The Seven Deadly Deceptions of Supplement Charlatans

 Supplement Charlatans are a joke

I heard something pretty disturbing recently coming from a self-proclaimed expert. They were tooting their own horn saying that their supplement regimen “reversed the progression of [Alzheimer’s].” It got me quite upset, but I’m in therapy so I didn’t rage out like I used to. Instead, I breathed through it and thought about what got me upset. 

After stress eating, since I suck at meditation, I concluded that there are a number of “key” disease states or topics that the charlatans of our industry use as the foundations for their practice. These conditions have a common theme: people suffering from them have a sense of desperation - a feeling that traditional medicine is either not helping them, or, at worst, is ignoring them completely. Those who don’t suffer from these diseases fear them, and sometimes rightly so, as the worst-case-scenarios seen in the media and in real life are quite scary. 

These conditions are the boogeymen of our industry, and the charlatans use this fear to sell products, a mindset, and a false sense of hope. I believe these conditions are real. I believe some people don’t feel heard by traditional practitioners. I also empathize with their fear. Our goal is to help provide that middle path, defend you from misinformation, and at least, to save you money.

Before we begin, we MUST be clear about what I am saying here. These 7 topics are real issues, affecting real people, causing real pain. You deserve options, support, and expertise. You don’t deserve to be sold a bill of goods. My “attack”, if there is one here, is on the industry and the false prophets that are being manipulative. There is a big difference between allowing experimentation using natural options by empowered adults and proclaiming secrets to success and definitive answers outside the realm of reality.

The 7 Deadly Deceptions are:

  • Lyme Disease
  • Thyroid
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Cancer
  • Adrenal Fatigue
  • Candida & Parasites
  • Methylation

There are real options for these real conditions. I wanted to include them here as best as possible in this quick look. Each topic deserves a deep dive and an investigation of these proposed options, and in time, we will give such a dive. Right now, let’s skim the surface.

Lyme Disease

Lyme Disease is real. We’ve discussed Lyme misinformation in the past a few times now. Lyme disease is treated with relative ease. To simplify it: Tick bite -> 2 doxycycline -> wait 4-6 weeks -> symptoms show up (which is relatively rare) -> test -> confirm Lyme -> longer course of antibiotics -> get better and/or deal with the Post Treatment Lyme Disease Syndrome (PTLDS) if it occurs.

This is based on research and newer evidence. Unfortunately, there are MANY people who are suffering from pretty severe PTLDS symptoms because we weren’t so on top of Lyme about a decade ago. Many people have slipped through the crack and, as a result, have debilitating illness at times.

“Practitioners” will use natural products, unproven testing methods, and false hope to “cure” Lyme disease. Thousands of dollars later, many people don’t make any real progress. Or they do, and it isn’t a result of any of the methods or therapies, but just better dietary management and time.  

Many herbs for “treating” viruses or bacteria may have some activity in test tubes, but in no way will impact actual disease in a human body. Long courses of antibiotics (like 6 months to a year) have been shown to be no more effective than short courses (4-6 weeks). I could go on and on, but the basic idea here is that there is a LOT that these charlatans promote that don’t have evidence to support use.

What we can do:

  • Only look to trusted, credentialled sources. This means practically nowhere else except for the CDC and the IDSA.
  • I’m calling this next set of text the “The Real Answer.” Bookmark this section because we will come back to this often in this article. We’ll repeat this advice over and over on our site. We do so because this is the real answer on how to feel better naturally and holistically.

THE REAL ANSWER

  • Support our bodies as best nutritionally as possible. Eating fewer inflammatory foods (containing omega-6), processed or packaged foods. Reduce dramatically your sugar and artificial sweetener intake. Remove caffeine and alcohol. Eat the appropriate amount of calories and macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs). Vary your diet to get ample amounts of all the different micronutrients.
  • Rest. Sufficient sleep is one thing, but stress management and rest throughout the day is also an important component.
  • Exercise. Think of yourself as a young golden lab. You need to run! Range of motion exercises, stretching, weight bearing exercise, and cardio will all help you feel better.
  • Use supplements when they are needed. Start with  the Vital 5 and chat with us to make a plan to ensure other supplements are right for you.

Thyroid

Thyroid disease is a real problem. People suffer from poorly controlled thyroid disease all the time. The concept of using medicine for life, or, worse for some - surgery, is terrifying. The symptoms of hypothyroidism (too low thyroid) are no fun - depression, fatigue, achiness.

Thyroid conditions, however, are generally regarded by true professionals and practitioners as relatively easy to manage. Thyroid management has mountains of data because it affects so many, and the condition itself is well understood from a biological perspective.

“Practitioners” have figured out a way to cloud the clarity we have about thyroid management. They promote “natural” thyroid - dried up pig thyroid glands - over “evil, synthetic” traditional thyroid options. They blow up the thyroid hormone ranges shown by tests and tell people that their doctor sees “normal” and then ignores them if they are actually low or high normal. They promote unsafe supplements as a natural way to improve thyroid function.

What we can do:

  • Only look to trusted, credentialled sources. This means https://www.thyroid.org and https://www.endocrine.org/.
  • Know the truth about medicine. Hormones, of which thyroid is one, need to be dosed consistently - the same dose, every day. Using natural thyroid gives too much variance. I say this as a former compounding pharmacist who looked at the Certificate of Analysis on lots of official Thyroid, USP, the active ingredient found in natural thyroid products. The levels of T3 and T4 (thyroid hormones) varied from lot to lot. You could drive a truck through the variance.
  • The idea of synthetic being worse than natural should go away as well. With women’s sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone, commercial prescription medicines weren’t bioidentical, meaning they didn’t match identically to what our body makes. “Synthetic” was the term used to define these before, but it wasn’t that the hormones were made or modified in labs that was the problem, it was that they weren’t the same as what our bodies make. With thyroid hormones, the prescriptions like Synthroid (levothyroxine - T4) and Cytomel (liothyronine - T3) are bioidentical, meaning they are 100% matches. It is better to use “synthetic” over “natural” because you are getting bioidentical, consistent dosing of a key hormone instead of a bioidentical, varied dose with natural options.
  • You can support thyroid health by eating a healthy diet, but largely supplementation is unnecessary. Ensuring you have adequate protein and eat the minimal amount of iodine-containing foods is essential.
    • Seaweed
    • Eggs
    • Cod
    • Dairy
    • Iodized salt
  • Iodine supplementation can be dangerous. Our body has a mechanism that suppresses hormone release when iodine levels are high. So the iodine supplement could help make lots of hormone in normal situations, but too much could cause that hormone to stay in the ‘bag’ of the thyroid until the iodine level drops. “Oops, forgot my dose of high dose iodine” turns into “omg i just released a LOT of thyroid into the blood at once.”
  • Know that most practitioners feel that low- and high-normal are real things and we can make slight adjustments to our therapies to get you more square in the middle of that normal range. That being said, the symptoms of low (or even high) thyroid are kind of non-specific. Like headaches or diarrhea, there are many different causes beyond thyroid problems like depression, fatigue, and sleepiness, as examples. Therefore, a holistic approach based on the foundational recommendations in the “The Real Answer” section will help find the root cause of those non-specific symptoms. Thyroid-specific supplementation should be reserved for those who have had detailed conversations with a true, professional expert.

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s impacts about 6 million people currently, and as our population ages, we are expecting that number to more than double in the next 20-30 years. It’s the 6th leading cause of death. I don’t know anyone who isn’t fearful of the progressive memory loss and related physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. As a result, we have people who are doing the right thing - taking preventative action now to reduce their risks.

There are unscrupulous characters promoting their “Alzheimer’s treatments” or supplement regimens that can “reverse the progression of the disease.” There is no simple way to put it, so i’ll just be frank: these people should NOT be trusted. Full stop. If such a course was available, I believe there are a few people at places like Johns Hopkins Alzheimer’s Research facility that would probably want to know.

Just because there is some positive early data around a compound, doesn’t mean the compound will actually make a profound impact on people when further study is done. The example: sulforaphane is an extract from broccoli that Johns Hopkins has identified as a powerful antioxidant that has some early results in helping with some Alzheimer’s patients. An internet doctor then posts “Sulforaphane May Prevent Alzheimer’s” to his blog. Clickbait title. False hope. Extremely irresponsible. And this guy is a doctor, so he has some credibility - at least to people who don’t know what he really stands for.

When presented with possibilities, our role is to provide clean, potent, no-nonsense options and allow people to give it a thorough try. It is NOT to make clickbait to improve sales and give people false hope. We’ll speak more on sulforaphane in the future, but if someone is interested, our Vital Brain formula contains glucoraphanin, a special extract that is rich in the sulforaphane. Our approach: this is a potent dose of a compound that has been researched by respectable scientists at a respectable institution, in a manner consistent with what we would expect of good science. Give it a shot.

We are learning more and more about the condition as each day passes, and I have hope that we will have the ability to make a big dent in the growing numbers, especially around early identification and prevention (if possible).

What we can do

  • Only look to trusted, credentialled sources like https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers and be careful of places posing as Alzheimer’s organizations that are selling supplements.
  • I believe someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease will have an improved quality of life with more aggressive lifestyle modifications, as most people who suffer from Alzheimer’s are in the later stages of life where nutrition is an issue already. Review the “The Real Answer” section.
  • Add brain healthy foods like blueberries and foods rich in good fats. Don’t forget avocados, well made olive oil, coconut oil, dark leafy greens, eggs, and all that good stuff.
  • Use supplements when they are needed. Start with the Vital 5 and chat with us to make a plan to ensure other supplements are right for you.

Cancer

This is the most common charlatan-rich disease plaguing the internet. The C word is definitely scary to all of us. Few of us are lucky to not have cancer impact someone in their close circles. We seem helpless against it and treatments really take us down, it seems.

A few problems with the charlatans who promote their “cancer protocols” and “cancer treatment regimens”. First, cancer isn’t just one thing. There are a large number of different types of cancer, with differing prognoses, treatment strategies, and pathologies. Saying you can reduce someone’s risk or treat ALL cancers is, again, extremely irresponsible and misleading.

Second, traditional cancer treatment protocols have complex medicines that are understood best by the specialist, not the general practitioner (especially me!). Understanding how supplements interact with the disease AND the treatment is crucial, but most people recommending products have no understanding, and most importantly, no humility. An example: some treatments require discontinuation of fish oil due to its antioxidant effects. The medicine’s goal is to oxidize and cause cell damage in the short term, so fish oil can combat that.

Finally, you can’t really smoothie away a cancer diagnosis. Just ask Steve Jobs. While I can appreciate the clean lifestyle people with cancer choose after diagnosis, we have to be more proactive with these decisions. If eating clean and being healthy is the right thing to do then, do it now.  But know even then, it may not be enough. Sometimes our cells are just jerks.

What We Can Do

  • Only look to trusted, credentialled sources like the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society. Individual diagnoses will have their own support pages as well.
  • Pharmacists have helped patients suffering with cancer on the harsh treatments for decades. Compounding pharmacists can offer unique mixes that help with the damage from radiation, for example. Some supplements are encouraged by different, reputable cancer treatment centers. Mushrooms, for example, can be used to help with chemotherapy side effects. We certainly won’t be making those recommendations here, but would help anyone prepare to better discuss it with their doctor.
  • Prevention goes a long way, especially from a dietary and lifestyle standpoint. Review the “The Real Answer” section.
  • Use supplements when they are needed. Start with the Vital 5 and chat with us to make a plan to ensure other supplements are right for you.

Adrenal Fatigue

We’ve spoke at length about stress and Adrenal Fatigue. Stress sucks. Over the long term, it will wipe us out. It’s a circling drain ride, further and further decreasing our ability to deal with stress and get through the day as it progresses. The impacts of chronic stress are a real threat to every single one of us, especially in modern society.

Adrenal Fatigue, however, is not an established, official medical diagnosis. Its described mechanism is kind of counter-intuitive to how those systems actually work. What the term “Adrenal Fatigue” does do, though, is make charlatans lick their chops at the opportunity to fund their retirement. Most “stress” regimens can involve a half-dozen or more supplements and multiple consultation sessions that they bill top dollar for. We’ve always cautioned: when talking with real medical professionals, don’t use the term “adrenal fatigue” as it connotes all of the negatives I’ve mentioned and more. Instead, discuss the impact of chronic stress on you.

What You Can Do

  • Only look to trusted, credentialled sources like the Mayo Clinic and hormone.org.
  • Stress, like the term “cancer”, is more of an umbrella term covering multiple contributing factors. Nutritional, emotional, and physical stress are some of the categories I’ve used in the past to describe the different places stress can come from. To properly manage stress, we need to take a full inventory of what the stressors are and start managing each one appropriately.
  • Without a doubt, lifestyle modifications like diet and exercise will have a profound impact on stress levels. If dealing with stress, now is the time to once and for all commit to a healthier lifestyle. Eliminate completely what you can control: what you put into your mouth and your physical fitness. Then, learn mechanisms like meditation and mindfulness to accept what you can’t control (the jerk at work, your kids not listening to you) and giving you some mental space to respond more gently and appropriately to these kinds of stressors when they show their ugly faces. Read the “The Real Answers” section above for more details.
  • Know that medicines may be needed to help blunt the physical effects of stress and anxiety as you put in place the strategies and tactics to manage stress better. Personally, I used Lexapro for about a decade before I met my current therapist and learned mindfulness and meditation. I was happy to discontinue it when I was ready, but I was thankful the medicine was there. There are so many different options, all with different risks and benefits, so finding the specific one that is right for you is very possible.  Do what you can without medicine, but don’t be afraid to find a great med either.
  • Use supplements when they are needed. There are many different stress support supplements: adaptogens, calming agents, adrenal glandulars, vitamins and micronutrients… More to come on this from us. For now, start with the Vital 5 and chat with us to make a plan to ensure other supplements are right for you.

Candida & Parasites

Our guts are a mess. It is possible and common for opportunistic microorganisms (the “bad” bacteria and others that live in our guts) to take over, causing numerous symptoms including abnormal bowel habits, malabsorption of nutrients, and general infectious illness. This is especially true in cases of exposure (the cook didn’t wash his hands before making your dinner, or you’ve gone to a third world country with minimal infrastructure).

Charlatans will often blame general gut disturbances on both candida (a common component of our normal flora) and parasites. They recommend dramatic dietary changes and cleanses that could be potentially harmful, along with 400 supplements that who knows is doing what. What’s worse, they use unproven testing methods to determine your “overgrowth”, adding a shred of surface-level legitimacy to their methods.

Candida overgrowth happens often. It’s called jock-itch or yeast infections when it happens on the skin. If we truly had a systemic candida infection, we’d be in deep trouble. You’d be in the hospital taking IV antifungal treatments, minimally. Parasitic infections of the gut can be easily diagnosed using traditional infectious disease testing methods and treatments, again, usually are some of our stronger agents on the market. The point here is this: if you truly had something like this going on to the degree the charlatans say, you would need extensive, high potency treatment with proven therapies. Simple self-care options (supplements, diet) would be nowhere as effective as you would need.

We’re on our 6th deadly deception, so I’m sure you’ve noticed my pattern on all of these topics, but here is my catchphrase for this article. Ready? It is extremely irresponsible for ANYONE who truly believes someone has a candida or parasite infection to not push them out the door and drive them to a hospital or at least to an urgent care to get proper treatment.

What We Can Do

  • There are really no trusted sources around candida or parasite infections besides the CDC: Check out their Candidiasis and Parasites information.
  • Getting your gut healthy is something VERY easy to do. Besides the dietary changes in the Real Answers section, foundational gut health begins with the following four steps:
    • Improved, varied dietary fiber intake. AKA fruits and veggies
    • Increased, adequate fluid intake. Read our cramps article to learn about adequate hydration.
    • Probiotics. Constantly reinforcing the normal flora with potent, specific strains has mountains of data proving a benefit to the GI tract for most.
    • Prebiotics. Since you’ve improved your dietary fiber, most of us won’t need prebiotics, but a specific prebiotic called Arabinogalactan has some data showing it suppresses some opportunistic infections.
  • Beyond this, there are numerous gut support supplement formulations at our disposal.
  • Most importantly, if there is ANY hint of a true overgrowth, talk to a GI doctor immediately.

Methylation

In order for us to utilize some types of vitamins (mostly B vitamins), our bodies use a special enzyme set to convert them from a less active form to a form more usable by the body. This is why you’ll see things like methylcobalamin (methyl b12) or l-methylfolate (the active form of folic acid) - they are the more bioavailable, active, and most often, the more naturally occuring forms.

Some people have a genetic abnormality that prevents this conversion process, also called methylation, from happening. We know about the genetic mutation in an individual typically by starting at the end and working backwards. People suffering from the mutation typically have some sort of disease that presents itself (like an anemia) and common treatment doesn’t work. Further testing shows this genetic abnormality, and methylated forms of the vitamins must be used.

This has turned into a breeding ground of charlatans. New ones emerging every 60 seconds, it seems. With the accessibility of genetic testing, more and more people are finding they have this genetic mutation. Estimates put it up around 40% of the population. That is cause for concern, further study, and a slight adjustment. Not panic. Not advice from fake experts.

The truth is genetic abnormalities may not always translate to disease. Many traditional practitioners are aware of the reality of this genetic mutation, but are cautious to apply a blanket approach to the population. The best analogy I’ve seen so far is around eye color and vision. About 40% of the population have the genetic “abnormality” of blue eyes, but that doesn’t mean those people have impaired vision. If many people could be affected by it, but most people don’t even know it is an issue, it may be a secondary or generally unimportant indicator. It isn’t some fatal massive issue until we connect more dots.

What this translates to is quite simple: take the better forms of the nutrients whether you have the abnormality or not.

As for the genetic testing, I’m a little reserved about someone having my social security number in a frequently hacked computer database, why would we be so willing to turn over our DNA to a private company? Besides those concerns, what would REALLY change if you knew you had this abnormality but had no outward or pathologic expression of it? You’d just take the methylated forms of the vitamins. We have Methyl B12, l-methylfolate, and even a Coenzyme B Complex that has all B vitamins in their more bioavailable form. We tend to recommend these over regular synthetic vitamins, genetic abnormality or not, as they are the more bioavailable forms anyway.

What We Can Do

  • Look to trusted sources.  Right now these are scarce.  I’ll update this when we do our full methylation write up.
  • Eat a diet rich in active, “methylated” vitamins.
    • Dark Leafy Greens
    • Chicken and beef liver
    • Fish
    • Eggs
    • Almonds
    • Sunflower Seeds
  • Use active forms of supplements, when appropriate.  Coenzyme B Complex addresses all your general methylation needs.

Try Hard. Be Honest

These conditions are real and so is the suffering that can come with them. What is also real is there are numerous options we can use to try our best to prevent these conditions, improve our quality of life, and become more thoroughly informed on what’s really going on. We can’t angelicize natural products, nor can we flatly demonize the medical industry. As we’ve shown, they’re practically the same.

Even if you DID want to try the options even the craziest false prophet raves about, you must recognize that it should be an experiment. Go slow and steady. Do 1-2 interventions at a time. Set measures to objectively monitor success (and failure). Be positive, but be curious. Don’t attach to any outcome - good or bad.

From a supplement standpoint, we can’t say things will work or not. We must be TRUE experts - training and credentialing are essential. Clinical expertise is most important; a true clinician will know to not be so black and white with their advice.

Unlike the charlatans creating false hope based on fear, we know that this isn’t the way things really work.  The best we can do is try. All we can do is help you help yourself through experimentation. We here are selfcare practitioners: healthcare practitioners that help guide you holistically. How to eat better. What foods to avoid that could be a problem. Exercise, lifestyle, stress management. Holistic care isn’t just about the supplement options, but about the lifestyle requirements. In a majority of cases, optimizing diet, exercise, and stress alone will resolve how we feel and may improve many disease states.

Just trying to keep it real...

Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth
neal@woodstockvitamins.com

 

About Dr. Neal Smoller

Dr. Neal Smoller is a holistic pharmacist, supplement expert, and founder of Woodstock Vitamins. Dr. Neal’s mission is to challenge the natural products industry, redefining holistic care and setting the standard for supplement quality. His methods and products are backed by real science, and with them, he builds and supports his customers’ lifelong wellness strategies.

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