Preventive Health Care Week: Busting health product myths

Tribune staff reporters

An ounce of prevention ... often adds up to a pound of malarkey. Whether it's a tablet to take with alcohol to prevent a beer belly, or a chocolaty, sweetened breakfast cereal that's fortified to "support" your child's immune system, experts say most preventive health products are of little, if any, value.

"If there were 'prevention' products they'd be bottled and sold by drug companies," said Canadian obesity expert and family medicine physician Yoni Freedhoff. "The only one I know is diet and exercise."

There's no shortage of products where you should think twice before laying out money, but here are 10:

BIO-IDENTICAL HORMONES The claim: A natural way to boost energy, mood and libido and prevent menopause symptoms. Buyer beware: Doctors currently advise against any kind of long-term hormone therapy for menopause. Although marketers allege that plant-derived bio-identical hormones are just like hormones that circulate in women's bodies, there's no way to know if that's true. There's also no independent oversight of their manufacture; most are individually prepared for customers by pharmacies that customize ingredients and doses. In January 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned seven companies that marketing claims about bio-identical hormones are "unsupported by medical evidence" and "false and misleading." Companies wrongly tout the plant-derived hormones as superior to prescription medications, the FDA said. "Just because they're natural doesn't mean they're good for you," said Dr. Cora Lewis, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. "No one has studied these bio-identical products. What's in them, we don't know, and there's no data about safety or efficacy."
RESVERATROL CAPSULES The claim: Slows the aging process and may help prevent heart disease and cancer. Buyer beware: The evidence is mixed on resveratrol, a chemical that is found in grapes, peanuts and blueberries and is abundant in red wine. Though it may have anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties in lab animals, the benefits haven't been proved for humans. Oddly, the chemical sometimes acts as an estrogen-like agent -- possibly raising the risk of certain cancers -- while at other times it has anti-estrogen properties, according to the University of California at Berkeley's Wellness Letter. Resveratrol also can either protect cells from oxidative stress or harm them, depending on the circumstances. "It appears, so far, to be safe, but its long-term effects are an open question," wrote Wellness Letter editors. "Until more is known, get your resveratrol from your diet" or a glass of wine.
FLU FIGHTERS The claim: Supplements, pills, inhalers, lozenges, vitamins, air sterilizers, ultraviolet lights, etc., ward off swine flu. Buyer beware: Only two prescription antiviral drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, are approved for use in people at risk of contracting swine flu. Some knockoff versions marketed on the Internet lack a crucial active ingredient, oseltamivir, or contain insufficient levels, according to the FDA, which recommends using "extreme care" when buying any purported flu-fighting products online. The government has warned dozens of Internet outfits to stop selling products that promise to prevent swine flu without any backup proof. Scams will likely continue throughout the flu season, warns the Federal Trade Commission, which is also monitoring the situation. The best way to ward off swine flu is to be vaccinated against the H1N1 virus. Also, avoid contact with sick people, wash your hands frequently and follow healthy practices: Eat well, drink lots of liquids and get plenty of sleep.
VITAMIN E The claim: Can help prevent heart disease and cancer. Buyer beware: Experts no longer believe supplementing diets with Vitamin E might protect against heart disease and cancer after studies failed to show benefits and noted possible harms, such as a slightly higher risk of death. It's possible that certain subgroups -- for instance, older adults -- may be aided by Vitamin E supplementation, but that isn't clear yet. For that matter, taking any single vitamin isn't such a good idea, said Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. The body needs a finely tuned balance of vitamins and minerals; taking just one can disrupt the metabolic system and lead to unanticipated health consequences. Of course, people with vitamin deficiencies may need supplementation and should consult their doctors, Van Horn said.
COLON CLEANSING The claim: Flushing warm water -- sometimes infused with herbs, probiotics or coffee -- through the lower bowel removes stagnant, toxic waste and can enhance overall health, preventing a variety of conditions. Buyer beware: For starters, the colon doesn't need cleansing. Specialized forms of colonic irrigation might be used before bowel surgery. And there's some graphic evidence that colonics rid the bowel of stool. But while you might feel better after a colonic, it's a pretty invasive therapy to treat what's probably constipation, said gastroenterologist Linda Lee, director of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center. "Claims that colonics rid the body of toxins have not been proven," said Lee, adding that there's no evidence yet that colon cleansing has health benefits. If you really think your colon is slacking, get more fiber into your diet -- Americans eat woefully low levels -- or take a laxative "to stimulate movement in the direction your bowel was designed to move in," Lee said.
DETOXIFYING FOOT PADS The claim: Wrapping a special detoxifying patch on the soles of your feet at bedtime will help unleash toxins from your body to prevent disease and "promote better health and longevity." The patch also claims to improve quality of sleep, enhance blood circulation and strengthen the immune system. Buyer beware: Consumers seem impressed that the Kinoki foot pads turn brown or black after being worn on the soles of the feet overnight; however, they also change color when exposed to water, and pads tested have contained no toxins. As with cleansing diets, products that promise to remove toxins are pointless, and some can be dangerous if used for long periods, experts say. The body comes equipped with a liver, kidneys and a gastrointestinal tract that can eliminate toxins within hours, even as environmental assaults increase. The FTC has accused the marketers of the foot pads of deceptive advertising, but the products are still widely available.
ANTIOXIDANT BEVERAGES The claim: Exotic drinks from fruits with high levels of antioxidants, including goji berry, mangosteen, acai, aronia, yumberry and pomegranate, will keep cell-damaging free radicals in check. Buyer beware: Marketers are trying to capitalize on antioxidants and have co-opted a method used to measure them: the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is true that plant-based foods contain phytochemicals with antioxidant properties, and people who eat large amounts have a lower risk of developing chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, "just because a food or beverage scores well with the ORAC test doesn't guarantee that it can cure, treat or even prevent disease, though it certainly warrants further investigation," said Diane McKay, an antioxidant researcher at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. The ORAC assay "appears to have no direct relevance to the health effects of the products," she added. "Even if one beverage ranks higher than all the others, that doesn't necessarily mean it will increase the antioxidant capacity of your cells, for example."
FULL-BODY CT SCANS The claim: Computed tomography (CT) scans, or three-dimensional pictures of the inside of the body, can help detect a disease early enough to be managed or cured. Buyer beware: In healthy people, CT scans have no known benefit and can be potentially dangerous, according to the FDA. They deliver high doses of radiation -- several hundred times the amount of a chest X-ray -- and the tests aren't standardized, meaning they can deliver varying amounts of radiation. The American Heart Association has urged limits on use of the scans because of cancer risk. Then there are the potential results: Normal findings may be inaccurate or carry false reassurance. Or, the tests can find apparent abnormalities when there's really nothing wrong, leading people to undergo expensive and invasive follow-up tests. "We know people are bombarded with radiation exposures and it's cumulative, ratcheting up your risk of developing cancer," said cardiologist Michael Ozner, head of prevention at Miami's Baptist Hospital. "Unfortunately, there's not a shred of evidence that getting scans will prevent future heart attack or prolong your life. These tests show people down that slippery slope leading to more and more unnecessary intervention."
BRAIN TRAINERS The claim: Brain-training software and books can help keep your noodle young and prevent memory loss . Buyer beware: The more active your brain is, the better. Puzzles such as Sudoku "can help you get good at a specific skill, like memorizing grocery lists or hand-eye coordination," said Dr. Sam Wang, an associate professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton University. But "most evidence suggests that practicing a task only helps you get better at the same or very similar tasks," said Wang, the co-author of "Welcome to Your Brain." If you really want to improve your mental acumen, it's better to move your body rather than sit in front of a computer. Regular fitness training is good for everyone's brain, but it's "especially effective in the elderly, who may suffer from gradual problems with executive function," including planning ahead and abstract thinking, said Wang. Juggling has also been shown to boost brain function. Wang's recommendation? "A sound (and engaged) mind in a sound (and active) body."
ABDOMINAL TRAINERS The claim: Prevents belly bulge by strengthening ab muscles. Buyer beware: Strong abs can help prevent injuries, ward off back pain and improve your posture. But no exercise -- or machine -- will prevent you from gaining weight in a targeted area if you're eating more calories than you're burning, according to the Mayo Clinic. Using popular ab equipment such as the Ab Rocket is among the least effective ways to train your abs, in part because "they won't prepare the muscles to generate the force they actually need during the dynamic movements of walking or running," said Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. In addition, he said, "the potential result from strengthening your abs from the shortened 'crunched' position could be a hernia or sports hernia -- which is a tear of the ab at the attachment to the pelvis." To really work your core, get in a push-up or plank position and hold it for a minute.
Preventive Health Care Week Sunday: Changing the system Monday: Screenings for seniors Tuesday: Boosting immunity Today: Buyer beware Thursday: Healthy families Friday: Making changes stick Saturday: A local initiative Full coverage at On TV: Julie Deardorff cautions consumers about preventive health products at 11:15 a.m. on WGN-Channel 9's Midday News, and on CLTV at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. The Medical Watch Team reports on the best sources of vitamins and nutrients on WGN's News at 9.

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