Harriet A. Hall, MD, know as the SkepDoc, is a retired family physician and former Air Force flight surgeon who writes about medicine, quackery, and critical thinking for Skeptic Magazine and the Science-Based Medicine blog, which she co-founded. I thought she’d be a great person to ask about the value of health supplements and beauty products, since I’m always trying to get everyone to buy less crap!
1. What cold medications, if any, are worth buying? Other than zinc supplements, I haven’t seen anything that has research behind it that shows it lessens the length of a cold.
In my opinion, there are no cold medicines worth buying. A cold lasts seven days if you treat it and a week if you don’t. There are comfort measures that might make you feel a little better, like decongestants or salt water nasal irrigation or a hot toddy or Tylenol or chicken soup. But no medicines significantly affect the course of the cold. Colds are best treated with “tincture of time.” I like to reframe the idea of a cold as a good excuse for a mini-vacation. You can rest, take naps, put your responsibilities on hold, and pamper yourself.
2. What are the pros and cons of vitamin and mineral supplements? Does the average person need them, or should you only take them when you have a diagnosed deficiency?
There was a good review of vitamin supplements in The Medical Letter. They said “supplements are necessary to assure adequate intake of folic acid in young women and possibly of vitamins D and B12 in the elderly. There is no convincing evidence that taking supplements of vitamin C prevents any disease except scurvy. Women should not take vitamin A supplements during pregnancy or after menopause. No one should take high dose beta carotene supplements. A balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables may be safer than taking vitamin supplements. No biologically active substance taken for a long term can be assumed to be free of risk.”
The average healthy person does not need vitamin or mineral supplements, and taking them only results in expensive urine. Multivitamins are not indicated. Specific supplements may be indicated for specific reasons: your doctor will let you know if you need them.
3. What trendy health supplements are actually worth it? What about probiotics?
No trendy supplements are worth it. If they had been tested and proven to be safe and effective, they would not be trendy supplements but would be FDA approved as prescription or over-the-counter drugs. There are some preliminary studies showing benefits for probiotics in specific medical conditions, but the sales hype goes far beyond the evidence. My digestive system can regulate itself quite well without the help of Activia, thank you very much!
4. Do any weight loss supplements actually work?
The ads that say “eat all you want and still lose weight” are lying. Stimulants can increase metabolism and might make a small contribution to weight loss, but ephedra is off the market and you can get more health benefits from coffee than from caffeine in pills. Weight loss supplements can act as a placebo aid to motivation, but they don’t have any objective effects. The most effective aid to weight loss is to keep a food diary and systematically reduce your calorie intake. No cost involved except the cost of paper, and you’ll save money by buying less food.
5. What’s your take on traditional Chinese medicine? Has any of that stuff been subject to thorough enough testing to know if it works?
Most Chinese herbs have not been adequately tested. Some of them have been shown to work but have not been tested for safety as rigorously as prescription drugs. In general, the mixture of ingredients in the herb works no better than a purified active ingredient, and some of the other plant compounds might be counterproductive. My biggest concern about Chinese herbal medicines is a lack of quality control. Products on sale have been found to contain toxins, carcinogens, insect parts, etc. and the dosage listed on the label may not reflect what you are actually getting.
6. Are any anti-aging products effective?
“Anti-aging” creams are not anti-aging. They do nothing but temporarily improve the appearance of the skin. Expensive moisturizers are no more effective than greasing the skin with Crisco; they’re just more aesthetically acceptable.
Thanks SkepDoc! With the money you’re going to save on these unnecessary products, you can go out and buy yourself some delicious healthy food, or a slightly used compostable hat. Have a great day!