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When Supplements Are Marketed Like Drugs

Written by Wellness Club on August 10, 2010 – 12:55 pm -

When Supplements Are Marketed Like Drugs


By Nurse Mark


Everyone is constantly bombarded being with advertising and it is often difficult to separate the fact from the fiction and from the hype which can be either. While the Big Pharma marketing departments are the unquestioned masters at this, the natural supplement industries are not immune to the siren song of the advertising and marketing consultancies and agencies either.

Ethel wrote recently to ask:

What is your opinion of Amberen, that promotes to be the choice for women experiencing menopause?

Here are some of my thoughts on this new product:

This is a supplement that is being given the look of a drug, complete with a Big-Pharma-style website and “free trial” offer. While I respect the right of this supplement maker to market this supplement in any way they like, the amount of “hype” involved makes the B.S. warning lights on my dashboard begin to glow…

The website relies heavily on the power of the “testimonial” as “proof” of the value and effectiveness of this supplement – and while it is always great to hear of these “success stories” they are not proof of anything other than that these women claim that they feel better. Testimonials are not scientific proof of anything – and my B.S. warning lights are glowing brighter…

Speaking of scientific proof, the website offers a page detailing “clinical trials”. There they present their one human trial and two lab rat studies. They offer 3 links to journals which have published the human study. Here is the kicker though: the human study was relatively small at 70 women and brief – lasting only 35 days, and it was sponsored (paid for) by the company that makes Ambren. Here is the acknowledgement at the end of the paper:

The authors’ research in this paper was supported by Mikhail L. Uchitel, The Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Biophysics of RAS (Pushchino, Russia), and The Scientific-Production Company “Biophysics, Ltd.” (Moscow, Russia). The publication of this article was initiated and supported by “Lunada Biomedical, Ltd” (USA).

Now my B.S. light is not just glowing brightly – it’s actually beginning to flash. This is a standard technique used by Big Pharma: create a product, pay for a study or trial, and publish the positive results of that trial so that there are “Clinical Trials Proving The Effectiveness” that you can use in your advertising materials.

They mention a second human trial of 32 women studied over 5 years, but provide no reference where one might actually see the study. I guess we just have to take their word on that one…

Then there is the classic marketing technique of the “free sample.” Big Pharma has a harder time with this one since their offerings usually require a prescription – so they handle it with ads that encourage you to “Ask your doctor if this drug is right for you!”

Your local street drug dealer has it a little easier – the pusher can simply say “go on kid, try a hit – it’s free, it’s on the house, and you’ll like it!” He knows you’ll be back for more as soon as you are hooked… The Ambren people have settled on a compromise: they offer to have you “Try Amberen free for 30 days”. But it’s not actually free – they will send you a 90 day supply if you will pay the shipping up front, and they will not charge your credit card for that 90 day supply until the 31st day. Is that a warning horn that I hear along with my flashing B.S. warning light?

So much for their marketing practices – what about the product?

Their theory sounds intriguing: Stimulate an aging hypothalamus and encourage it to produce signals that will tell the endocrine glands to produce more youthful hormone levels. And indeed, if their studies are to be believed, this does in fact occur. They claim that Amberen use results in increased estrogen production. This is wonderful if decreased estrogen is the sole cause of a woman’s symptoms.

I have some concern about some of the ingredients: since this is a “proprietary blend” and is not a drug they are not required to list specifics but one of the ingredients is Monosodium L-Glutamate – good old MSG. This is a substance that can have some not-so-good effects on the nervous system as anyone who is sensitive to it will quickly tell you. Even in those who do not show a “sensitivity” (think “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”) are affected neurologically by this substance – it functions as an excitatory neurotransmitter which, if taken in excess, can become neurotoxic. (This is what happens when the chef at the local Chinese buffet goes a little too heavy on the MSG and you end up with symptoms like numbness, burning sensations, tingling, facial pressure or tightness, chest pain, headache, nausea, rapid heartbeat, drowsiness, weakness, or difficulty breathing for asthmatics – the MSG becomes an excitatory neurotoxin.)

Now, I’m not suggesting that the amounts of MSG in Amberen are problematic – their website claims that the product is well-tolerated and that “Animal studies, toxicology and clinical trials with Amberen did not reveal any significant side-effects.”

I also have some concern any time someone suggests a “shotgun” approach to any health concern, where they’ll just throw something at it, based on the success of someone else, and hope it works for them.

Unfortunately, while decreasing levels of estrogen can indeed be a part of menopause, this is often not the whole story. Our bodies, both male and female, are a veritable stew of different hormones, none of which work in isolation – they are all interdependent and inter-related. Hormones can be deficient, excessive, or relatively deficient or excessive in that there may be too much or too little of one hormone in relation to another hormone that counteracts or balances it.

When Dr. Myatt works with menopausal women (and men!) she doesn’t guess – she performs detailed hormone testing and analysis and this allows her to make precise corrections using herbs, nutrition, bio-identical hormones, or more likely, a combination of these. Her patients won’t stand for guess-work – they want results, and they want those results to be provable with lab testing, not just by subjective symptoms.

You see, Dr. Myatt’s patients are very well-educated about their health – Dr. Myatt insists on that. They know that, to use the now-discredited drug Premarin as an example, it is possible to give a single substance (i.e.: to make an isolated correction) that will improve symptoms – and Premarin was very effective at improving symptoms – but that can result in multiple other problems and even dangers, as Premarin was eventually shown to do.

So, Ethel, should menopausal women try Aberen?

Well, maybe: The product looks like it should be safe. The theory behind it looks good. There are limited studies suggesting that it is effective and generally well-tolerated. It is not excessively expensive.

For me however, the jury is still out. Until I see some additional scientifically-conducted, peer-reviewed studies my advice would be to wait – there are plenty of women out there who will be the testers for this product – the guinea-pigs. Let’s wait until there is some history behind this product and there are no unforeseen or even nasty surprises with it’s use.

I can tell you with certainty that Dr. Myatt will not likely recommend this to her patients until there is more evidence of it’s safety and effectiveness. She will continue to work with her menopause patients the “old-fashioned” way – one person at a time, individually, uniquely, and based on hormone testing lab results, not guess-work. If a patient were to say to Dr. Myatt “I want to use Ambren” I’m sure she would say “fine – let’s follow your lab results to be sure that it is doing what we want it to, and let’s not forget all the other supportive measures that go along with this too.”

You see, we firmly believe that in anything as complicated as the human organism there are no one-pill, one-size-fits-all answers or remedies. Every woman is different, and every woman’s menopause will benefit from an approach tailored just for her, based on her own unique needs.

And that’s our Bottom Line!

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