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Er, What Were We Saying?

September 01, 2002

We've been meaning to comment for several weeks now--or was it just one?--on the controversy over whether herbal and other supplements do good things like improve human memory. Over the centuries, health-seeking humans have self-prescribed a lot of pills, elixirs, potions, powders, creams and downright foul-smelling, evil-tasting stuff. But everybody still died anyway. So earnest American Medical Assn. researchers took a chill pill and decided to do one of those randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group trials on ginkgo supplements. They got 230 folks over 60 to remember to down 40 milligrams of ginkgo or a placebo three times per day. They took tests before and after and were interviewed both times too.

Millions of Americans consume such daily supplements. We've always been an up-and-at-'em, take-charge society that likes new things--new worlds, new lands, new spouses, new bodies, hopefully without new wrinkles. One new study suggests that rubbing caffeine on exposed areas prevents skin cancer, a new reason to spill coffee.

Every year, Americans rub oceans of stuff all over their bodies and swallow tons of supplements because we want less fat, more muscle, less hair, less hair loss, more color, less curls, more curls, smoother skin, better eyes, less wrinkles, larger body parts in front, less acid, smaller body parts in back, fewer pimples, better breath, thicker bones, regular heartbeat, punctual bowels, supple ligaments, more libido, less libido, reduced anxiety, more sleepiness, more alertness, less depression, clear arteries. There are diet supplements to get larger and others to get smaller. Some people even consume those powdery bars of ersatz chocolate. Others supplement the supplements with alcohol and cheer for the Raiders.

Of course, in place of the $16-billion supplement industry, we could just eat good foods. Who needs carrot pills if you're munching carrots? But eating properly is too simple. We're too rushed to chew. And after all the supplements, we don't have room left for food anyway.

Now, what were we talking about? Right, the ginkgo memory study. The Journal of the AMA, never a huge fan of over-the-counter medicines that don't require over-the-desk prescriptions, used impressive scholarly gobbledygook to say ginkgo didn't do anything for memory one way or the other. As best we can recall anyway.

The Herb Research Foundation, never a huge fan of associations that aren't huge fans of alternative medicines, sees the dietary supplement industry as being under siege. The unregulated industry has no product standardization, and benefit claims are easier to suspect than prove. Not surprising when even taking the substance can't help you remember whether it's gingko or ginkgo.

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