Discussing nutritional supplements with your doctor can be a little intimidating. Many conventional physicians just don’t understand the role supplements can play in optimal health. And some are biased against them altogether. Let’s look at where this bias comes from and talk about how to make discussing nutritional supplements with your doctor a little easier.
Why Don’t Physicians Embrace Supplements?
When I entered Emory University School of Medicine, I was idealistic about the medical profession. My dad was a doctor, my older brother was in medical school, and I couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t wanted to become a doctor myself. I was convinced that any therapy that would help patients in need would be researched, incorporated into the medical school curriculum, and used by doctors everywhere. I now know that I was extremely naïve. Medical school is as much indoctrination as education. Some extremely beneficial therapies are not taught, and future physicians are instilled with dogma that, even if it is inherently wrong, they adhere to throughout their careers.
Much of the blame can be placed on the pervasive influence of the pharmaceutical companies. Doctors do what they’ve been taught to do, and that is to prescribe drugs. After medical school—which is infiltrated by Big Pharma—physicians’ ongoing education comes primarily from reading medical journals and attending medical conferences, both of which have morphed into showcases for drugs. Pharmaceutical reps get into the picture as well, “detailing” docs on new drugs over a free lunch.
Every bit as important as what physicians are taught is what they aren’t taught. When I was a med student, discussing nutritional supplements just wasn’t done and diet was mentioned only in passing. These therapies simply weren’t considered worthy of discussion. It’s not that much better today. Although there are medical journals and conferences devoted entirely to nutrition and other alternative therapies, they don’t seem to be on the radar of most physicians. As a result, the average physician isn’t very well-informed about supplements.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of information in the popular press as well as in scientific journals about nutritional therapies. There have also been numerous exposés about the unholy alliance between medicine and drug companies. As a result, many physicians are more open to discussing nutritional supplements and exploring other therapies. But that isn’t always the case.
Guidelines for Discussing Nutritional Supplements
Now that you have a better understanding of conventional medicine’s bias against nutritional supplements, where do you go from here? How do you get your doctor to work with you and help you incorporate supplements into your treatment program?
Several years ago, David Eisenberg, MD, of Harvard Medical School conducted a study to determine the degree of use of alternative medical therapies in this country and found that nearly half of the people surveyed had used such therapies during the previous year. The finding that I found particularly interesting was that 60 percent of those people did not tell their conventional physicians what they were doing. It’s not that they don’t want professional advice. They just know in advance what their doctor will say and are sparing themselves an unpleasant and often demeaning conversation. I can’t tell you how many of my patients have told me that when they tried discussing nutritional supplements with their doctors, they were met with condescension or belittlement.
Let’s assume, for the record, that your physician will be tactful enough to politely hear you out. Here’s how I suggest you go about it. Explain that you’ve researched a particular supplement, and you’d like to add it to your treatment regimen—or even take it in place of a drug you’ve been prescribed. Ask him or her to work with you and, if appropriate, adjust your medications. Of course, you’ll want to be respectful and request your doctor’s cooperation. You might also offer to provide additional information or leave something for the doctor to read. However, you don’t need to ask permission to take a supplement. This is your health, your body, and you decide what goes into it.
Common Stumbling Blocks Regarding Supplements
Some physicians will be open to learning more and discussing nutritional supplements and their benefits. Others may be threatened by their lack of knowledge in this area—or so close-minded that they won’t even hear about it. Most, however, will fall somewhere in between. Here are some of the most common stumbling blocks patients encounter when discussing nutritional supplements with their physicians—and suggestions for countering them.
“Supplements are unproven without scientific evidence.” This is simply not true. Every year, thousands of studies are published on the use of vitamins, minerals, and other supplements in the prevention and treatment of disease. There are textbooks and periodicals on this subject, not to mention thousands upon thousands of well-referenced books. The US government’s National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements maintains a huge database of bibliographic citations and abstracts from published international scientific literature on supplements. And if you search pubmed.gov for nutritional supplements, you’ll come up with tens of thousands of scientific studies and clinical trials.
“Supplements are dangerous.” Supplements are exceptionally safe. In fact, they’re infinitely safer than drugs. In a typical year, more than 106,000 Americans die of adverse effects from drugs used exactly as prescribed. Sure, sensitive individuals may experience gastrointestinal upset or other minor side effects with certain supplements, but serious adverse effects are rare—and many of them are related to supplements for weight loss and energy boosters that have been adulterated with stimulants. High quality supplements from reputable manufacturers are very, very safe.
“If supplements work so well, why aren’t all doctors using them?” Just because supplements aren’t widely used by conventional physicians doesn’t mean they aren’t effective. As mentioned above, doctors are trained in the use of prescription drugs, not nutrients, so many of them are unaware of the benefits of nutritional supplements. Others are simply biased against them.
“How can something from a health food store be effective?” Vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids—anything found in nature—cannot be patented. If they could, they’d have been hijacked by the pharmaceutical industry and marketed as expensive drugs long, long ago. Because natural therapies have no patent protection, there is no financial incentive for them to be picked up by drug companies, and thus they never make it into conventional medicine.
“You get all the nutrients you need from a good diet.” Even if you ate a perfect diet, which few people do, today’s soil isn’t what it once was. Vitamins and minerals have been leached out, pesticides and chemicals are abundant, and food just isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. Storage and processing further deplete our food of its nutritional content. Therefore, most Americans are deficient in one or more essential nutrients. Daily multivitamin and mineral supplements engender health by protecting against nutritional deficiencies. Targeted supplements are used in therapeutic doses to treat specific health conditions.
You—Not Your Doctor—Are Responsible for Your Health
The most important step you can take in discussing nutritional supplements and other alternative therapies with your physician is to realize that you and only you are responsible for your health. The pharmaceutical companies are no different from any other corporation; they want to make money. Doctors are fallible human beings with prejudices and blind spots, just like the rest of us. Nevertheless, patients tend to take their physicians’ advice without any skepticism or questioning. Do you own research. Don’t shy away from asking questions. And never forget that you—not your doctor—are ultimately responsible for your health.