A Tale of Two Herbal Supplements

Okay, today is the day I share my feelings on herbal supplements.  Standard disclaimer – this is not medical advice, only my thoughts and opinions.  By all means, take whatever medications or supplements are recommended by your doctor or that you personally desire.

This morning, I was minding my own business playing Candy Crush and one of my video ads was for a substance called “Rapid Tone”.  It mentioned something about the hosts of “Shark Tank” investing in the product, and even though I have never watched “Shark Tank,”  I was intrigued, so I clicked for more information and it brought up their product page.  I was able to get back to the page, see here.  I learned there was free shipping, but never the price of the supplement.  When I clicked on the “buy” link, I was brought to a page where I had to enter my personal information and submit it, but still no details on the pricing.

Since this looked horribly shady, I wanted to see what the reviews were.  I googled “rapid tone reviews” and I was entertained by the results.  My favorite links were the ones that had tags such as: “Read side effects first before buying” and “Is Rapid Tone weight loss diet pills scam.”  I clicked on a few links and it got even better!  I will cite and copy/paste some content below (I assume the links will stop working at some point, so that’s why I want to duplicate).  You may not want to click on any of these links, as there is no expectation that they are safe… I will be detoxing more than my body after writing this!!

From MuMyBear.com:

The initial review – People these days don’t blindly follow whatever comes their way and they do need some evidence when they are told that a particular product or phenomenon will help them. This is why we bring proof when we are trying to explain a concept.

A study was published in the Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism Journal which focused on the effectiveness of Forskolin for weight management. The study found that Forskolin assists in increasing the process of weight loss. The exciting thing that was revealed in the study was that this product works without the user having to make a change in his or her diet or workout plan. Doctor Oz also mentioned Forskolin as an amazing product for weight loss. He said that it is the “Holy Grail” for getting rid of weight.

The Forskolin that was used in this study was extracted from pure sources. The potency of this extract was maximum and this is why the results for this study were excellent. This study laid the foundation of a whole new concept that Forskolin extracts can be used for weight loss.

An excerpt from the side-effects section – Rapid Tone Diet does not cause any significant side effects for the body of the user. The process of manufacturing of this formula is supervised by the experts to ensure that nothing goes wrong and everything is done in the best way possible. People do not need to bee worried about any additives since everything in the supplement is derived from pure and natural sources.

The study that was mentioned in the beginning gave such positive results because the source of ingredients was potent. The same principle is used by the manufacturers of this formula and they have used fully potent ingredients. Along with that, they have refrained from use of any fillers or any artificial coloring agents that could possibly harm the body. In the absence of all these things, the supplement is rendered safe for use.

You’re probably thinking, anyone can make a .com website, but what about a .org?  Well, I have that too… From Nutritionfit.org:

Here is “What is Rapid Tone Diet and how does Shark Tank work?”: Among different weight loss supplements that are being formulated and that are being sold out there, Rapid Tone weight loss is considered as the best one because it is totally natural. The manufacturer of this product claimed that he has not use even a single person of chemicals in it and therefore it is safe to use even for those individuals who are sensitive to all types of Pharmaceutical products. You will be happy to know that this product produces long lasting result because actually it makes your body disciplined and it tones it up. In this way, no more fats will get stored into your body and they will get removed through your feces. When you use the supplement, it helps to boost up your metabolic date and it energizes your body. In this way it makes you able to take part in the exercise and you can remove the fats from your body. If you want to become slim then you need to control your appetite because you need to take fewer calories through food. Most of the individuals just give up and they think that they cannot reduce the weight because they are unable to control your appetite. Anyways it is really simple and it can be done by using Rapid Tone Diet. With this supplement, the production of appetite producing enzymes will be controlled and therefore you will not feel the craving for the food.

They were nice enough to share “precautions” too:  Some important precautions regarding rapid tone weight loss are given below:

Rapid Tone Shark Tank is a weight loss supplement that is not at all suitable for the ladies who are pregnant because the pregnant ladies have sensitive internal system. The system may get disturbed if you use such products.

If you have been trying to get instant results and for this sake if you start over consuming the Rapid Tone supplement then believe me that you will only get the side effects.

There are some people who have very sensitive bodies and they are allergic to some ingredients. If you have such a body then any of the ingredients present in the supplement may not be good for you and you are supposed to consult the doctor before using it.

If the usage of rapid tone weight loss for that causes any problem or side effects then you should discontinue it.

Maybe you don’t find this as entertaining as I do, but it’s concerning to me, as a consumer, that the marketing on this product is so solid, googling doesn’t give any reputable sites containing reviews.  Literally every site that came up on my “rapid tone reviews” was just as concerning to me as the initial product site.  Now, granted, these articles are written in broken English, so there are hints of concern, but what if everything sounded perfect?  How would you know that an herbal supplement is good for you?

Some people believe the premise that if it’s legal, it is safe to use.

Well, here’s the problem…. Herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA.  Whether you are a fan of “big pharma” or not, at least the drugs that are approved by the FDA undergo rigorous testing.  This is not true for herbal preparations; testing is not required.  Manufacturers aren’t supposed to cite grandiose claims of benefit for untested supplements, but that doesn’t stop this behavior. And, even if the manufacturer isn’t making the claims, other parties can, such as the sites that I saw regarding Rapid Tone.

I was probably more accepting of the perceived safety of herbal supplements until I personally saw that some male enhancement supplements were labeled as “herbal products”, but were tested and found to contain the active ingredients for Viagra and/or Cialis.  To me, it’s frightening to see sildenafil or tadalafil in herbal supplements!

I saw another nutritional supplement years ago that claimed to cure cancer, but upon testing, it turned out to be an industrial chemical in a very dangerous concentration.  While I am sure it would act as an oxidizer in the body and the instructions were to put only a couple of drops in drinking water, I was appalled at the concentration of the substance!

I have learned that when there is no regulation, buyer beware.  This doesn’t mean there aren’t beneficial supplements out there, it just means it might be a little challenging to find the reputable ones.

I would encourage you to let go of the philosophy that just because something is legal or being sold commercially, then it’s safe.  Remember when “bath salts” and “spice” hit the market as “legal” drugs (designer cathinones and cannabinoids synthesized to provide the high of methamphetamine and marijuana in a non-DEA regulated way)?  That’s a whole other story, but I think society is learning this lesson the hard way.

Some people believe the premise that if it’s natural, it is safe to use.

In our culture “organic” and “natural” are buzz-words that are often equated with “healthy” by consumers.  However, there are many things that are organic and natural that can deemed problematic… Marijuana is a plant, so that could be natural and organic, as is the coca and poppy plants (the starting materials for cocaine and heroin, respectively).  Then there are mushrooms, the botulinum toxin (also called botox), radon, uranium, jellyfish, the list goes on and on.  I’m purposefully going to extremes here to make the point that just because something is natural, it’s not necessarily good for you! And even if something is natural and good for you in the natural state, a chemically produced extract is different than ingesting the substance in its natural state.

Some people believe the premise that herbal supplements don’t have side effects.

Herbal supplements are chemicals, just like FDA regulated medications.  All chemicals must be processed by our body. Herbal products work in the same way as other medication, interacting with our stomach, our blood supply, our organs, and bind to proteins and enzymes.   Just like other medications, these supplements must be metabolized by our body.  A lot of this takes place in the liver; the waste products excreted from our kidneys.  Herbal medications can have the same side effects as other pharmaceuticals; they just might not be as well studied or documented.  Anything we ingest, including food and drinks, can cause help or harm to our body and the most important thing to look at is – do the benefits of the substance in question outweigh the risks?

You may be wondering if I support any herbal supplements.  I will admit, I am a hard sell.  I haven’t done well with traditional, tested medication, so I am leery in general and herbal supplements require even more thought than regular medication.

The first thing I do is research peer-reviewed literature on the supplement. My theory is that if something is legit, whether it is herbal or not, scientists will study it. If the good studies outweigh the bad studies, I’m willing to consider trying the supplement.

Choosing the brand or preparation is a different concern entirely. Not all herbal manufacturers are created equally. There are articles by independent testing labs that show some companies make products inconsistent with their label claims. For this reason, I don’t even take fish oil supplements that you buy in the health food store because I don’t want to accidentally ingest mercury from poor quality supplements.  I take an FDA regulated prescription fish oil that my insurance covers at a reasonable price.

Before I take anything, I would like to see a certificate of analysis to know that I’m taking the chemicals I think I’m ingesting without any harmful byproducts!  That may sound like overkill, but I’ve seen to much in my career to not have this kind of attitude.  Supplements that come with a Certificate of Analysis are very expensive (hence my decision on fish oil).

If a certificate is not available, or even if it was and I still had reservations (this is another digression that just because you get a COA, there’s no way of assuring that it came from the product you received – this is based on experience, not paranoia, I can assure you), I would, personally, test the product. I get that most people do not have this luxury, but it’s a nice option for me to have.

Unfortunately, many herbal supplements are difficult to test by conventional means because they are plant extracts and/or contain active ingredients present in low concentrations. In this case, I view testing as a way to make sure the supplement is free from other chemicals (like the Viagra or mercury examples above).

Some labs advertise that they follow “good manufacturing practice (GMP)” or have “USP certification,” but these designations don’t always mean what you think. All herbal companies are expected to comply with GMP, but just because they say they follow those “rules”, it doesn’t mean the product is safe. If the raw materiel was unsafe, it doesn’t matter how good the manufacturing process is, you still could have problems. And since the herbal product industry is unregulated, how can you be sure these standards are consistently met?

USP certification makes me shake my head. USP is the United States Pharmacopeia; they’re not the FDA and I’m not sure they have the manpower to “certify” all herbal supplements who apply for their seal. According to USP.org, the USP verified mark indicates the supplement “contains the ingredients listed on the label, in the declared potency and amounts, does not contain harmful levels of specified contaminants, will break down and release into the body within a specified amount of time, and has been made according to FDA current Good Manufacturing Practices using sanitary and well-controlled procedures.” That sounds great!! However, those requirements would require extensive testing to demonstrate.

Also according to the site, “Since the program’s inception, the USP Verified Mark has appeared on more than 700 million labels/packages of dietary supplements.” That’s a lot of packages!!! In contrast, a 2016 Consumer Reports article states “USP, for example, has verified only 139 products to date.” There seems to be a disconnect here and because I don’t have firsthand knowledge about this topic, I will just say this confuses me greatly and encourages me to be cautious.

I titled this blog “a tale of two supplements” and I discussed the first (Rapid Tone) and my overall feelings on supplements. I will conclude by looking at the supplement I have been considering taking – milk thistle.

Milk thistle has been used as a liver dysfunction supplement for 2000 years and has been throughly researched. You can read what the National Cancer Institute summarizes here.

Research supports milk thistle’s ability to detoxify and regenerate the liver. Side effects are few. Research isn’t all positive (I would never expect that), but it doesn’t appear harmful, other than in people who are allergic to it.

I recently purchased a milk thistle supplement from a pharmacy who specializes in herbal and traditional medicines and the manufacturer is well-regarded by the licensed pharmacist. He requested information from the manufacturer on my behalf and I will test a tablet to ensure there are not any components that may be dangerous before taking it.

Milk thistle may not heal my liver on its own, but perhaps when combined with lifestyle improvements, it potentially can speed up the process. It is unlikely to make things worse, unless I have an allergy.  This is a supplement I am willing to try! I’ll keep you posted and hopefully it won’t be this long next time 🙂

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