Whew. I believe I finally have my speech for the Weston A. Price annual conference written. I gave a speech on Diet, Health and the Wisdom of Crowds at a college almost five years ago, but I thought it was due for an update. Something like a third to a half of this one will be different.
While I was busy working on the speech, this BBC article about a guy who damaged his liver with a common supplement landed in my inbox. Let’s take a look:
It should have been one of the happiest days of his life. But Jim McCants looks back on his youngest son’s high school graduation with mixed emotions. As he sat down next to his wife Cathleen in the university auditorium, just outside Dallas, Texas, she turned to look at him.
“She said ‘Do you feel OK?'” Jim recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah I feel fine, why?’ ‘Your face is yellow, your eyes are yellow, you look terrible.’ When I looked in the mirror it was shocking.”
It was shocking partly because Jim, then 50, had been working on improving his lifestyle and losing weight, focusing on eating more healthily and taking regular exercise.
But soon after his son’s graduation, Jim was admitted to hospital with a suspected liver injury.
Trying to identify the cause of Jim’s liver injury, those treating him ruled out alcohol.
“For the last 30 years I drank maybe a six-pack of beer a year, no wine. So alcohol was not a big part of my life,” Jim says.
They also ruled out prescription drugs – he wasn’t taking any at the time – and smoking, something he had never done.
“Then my hepatologist drilled in to, ‘What about any over-the-counter supplements?'” says Jim.
As part of his mid-life health kick, Jim had started taking a green tea supplement because he had heard it might have cardiac benefits. These supplements have grown in popularity in recent years, often breathlessly promoted online for their antioxidant benefits, and their supposed ability to aid weight loss and prevent cancer.
The article doesn’t say how many green-tea pills Mr. McCants was swallowing per day. I assume he was taking rather large doses. Other people have apparently done likewise:
While millions of people take green tea supplements safely, at least 80 cases of liver injury linked to green tea supplements have been reported around the world, ranging from lassitude and jaundice to cases requiring liver transplants. Those harmed after taking green tea pills have included teenagers, like 17-year-old Madeline Papineau from Ontario, Canada who developed liver and kidney injury, and an 81-year-old woman diagnosed with toxic acute hepatitis.
A total of 80 reported cases around the world isn’t what I’d call crisis proportions, but the article is a reminder to be cautious with supplements. Just because a supplement is extracted from a plant that won’t hurt you, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to start slamming down pills.
[Addition on October 30: a reader provided a link to this video in comments. It’s worth adding to the post.]
More than 30 years ago, I was hired as a freelancer to write a brief biography of Dr. Wallace Abbott, who founded what eventually became Abbott Laboratories. Dr. Abbott first developed drugs by learning to take plants with medicinal properties and concentrate them. That’s how most drugs were created back in the day. So when you’re taking that plant-extract pill, keep in mind it’s a drug of sorts.
Or put it this way: if you’re taking a supplement to change your body chemistry in a positive way, too much can change your body chemistry in a negative way.
One of the mistakes people make with both supplements and foods is thinking that if some is good, more is better. Or conversely, if less is good, zero is better.
Paul Jaminet covered that topic quite nicely in the Perfect Health Diet book. He pointed out that for every nutrient – vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, and yes, even glucose – there’s an optimal intake. If you don’t get enough, you aren’t as healthy as you could be. If you ingest too much, it causes damage. Even water will kill you if you drink too much of it.
So what’s the ideal intake? That of course depends on the individual. A body-builder’s ideal intake of protein isn’t the same as a sedentary grandmother’s. A diabetic’s ideal intake of carbohydrates isn’t the same as a competitive sprinter’s.
Back in a 2015 post, I wrote about Jordan Ellenberg’s book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. Although he wasn’t writing about nutrients, Dr. Ellenberg makes the same point as Paul Jaminet: when we only focus on the upside or the downside of something, we see a line. Something like this:
But the answer to many “is it good or is it bad?” questions actually looks like a curve. Something like this:
More is good up to a point. But then even more causes damage.
That’s why I don’t melt sticks of butter in my morning coffee. Yes, it was a great relief to learn that saturated fats and cholesterol won’t kill me and are, in fact, beneficial as part of a whole-foods diet. But that doesn’t mean the more saturated fat I manage to swallow each day, the healthier I’ll be. Your body needs what it needs. It doesn’t need more than it needs and may not know what to do with the excess.
Getting back to supplements, yes, I take some. I take a multivitamin, vitamin D3, CoQ10, magnesium and Carlson’s cod liver oil. What I’m attempting to do with those supplements is replace some of the nutrients I’d be getting naturally if I lived in the wild, hunted and gathered my own food, and ran around half-naked in warm weather.
But before taking any of them, I did quite a bit of reading on what the proper dose should be for my age, size and health status.
I hope you’re doing the same if you take supplements.