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"Weekend House Call": Interview with Dr. Andrew Weil

Aired March 20, 2004 - 08:30   ET


HOLLY FIRFER, MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning and welcome to "Weekend House Call."
We're talking about supplement safety today. As many as 17 million Americans used ephedra at one time to boost energy and lose weight. Athletes from weekend warriors to the pros used andro to pump up their fitness level. Now the FDA has banned both of the products, citing health risks.

Do you need to be worried about your supplements?


TOMMY THOMPSON, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECY.: We will continue our aggressive steps to protect consumers from products and drugs that promise greater performance but instead put health at great risk.

FIRFER (voice-over): The FDA is taking on supplements, first it was Ephedra and last week anesthesiologist was banned. Dietary supplements are regulated like drugs.

THOMPSON: When a pharmaceutical company wants to put a drug on the market they have to prove its (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and safety, but nutrition and food supplement drugs don't have to go through that process.

FIRFER: The government says law enforce is necessary and three months ago, they made history, banning for the first time an over-the- counter supplement Ephedra. The Department of Health and Human Services says it poses several health dangers including heart attacks, strokes, seizures and death, but ephedra marketing companies have claimed the drug is perfectly safe if taken as directed.

RICHARD KREIDER, EPHEDRA EDUCATION COUNCIL: It if it was dangerous and the clinical studies showed it was dangerous it would have been pulled off the market.

FIRFER: The other supplement targeted by the FDA androstenedione , or andro. It's a harmone found in the body naturally, but taken in synthetic form it creates testosterone and estrogen in the body much like a steroid does. Andro was made famous by record breaking slugger Mark McGuire. Manufacturers claim it allows athletes to train harder and recover more quickly, build muscle mass and improve energy. Critics of the supplement say it can lower hdl, the so called good cholesterol and raise the risk for heart disease, as well cancer, infertility and stroke.


FIRFER: Consumer spend more than $19 billion a year according to the nutrition business journal. Supplements can rev you up with energy or help you fight the common cold, but you do have to be careful about what you take and how much of it you take. To help us answer your questions about the safety of supplements, we've got best selling author and director of the Integrated Medicine Program at the University of Arizona, Dr. Andrew Weil. He's also the creator of, a great wellness resource. And he just finished the first annual Nutrition and Health Conference. Quite a busy man. Welcome doctor, we appreciate your time.


FIRFER: We've got a lot of questions. An e-mail from Mary in Ohio who ask, "Is there such a thing as good ephedra versus "bad" ephedra that has been altered through additives? Is there such a thing as a safe dose?"

What do you say, Dr. Weil?

WEIL: Many herbalists that I know use a natural ephedra tea to treat certain kinds of patients with asthma and respiratory conditions and Chinese practitioners have used the herb as well. So, I guess I would say that the whole herb which looks like sticks, when boiled into a tea and taken under the supervision of a practitioner, that would include an herbalist or Chinese medical doctor is probably safe.

FIRFER: I do want to point out as of April 12, selling ephedra will become illegal according to the new ban, the FDA ban.

WEIL: There is actually an exemption there for practitioners of Chinese medicine.

FIRFER: OK. Let me move on to the next question about sports supplements, a lot of questions there. They make up 10 percent of supplement sales. People take them to lose weight or help their fitness routine. The top selling sports supplements, protein powders, creatine, and prohormones such and andro.

So Tim, Nebraska wants to know if there are any side effects to taking creatine and if so, what might there be?

NEIL: There may be. Creatine taken by people to help put on muscle bulk may stress the kidneys if it's used in high dosage for a long time. I think people should have their kidney function checked. Should make sure they're drinking plenty of water. The gains that creatine gives you in terms of muscle bulking disappear almost as soon as you stop taking it.

So, the other question is, is it worth it?

FIRFER: They've done studied on creatine. Do they show it bulks you up that much? Have they been able to prove that?

WEIL: There is a modest gain when creatine is combined with muscle building exercise. So, there is a demonstration, that yes there is an effect, it's modest. But as I say it disappears almost as soon as you stop taking. Personally I wouldn't recommend it.

Staying on top of the pumping iron, Mike from Maryland writes, Do you have any opinion on the bodybuilding supplement nitric oxide? It has recently been marketed as providing a "perpetual pump" to body builders who use it."

Nitric oxide, I've not heard of that.

Is that safe?

WEIL: Actually, you should know that. Nitric oxide is one of the body's own major neurotransmitters. It's very important, it causes arteries to relax. It's one of the most important regulatory substances in the body. However, can you can't take as a supplement. It doesn't work that way. SO, this product is a scam.

FIRFER: OK, 2002 government report, 1 in 40 high school seniors said they use andro in the last year. Andro, we know can have serious side effects for adolescents. So Doctor Weil, any warnings for teens when it comes to sports supplements?

We know it's been pulled off the market but any sports supplement they want to take?

WEIL: Well, I think I would be wary of hormone. Andro is a hormone. It is not a good idea to take any hormone supplement unless there is it a documented deficiency of that hormone in the body and you're taking it under medical supervision. In terms of the other sports supplements out there, I think there's a lot of possible cautions. Many young people are forcing great quantities of protein into their body, taking protein powders on top of already high protein diets, that also puts a workload on the kidneys, the liver, probably not necessary.

FIRFER: And you talked about these protein supplements.

Melissa in New York wanted to know are there possible side effects of long-term use of whey protein supplements?

I know a lot of things we haven't seen a lot of long-term study results in some of the supplements.

What about these whey protein supplements?

WEIL: Whey protein is one of the principal proteins in cow's milk. I don't know of any dangers associated with it taken long-term, except in creating a top heavy intake of protein as I just said.

FIRFER: OK. Great. We have a lot more questions so we'll get to those coming up, Dr. Weil. Plus we have this. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FIRFER: Having a hard time sleeping?

One-third of Americans do. Could melatonin be the answer?

We'll get the facts on safety and effectiveness next. But first, take our daily dose quiz.

Where does the name Saint John's Wort originate?

Check your answer when we come back.




FIRFER: Checking the daily does quiz. We asked were does the Saint John's Wort originate. The answer is, Saint John's Wort is named for John the Baptist since it's often harvested around the feast of Saint John the Baptist on June 24. And the word Wort stands for plant.


Welcome back to "Weekend House Call." Saint John's Wort has been used for centuries to treat various ailments but is best known for its claims of treated mild to moderate depression. But you need to be careful mixing certain medications with the herb. For example it can reduce the effectiveness of certain birth control pills and it can interact with heart and HIV medications, among others. And as always, make sure to check with your doctor before adding any supplement to your daily routine. We're talking this morning with best selling author Dr. Andrew Weil.

And Dr. Weil, what's your advice for those taking or thinking of taking Saint John's Wort?

WEIL: Well, remember that it's indicated for mild to moderate depression. Severe depression should go to a mental health professional and may require pharmaceutical medication. Also you have to be patient with Saint John's Wort. It may take three to six weeks or more to produce a full effect and there are concerns about adding it -- additive effects if you're taking it with prescription antidepressants.

FIRFER: We know Saint John's Wort has been used for sleep disorders. But melatonin is probably the best known supplement for that problem. And studies have shown it plays a role in our sleep and wake cycles and it can improve sleep in some cases.

Richard from New York asks, "How does valerian work as a sleep inducer? And what about melatonin?" And he says, he saw "a product that combines valerian and melatonin." How effective would that be," Dr. Neil.

WEIL: Valerian is an herb from the European tradition that's been used for centuries as a safe sedative. It is very safe. It doesn't cause a hangover. It's not toxic. That would really be my first choice for someone who wants to try a natural sleep aid. Melatonin works differently. The two can be combined. I would probably experiment with each one separately before combining them. And as a general piece of advice it's not a good idea to rely on any substance night after night. I think it's good to investigate the reasons why sleep is not occurring normally, to improve sleep hygiene, reduce sleep noise, getting a better mattress, learn how to stop your thinking mind and use the substances occasionally.

FIRFER: Lets move on to another common alignment, arthritis. A supplement trial is under way by the NIH looking at glucosamine and condrodroitin. These two substances may help those suffering from that sometimes very crippling disease. Researchers believe glucosamine helps limit inflation and help fire up cartilage growth and while chondroitin helps keep cartilage strong.

And Nancy in Virginia wants to know, "Can taking glucosamine and chondroitin be harmful? What are the side effects?"

And I would also put to you, Dr. Neil, what about long-term?

Because obviously arthritis can be a degenerative disease if you take these on a long-term basis.

WEIL: I think these are quite safety. Toxicity is extremely low. There are rare allergies that may occur to chondroitin, but in general these are safe for long-term use and certainly the indications from the small studies that have been done are that these are effective. We waiting the awaiting results of the long-term study.

Pamela from California writes, "I have heard that organic-based vitamin supplements are safer and more effective than synthetic-based. Is this true? If so, how can a consumer tell them apart?"

I know that's kind of tricky labeling because there really is no strict labeling. How do you know?

WEIL: I think you've got to inform yourself about the names used on labels. And I would recommend here going to my Web site,, which is a great information resource on the issue. With vitamin C there's no difference between organic vitamin C and synthetic. They are used by the body in exactly the same way. The organic forms may be more expensive. On the other hand, if you look at a trace mineral like selenium, there are differences between the inorganic form called sodium selenite and the organic form which is called yeast bound selenium, the latter is better used by the body. This has to be looked at on a case by case basis and you got to learn the names you find on the labels.

FIRFER: And Dr. Weil, you know when you get a supplement from the store, you look at the label and it's got the ingredients. But since there is no firm regulation, how do you know how much of one supplement you're getting? Could you have one product and have more of one ingredient than in another?

How do you balance that with how much you want to take?

WEIL: Again, you have to be an informed consumer. That mean, seeking out reliable sources of information. So you can know, exactly what it is a good idea to take and how much. And then I think you to place your trust in manufacturers that have good reputations, and who are willing to share with you information on whether where they source their raw materials, what kind of quality controls they have built into their products.

FIRFER: Also when you look at the labels and see what the ingredients are, you see a lot of ingredients in there, some are active herbs and some are what you know fillers.

Susan in New York wanted to know, "How can we know the fillers used in the supplements are safe?"

The fillers have to be identified and there are some that are like talc. So again, this is a matter of learning specific substances that you might not want to ingest, and then looking for those in the label. Again, if you place your trust in manufacturers that have good reputations, you're not going to find unhealthy fillers there.

FIRFER: OK, great. Good advice. Coming up, is there a magic pill for weight loss?


FIRFER: Supplements and the battle of the bulge. Can herbs and minerals help you drop pounds or at least keep you from gaining a few?

We'll separate fact from fiction when we come back.



FIRFER: Glad you're back. It seems Americans are in a constant battle against weight. 65 percent of adults and 15 percent of kids are overweight. Earlier this month, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that obesity and inactivity could soon overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death.

Now we're talking with wellness expert and best selling author Dr. Andrew Weil. Doctor, the meetings you just attended focused a lot on obesity and nutrition.

What was the most important thing that came out of that conference in that area?

WEIL: This was a conference for health professionals from all over the country to present them with cutting edge information on science, on the science of nutrition and health. I think the greatest message here is that Americans are eating too much of the wrong kinds of foods. And that there is a great deal of information that people don't have, particularly about the differences between different kinds of carbohydrate foods and different fats and how the choices you make here really influence how your body behaves.

FIRFER: Let me ask you, as far as losing weight, we see a lot of the protein drinks, protein powders, protein shakes. People are taking them either as meal substitutes or in addition to meals. Is that lending to the obesity problem and is it dangerous to take those as a supplement to a meal?

WEIL: Well, I think the danger is if you're getting too much total protein in the day which I say puts a workload on your liver and kidneys. It is true that protein is the most satiating of the macro nutrients. So I think it's probably a good to eat some protein at every meal because it makes you feel less hungry. My preference though would be eat protein foods rather than protein supplements.

FIRFER: We have e-mails from a lot of people looking to supplements to help with their weight loss.

And John from Illinois wants to know, Are there any safe supplements that help curb your appetite?

WEIL: Really not. All of the supplements that work in this category are stimulants, and all stimulants are addictive. They have undesirable side effects, and you'll gain all the weight back when you stop using them. So in a word, no.

FIRFER: If you take a supplement that's a stimulant, do you build a tolerance for it where you'd have to take more and more as you mentioned and as you mentioned it becomes addictive.

WEIL: Often and this is the experience we've seen over the years when doctors were prescribing amphetamines for example, for weight loss. There's initially a rapid loss of weight, then people get used to the effect of the drug. They go on taking it, often have to increase dosages, get undesirable side effects, all of the things we saw with ephedra as well, but in addition the weight begins coming back. And when people stop all the weight comes back.

FIRFER: OK, the anonymous from Massachusetts writes, "I'm wondering about the safety and ethnicity of TrimSpa, which has recently received a lot of publicity lately due to it's use by Anna Nicole Smith." You know, how we love television, we love our TV ads.

Is this a safe product, products like this, are they safe?

WEIL: Oh, they're probably safe but ineffective. This is one of those miracle pills. Anything that advertises that you can go on eating as you like and take a pill and lose weight just don't believe it. This one has minerals in it like chromium, which have a modest effect on blood sugar and are maybe useful for treating people with type II diabetes. They're not going to help anyone lose weight.

FIRFER: Still waiting for the magic pill. We'll be back with more "Weekend House Call."


FIRFER: If you're up for another quiz, stay tuned. We'll show you where you can brush up on your supplement ABCs.

Plus, if your wondering about a supplement we have not talked about, we'll give you a site where you can look up information on your own.

First check out this week's medical headlines in today's "For Your Health."

Knoxville, Little Rock and St. Louis are the top three asthma capitals in the country according to a new report. The Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America used indicators such as the number of asthma patients in the city, air quality and smoking laws to make a list of the 100 worst cities for asthma sufferers nationwide.

A new trust for aspirin resistance may soon be as critical to heart patients as a cholesterol test. Aspirin is commonly prescribed for those up to risk of heart disease or have suffered a heart attack. Up to 40 percent of patients being resistant, the new test will allow doctors to determine whether an aspirin prescription will be effective.



FIRFER: For more information about dietary supplements, go to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements at Once you are there, click on health information, and you'll find a list of sources for consumers. We especially like the fact sheets option where can he question look up everything from garlic to zinc. And if you want to west your knowledge supplements, click on, You're going to find a supplement quiz, and that site is run by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a diet supplement trade group.

Make sure to check out Dr. Weil's site at

And Dr. Weil I wanted to follow up a question that we had brought up earlier. You mentioned it's OK for some Chinese doctors to sell certain supplements that have been recently been banned, why is that?

WEIL: No, I said it's exempted for them to use ephedra in herb form as part of their traditional treatment, because this has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat bronchitis is and asthma. So this exemption was made because this is a traditional use that's grandfathered and doesn't present the problem of the ephedra supplements.

FIRFER: Some good information. I wanted to clear that up. And Dr. Weil, one more thought for everyone?

WEIL: I think the real answer here is that our health professionals have to be educated about dietary supplements, because really it's your physician and pharmacist who should be able to advise you about benefits, danger and proper uses. At the moment, they're not given that kind of education. We're working to change that in the program in Integrated Medicine at the University of Arizona. So, I hope in the near future you'll be able to go to your pharmacist and physician and get the questions answered.

FIRFER: Great. Some very useful information today. We appreciate your time. Unfortunately, we're out of time. Many more questions but we appreciate you being here, Dr. Weil, in answering all of your e-mails. And thank you for everybody writing in.

Tune in next week when Dr. Sanjay Gupta will be down in Florida for spring training. What do you need to do to get ready for your own spring training? From weekend warriors to the kids' leagues, we're going to find out how you can stay healthy while playing hard. Go ahead, and e-mail us your questions for that show at Thanks so much for watching. I'm Holly Firfer. Stay tuned right here to CNN for more news.


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