There are plenty of products that promise a quick cure without a visit to the doctor. A promise like that may have you picking up a bottle of pills without thinking about whether they really work. And while there are certainly products that work, many vitamins, supplements, and remedies exist solely to put a hole in your pocketbook.
So stop wasting your money. These products — which you're likely to find on the shelves of your local grocery or drug store — probably won't do anything for your health.
America Spends Billions on Snake Oil
The biggest cash cows are dietary supplements, including vitamins, herbs, and homeopathic remedies. Americans spend a staggering $36 billion a year on dietary supplements. But while we happily shell out cash for the promise of health, many supplements have little or no effect.
A product's packaging might make bold promises, but if you read the fine print you'll find this on the label: "These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." That said, even though products can't promise a cure, they can absolutely suggest one with lofty phrases like "supports bone health" or "helps immune function." It's easy to mistake such claims for guarantees.
Because supplements aren't actually drugs, the FDA doesn't review their effectiveness — or even their contents. In fact, when the New York State attorney general's office looked into herbal supplement sales in the state, it found that just 21% of the supplements tested contained the ingredients listed on the packaging.
Vitamins and Multivitamins
Taking vitamins seems like a quick fix for getting the nutrients you need, but most studies say they don't prevent disease or increase your lifespan. Worse, vitamins can have health risks: both Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Mayo Clinic advise caution with vitamins.
If you don't eat well (by the way, we have tips on how to eat healthy for cheap), follow a limited diet (like vegetarian or vegan), or have a medical condition that prevents you from eating (or your body from absorbing) certain nutrients, a vitamin can help you fill in those nutritional gaps. The best way to find out if you have nutritional needs is to consult a medical professional. A doctor will be able to tell you exactly what kinds of vitamins you need, so your body is getting enough — but not too much — of every vitamin and mineral.
SEE ALSO: How to Eat Healthy on a Budget in 2020
If you feel you absolutely need to take a multivitamin, look for one that doesn't overload you with nutrients — 100% of the FDA recommended amount is usually plenty. Check the label and (unless your doctor advises otherwise) skip vitamins that go well over your daily requirements. Don't be fooled by fancy packaging or over-the-top health claims, either: such vitamins may well contain the same ingredients as more modestly packaged (and cheaper) vitamins.
And skip the gummy vitamins. These candy-like vitamins don't do anything a normal vitamin doesn't; they simply cost more and are loaded with sugar.
Immune System Boosters
Vitamin C and zinc are often touted as immune system boosters that can help cure the common cold. But if your doctor can't cure your cold, can an over-the-counter option really help?
You'll typically find these vitamins in products like Airborne and Emergen-C, both of which claim to "help support the immune system." But do these products actually work? Airborne handed over $30 million to settle a lawsuit about misleading advertising claims. According to the lawsuit, there was no evidence that Airborne could "prevent or reduce the risk of colds, sickness or infection; protect against or help fight germs; reduce the severity or duration of a cold; and protect against colds, sickness or infection in crowded places such as airplanes, offices or schools." Still, Airborne remains on store shelves, next to tons of similar products. And while there haven't been any studies on these specific remedies, a lot of research has gone into their ingredients.
The primary cold-fighting ingredient in most of these supplements is vitamin C. But the reality doesn't live up to the hype: at best, vitamin C is "moderately beneficial." On top of that moderate benefit, doses above 2,000 mg per day can cause nausea and abdominal pain — and most "immune boosting" supplements contain 1,000 mg per dose.
When it comes to zinc, some studies say it can reduce the duration of colds, but there hasn't been enough research for doctors to give it their seal of approval. Zinc can also have unpleasant side effects that could be worse than your cold. Not only can it cause nausea and stomach cramps, but it can reduce the effectiveness of certain prescription medications (including antibiotics and treatments for rheumatoid arthritis). Zinc nasal sprays can even permanently damage your sense of smell — though they're harder to find since the FDA started pulling them from store shelves.
If you're desperate to get rid of your cold, these so-called immune boosters won't do harm in low doses (save the zinc nasal sprays), but don't overdo it — and ditch the pricier immune system boosting supplements. A glass of orange juice, bowl of fortified cereal, or a simple multivitamin could offer the same benefits.
Some herbs can have health benefits, but they haven't been as well researched as prescription and over-the-counter medications — which means doctors don't know enough about them to recommend them. That means you're on your own to find out whether a particular supplement can actually meet the claims on the bottle. Still, what harm could these plants do?
It turns out herbs can do quite a lot of harm, and to more than just your pocketbook. While you may see these pills labeled as "natural" remedies, natural doesn't mean "safe." Many so-called miracle cures have side effects or interactions with prescription medications — if they actually include the ingredients on the label, that is.
For example, let's consider one popular herbal remedy: St. John's wort. Commonly advertised to help with depression, the herb has a long list of side effects and drug interactions. It can make many medications — including antidepressants, chemotherapy drugs, birth control pills, and anticonvulsants — less effective, causing potentially dangerous health problems. The Mayo Clinic says that while herbal supplements marketed to treat depression show promise, you should take them with caution.
Some herbal remedies have even been banned by the FDA for causing health problems. The herb ephedra, marketed to help with weight loss and improve energy, can also lead to heart problems — including heart attack, stroke, seizure and death.
These supplements can be pricey, and the potential benefits may not outweigh the risks. If you really want to try a herbal supplement, be careful. Do some research on your own and talk to your doctor to be sure there aren't any health risks. Then, just like you would with any medication, watch out for side effects or allergic reactions — and stop taking the supplement and contact your doctor immediately if any occur.
Homeopathic remedies are the most questionable cures on this list, and yet homeopathy is a billion dollar industry. As with herbs, homeopathy is often touted as a "natural" cure. You may take this to mean these products are safe, but, again, that's not always the case.
Homeopathic remedies include harmful substances in very low doses with the theory that "like cures like." And while those low doses shouldn't be enough to cause harm, sometimes they do. Homeopathy has even led to death, as with homeopathic teething products for babies. These products contained belladonna, which you may be more familiar with under the name "deadly nightshade."
If you think it sounds ridiculous to call anything with "deadly nightshade" on the ingredient list a health cure, scientists agrees with you. The National Institutes of Health notes that "several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics." And if that wasn't enough to discourage you from homeopathy, the NIH adds, "there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition."
Our advice? Skip homeopathy entirely.
Readers, how do you stay healthy during cold and flu season? Do you think there's any harm in taking a couple vitamins every day? Share your thoughts in the comments below!