there are still people out to make a profit at our expense.

See also the HeadWay issue from 2010: Dangerous Supplements?

Headlines at Headache and Migraine News

If you're interested in some of the cutting-edge research being done, listen to the recent podcast New Migraine Research – MRF Announces Grants. And what about the medication that's available now? Here are some new reports about which you should consider trying first - The Best Medication for Migraine? The AHS Reports.

Say what?!  Supplement

We've been using the term "supplement" very loosely today, but it's actually a very vague term. Usually we think of supplements as anything taken orally which isn't a medication.

Technically, "supplement" means just what is says - it's a a think added to something else (in this case, your diet). You don't have enough magnesium in your diet (either because you don't eat enough of something, or your body needs more for some reason), so you take a "supplement".

Of course, drugs are often "supplements" as well in a sense. And as we talked about above, it's not a matter of one being "scientifically proven" while the other is not. Or one is "effective" while the other is not. Or one is "dangerous" while the other is not. In the end, you should be cautious with both drugs and supplements.

Thanks for reading!  Remember, if you have feedback or ideas for future issues, visit the HeadWay MailRoom.  Your password is nomoache.
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