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Medicine

Dispensing advice on herbal aids

Clerks who sell supplements often recommend unproven treatments, research shows.

August 11, 2003|Elena Conis | Times Staff Writer

People who sell herbs and other supplements may not be the best sources of health advice.

When asked which supplements they would recommend for a woman with breast cancer, health food store clerks in a recent study responded with a litany of supplement suggestions, most of which have not been proven effective against the disease.

Only a few warned of possible interactions with prescription drugs, and one store employee even suggested a woman stop her prescription regimen completely.

"Patients should be talking about their use of natural products with their physicians" and not relying solely on the advice they get in retail outlets, said study author Edward Mills, director of research at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

Researchers from the college visited 34 health food stores in an unnamed Canadian city, posing as customers shopping for a mother with breast cancer. Employees in 27 of the stores recommended an array of purportedly helpful products.

Employees in the other seven stores did not offer advice.

Mills said many of the recommended products were costly, and testing on them has not been conclusive. The most expensive product was a mushroom extract called MGN; at the suggested dose of 12 capsules a day, it would cost $430 a month in the United States.

Few employees warned customers about potential interactions between prescription drugs and herbal medications. More than two-thirds did not ask customers about their mothers' prescription drug use and just eight mentioned the possibility of a drug interaction.

Anything metabolized in the same part of the body as a cancer drug can affect that drug's effectiveness, said Mills. Most medications, including herbal ones, are processed by the liver, he said, so the potential for interaction is great.

An Oregon Health Sciences study published in the American Journal of Surgery in 2000 showed that 84% of breast cancer patients reported using an alternative therapy for their illness. The study also concluded that breast cancer patients were more likely than other cancer patients to turn to alternative treatments.

Products recommended by health food store employees in the current study included multivitamins and single-vitamin supplements, antioxidant formulas and mushroom extracts. The top two recommendations were herbal teas containing burdock root, slippery elm and Turkish rhubarb.

At some stores, employees gave customers accurate information or simply suggested they talk to their doctors, Mills said. But most worrisome, he noted, was one employee's advice to stop taking Tamoxifen -- an anti-estrogen drug given to breast cancer patients -- and the assertions by two others that the products they were selling could cure breast cancer. "None of these products have been shown to cure cancer in clinical trials," he said.

The study was published in the Aug. 6 issue of Breast Cancer Research.

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