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Are You Letting the Clerk at the Health Food Store Be Your Doctor?

The Potential Danger of Taking Advice From Vitamin and Health Food Store Staff

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Updated April 10, 2009

Are You Letting the Clerk at the Health Food Store Be Your Doctor?
A woman I know recently went to her local health food store, in search of help for two common thyroid symptoms: fatigue and difficulty losing weight. She returned home with a bag filled with various supplements, all "recommended" by the clerk at her health food store.

There was just one problem: some of the supplements that the clerk had recommended could actually make my friend's symptoms worse, or even be dangerous to her health.

I'm not saying that there aren't knowledgeable staff people at your local vitamin or health food store. Some of the people who work in these stores have read and studied herbal and natural approaches for years, and they can knowledgeably discuss vitamins, supplements, herbs and other remedies for various conditions.

But you, like my friend, are taking a big chance with your health if you walk into a health food or vitamin store, and ask a sales clerk: "What should I take to help my thyroid?" or "What supplements will make me feel less tired"? or "I need something for weight loss."

Let's face it. Some of the people dispensing advice are teenagers at their first jobs. They may be able to ring up a sale, or stock shelves, but they are not qualified to tell you what to take for your health problems. And even if the staff person is long out of high school, there is still no guarantee that you're dealing with someone who has any knowledge or expertise. Remember: these are almost always minimum wage positions -- not the type of jobs that are staffed by natural medicine experts, master herbalists, or nutritional consultants.

So why is it that we are willing to put our health in the hands of people who may have little idea what they're doing, or who may even give us dangerous advice? In the case of my friend, the clerk "diagnosed" her with an adrenal problem, saying "everyone who is tired has sluggish adrenals." The clerk also said "you need iodine, because everyone with a thyroid problem needs iodine." The clerk then "prescribed" thyroid and adrenal glandular supplements, a combination thyroid-formula supplement, kelp supplements, selenium, and a high-potency multivitamin.

What was the problem?

Glandular supplements can actually include thyroid hormone, and some hypothyroid patients on prescription thyroid medication have become dangerously hyperthyroid after adding glandular thyroid. There is also a concern expressed by many holistic practitioners about the safety of glandular supplements from animals. We don't know where the animals used to produce these supplements come from, how they were processed, or what diseases they may carry. Theoretically, there are concerns that animal supplements from cows may pose a risk of mad cow disease exposure. Consumer Reports has even put glandular supplements on its "Twelve supplements you should avoid" list.

Then there's the issue of iodine deficiency, and the recommendation of kelp. Certainly, some people are iodine deficient -- including some thyroid patients, and could benefit from iodine. But studies have shown that an estimated 20-25% of the American public is iodine deficient. And among those who are not deficient in iodine, supplemental iodine can aggravate or worsen the thyroid condition.

And let's not forget that if you are iodine deficient, kelp is not considered a reliable supplement for delivering iodine levels, as it can vary by as much as 50% from the stated levels. Iodine/iodide combination supplements, such as Iodoral or Lugol's solution, are considered much more reliable and effective.

That "thyroid formula" combination supplement? It contains more iodine, and surprise, more thyroid glandular. So my friend was getting double doses of iodine, iodine she might not even need.

Selenium is a mineral that is necessary for proper immune function, and can be a help to some people with autoimmune thyroid disease. But selenium is found in various foods, and experts caution that selenium from food and supplements should not exceed 200 to 400 mcg -- that's micrograms -- a day. Symptoms of toxic selenium exposure include significant hair loss, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue, fingernail changes, and skin blisters. Toxic effects of selenium may be seen with blood selenium concentrations that correspond to an intake of as little as several pills a day. The clerk recommended that my friend take 2 200 mcg. selenium pills a day, so she's making sure she "gets enough selenium."

And the high-potency multivitamin? That also had 100 mcg of selenium in it. Plus 150 mcg of iodine. Oh, and let's not forget the 800 mcg of iron -- which, if taken within 4 hours of my friend's thyroid medication, can prevent proper absorption of her thyroid medication.

So, where did our health food store clerk's advice leave my friend?

  • Taking three different sources of iodine -- and if she's not iodine deficient, she may find all that iodine causing her goiter to enlarge, and her fatigue to get worse due to worsening of her thyroid inflammation.
  • At risk of selenium toxicity from chronic overexposure to selenium
  • Taking a multivitamin that, if taken with her thyroid medication, could actually prevent her from absorbing her thyroid medication and make her more hypothyroid
  • Taking glandulars that may make her hyperthyroid -- or could pose a potentially serious health risk down the road of brain disease
Vitamins, herbs, minerals, and nutritional supplements can be an important part of your health, and there is no question that for some patients, they are integral to living well with a thyroid condition.

But remember that if you have a chronic health condition like thyroid disease, you don't want to be taking chances with your health. If you want to take supplements, seek out a knowledgeable holistic/nutritional or herbal practitioner -- and not a store clerk, no matter how well-meaning -- for your health advice.

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