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Diabetes and Dietary Supplements: What You Should Know

December 30, 2011

Seminar to Cover the Facts About Usefulness and Effectiveness of Supplements

Americans spend a lot of money on what’s known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), with two-thirds of money spent on this multi-billion dollar industry going toward products like over-the-counter dietary and herbal supplements, as well as classes and materials that promise some health benefit, according to Lorie Roffelsen, R.D., CDE, a Washington Hospital staff dietitian and diabetes educator.

On Jan. 5, Roffelsen will present a free Diabetes Matters seminar specifically about what people with diabetes should know about over-the-counter dietary supplements and how to decide whether some supplements are useful—or not.

“I presented this topic a couple of years ago, and there was a lot of interest at that time, so we are repeating it again with current recommendations and updates on studies,” she says. “Conventional therapies for diabetes management include exercise, prescription medications, monitoring blood sugar levels, and eating healthy. But there is an interest in things people can add to those conventional therapies that might improve diabetes control or improve overall health. This is an interesting topic in general for people looking for alternative therapies for management of a disease.”

Roffelsen says people may hear from a family member or friend about a supplement claiming to lower blood pressure or blood sugar, but it’s important to get all the facts and use caution before trying something new, even if it’s over-the-counter.

“Sometimes there’s a perception that dietary supplements are a ‘natural’ addition, and that because of this, they’re either safe or better than conventional therapies,” she explains. “During this seminar, I’ll be defining what a dietary supplement is, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and compare how their regulation differs to that of a prescription drug.

“We will also discuss some of the supplements that have had clinical trials, or are currently being studied, to see what their true effectiveness is in regards to diabetes-related factors like blood sugar control, neuropathy, and inflammation.”

She points out that consumers need to be cautious of claims by dietary supplement manufacturers, simply because the FDA does not require the same rigorous evaluation as it does for doctor-prescribed medications.

“The FDA does not evaluate the claims made by a dietary supplement, so it can be marketed without proof of safety or efficacy—meaning without evidence-based studies or research,” she says. “The FDA does have good manufacturing guidelines in place for supplement manufacturers to follow in terms of cleanliness, but requirements for dietary supplements fall very short compared to the regulations required of prescription medications in that they do not have to provide scientifically valid evidence of what the drug does.

“So, there’s a question of: are you getting what the bottle says it contains and will it do what it claims it will do?”

This does not mean that all supplements are useless, according to Roffelsen. However, it is important to take steps to ensure you aren’t doing more harm than good by adding supplements to your routine. For individuals with diabetes, she recommends the following:

  • Do some research on the supplement you have an interest in, as well as finding reputable brands that produce it. There are on-going, government research studies of many promising herbs and dietary supplements, and that research is available on the Internet. There are also independent (and some not-for-profit) research firms—like United States Pharmacopeia (USP) and ConsumerLab.com—that review and test different brands of supplements. Check out their Web sites for more information.
  • Discuss with your health care providers, including your pharmacist, any supplements you’re thinking of taking before you take them.
  • Monitor your blood sugar more often. Any time you change medications or change how you’re managing your diabetes, there could be changes in your blood sugar control. Also, if for example, the supplement claims to lower blood sugar, says Roffelsen, you would want to monitor and see if you are getting the result you want.

Roffelsen adds that there are considerations people may not realize when contemplating adding a dietary supplement to their routine.

“A supplement might have impurities or something in it that will interact with prescribed medicines,” she says. “There are risks. People often think, ‘It’s natural, and there can’t be any harm,’ but these substances can be potent depending on what they are. They can have some adverse reactions with your liver and kidneys and make you very sick.

“Some supplements have shown an effect in lowering blood sugar, but if you’re taking your regular medicine, and you add these supplements, then there could be risk of lowering your blood sugar too much because of the combined effects.”

For individuals who don’t want to have to commit endless hours to Internet research about various supplements that they’ve heard might be useful, Roffelsen’s advice is to attend the upcoming Diabetes Matters class to learn more—the easy way.

“I’ll do all the research for them,” she says. “There are so many claims out there related to dietary supplements, so I’ve distilled the information down to the ones with decent trials. The good news is that there’s so much interest in this area that there are ongoing trials looking at these supplements. People want more information, and I want them to get the facts.”

Get the facts

Attend Roffelsen’s talk next Thursday to learn more about dietary supplements, including how to evaluate if a supplement is right for you, as well as Internet resources for evaluating them, and the latest studies and research that are available.

“Dietary Supplements: What You Should Know” will take place on Thursday, Jan. 5, from 7 to 8 p.m. in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium, located at 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West) in Fremont. Stay for the Diabetes Support Group meeting from 8 to 9 p.m.

No registration is required. Call (510) 745-6556 or visit www.whhs.com/diabetes for more information.