For every medical problem, it seems, there's a pill in the dietary supplements aisle. But which, if any, should you take? Here's what you need to know about five of the most buzzed-about supplements, some of which could be life-threatening.
1. GREEN COFFEE BEAN EXTRACT
What is it? Extract of green (unroasted) coffee beans
What is it supposed to do? Boost weight loss
Dr. Mehmet Oz of "The Dr. Oz Show" has promoted this product. However, the evidence for the extract is limited. One very small study, which has been widely criticized, suggests it can help people lose weight.
Cautions to keep in mind: "The best dosing seemed to be 350 milligrams of green coffee bean extract three times per day," said Joseph Debé, a board-certified nutritionist in Great Neck. "The product should be standardized to about 50 percent chlorogenic acid -- a key active ingredient. It is best to use a product that is made from organic coffee beans, to minimize pesticide intake."
Debé said that the extract appears to work, in part, by inhibiting a digestive enzyme called lipase. "I think it is feasible that some individuals could potentially experience malabsorption of fat-soluble nutrients with ongoing use of green coffee bean extract, but this is just my speculation," he said.
2. RASPBERRY KETONES
What are they? Chemical components of raspberries that give the berries their smell
What are they supposed to do? Help people lose weight
Oz has also promoted this product. Critics promptly noted, though, that it has only been studied in mice.
"In studies of rodents who were given very high doses, results have varied," said Marlisa Brown, a registered dietitian and president of Total Wellness in Bay Shore. "Some showed nothing, others showed that it may have reduced weight gain from high-fat diets. However, the amount of the ketones supplied was excessive. There is little evidence to support the use of this product for weight loss, and very little research to show what would happen with long-term use."
Cautions to keep in mind: "Raspberry ketones, as far as I am aware, have not been scientifically demonstrated to produce weight loss in humans," said Debé.
What are they? "Supplements of various strains of beneficial bacteria and at least one yeast organism," Debé said.
What are they supposed to do? "They are most commonly thought of for improving a variety of digestive symptoms such as pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea," he said. "However, they do much more than this. Probiotic supplements have been found to reduce anxiety and to lower blood cholesterol levels, among many other things."
Cautions to keep in mind: "Someone who is extremely immune-comprised should consult his or her doctor before using a probiotic," Debé said. "There have been cases, mainly with the beneficial yeast called Saccharomyces boulardii, where people have experienced sepsis or blood infection, both life-threatening. The 'good' organism became a bad thing as it spread from the intestinal tract to the bloodstream."
Also, "probiotics products vary tremendously in effectiveness and quality," he said. "It takes some knowledge and guidance by a professional to choose a good product. In addition to knowing what kind of research supports the particular strain of bacteria listed on the label, you need to check the potency. To be effective, the number of organisms per serving should number in the tens or hundreds of billions, in most cases."
4. RED YEAST RICE EXTRACT
What is it? A substance produced from yeast grown on rice.
What is it supposed to do? "People try to use this instead of taking their cholesterol medications to help them lower their cholesterol," Brown said. The Mayo Clinic notes that strong scientific evidence supports its use to lower cholesterol.
Cautions to keep in mind: "Although it may have some of the same benefits as some cholesterol medications, it also has the possibility of similar side effects,"Brown said. "Since people often perceive this as natural, they may not be getting their liver levels checked to look for any contraindication, and therefore they could miss possible damage that could be taking place. Also, since supplements are not regulated, there is no way to know how pure the supplement is and if it is contaminated."
5. CLEANSING OR DETOX FORMULATIONS
What are they? "What these actually contain varies tremendously," Debé said. "Some are simply fiber supplements. Some contain herbs. Among the best are the medical foods. These are like meal replacement powders and contain protein, carbohydrate, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and plant extracts." He said that "medical food" is a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved designation for a product that targets a specific condition, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, and is to be used under the supervision of a health care professional.
What are they supposed to do? Rid the body of toxins and impurities. This would "thereby improve vitality, a variety of symptoms, and health conditions," Debé said.
Cautions to keep in mind: "There is a spectrum of effectiveness," he said. "Some are super- effective, to the point of saving individuals from requiring a liver transplant. Others are worthless. Still others are dangerous and potentially could put you on a waiting list for a liver transplant." It's best to consult your doctor before taking this or any other supplements.