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The Benefits of Dietary Supplements – Who Can You Believe?

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Try an online search of “benefits of dietary supplements” and see how many hits you get. Over a million, more than you could possibly read in a lifetime! Worse yet, if you tried reading from all these websites, you would find a lot of conflicting information and just plain hype. To get at the truth of the matter, you will need to do an investigation, a regular “nutrition scene investigation”.

Here’s the best way to focus in on quality information: do your best to keep to the original scientific literature. Scientists control the quality of information that goes into their professional journals by the process of “peer review”. When a paper is submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, the article is not accepted until they have gotten at least 3 “peers”, scientists who share expertise in the subject area, to approve it for publication. This stringent evaluation, along with that of the journal editors’, helps to ensure that only the best and most unbiased information goes into the scientific literature.

Finding peer-reviewed scientific articles.

Here is one of the simplest ways to narrow an online search to peer-reviewed scientific journals: go directly to the professional databases in the National Library of Medicine hosted at the National Institutes of Health. This information is free to the pubic, and anyone with an online computer can do searches there Just Google “PubMed” and the first thing that comes up will take you to the search page for this database. If you search here for “benefits of dietary supplements”, you will whittle down your hits of over a million from your Google s search to about 1200 high quality hits of articles from the scientific literature.

Actually reading these professional articles from the scientific literature can be much harder to do. For one thing, It is the nature of scientific research and researchers to disagree about how to interpret the facts that they are uncovering. For another thing, research findings on the health benefits of supplements are just pieces of an elaborate puzzle that is health. Sometimes the individual pieces of the puzzle just don’t seem to match up at first until more is learned to make better sense of it all. In the meantime, as the scientific dialog carries on in the professional journals, the reader stands to become pretty confused by it all. Here are some ways to get at the best information out there: evaluate the authority of the researchers submitting the peer-reviewed article, and (my favorite) stick to review articles that give a bigger overview of current discoveries.

Often, the authors of review articles are invited to review a subject by virtue of the esteem that the scientific community has for their expertise and knowledge. Their reviews will give you a better overview of a topic that you are interested in, avoiding the nitty-gritty of new pieces of the puzzle as they arrive into the scientific literature. Often the review articles will have give a “meta-analysis” or statistical analysis of the myriad of scientific findings in order to arrive at a consensus view, avoiding much of the confusion that you may get from personally evaluating the individual scientific reports yourself. So, if you stick to review articles, you can save yourself a lot of frustration.

Evaluating the quality of the scientific article.

To evaluate the quality of an article found in a scientific journal, you can evaluate when the research was done, the institution where the scientists did the research, and the source of the scientists’ funding for their research. The abstracts, or article reviews, that turn up on your PubMed search will tell you when and where the scientists did the research. Generally speaking, the more recent the research, the more reliable the conclusions drawn from the results because the overarching patterns of health becomes more clear with time and scientific efforts. Research coming from universities or the National Institutes of Health are the most likely to be unbiased and of the highest quality.

While we expect the best and most unbiased work to be done in academic labs that have no direct monetary gain from their work, sometimes a company may be funding the research. To get information on the sources of funding of the research, you need the full text of the article. The funding sources are always listed at the end of the article and before the list of references cited. You can be comfortable if the research was government funded, by NIH (the National Institutes of Health), by NSF (the National Science Foundation), or the USDA (the US Department of Agriculture). If the research was privately funded, the research might still be valid, but you should take it with a grain of salt. Any attachment to a drug company, to a nutritional supplement company, or even to an organization that promotes some specific health agenda can sometimes taint the conclusions drawn by researchers.

PubMed will allow you to access some free full-text peer-reviewed journals online by selecting the “Limits” button, then “Links to free full text”, and then “Go”. Try this with a “benefits of supplements” search and you will limit your review articles to around 120, listed from the most recent to the earliest article to be listed on this online database (the early 1990s).

Is it worth the effort?

So, at this point, you have reduced the scope of your investigation from over a million to around 120 articles to read, a much more manageable situation! You have avoided sales hype from the nutritional supplement industry in order to get at the truth of the benefits of dietary supplements. You can also avoid the dubious nay-saying of companies such as the pharmaceutical industry who have a vested interest in the topic. Remember, they cannot patent nutritional supplements, so they look upon the nutritional supplement industry as their competitors. With a little effort, you can find some truly valuable and reliable information on what works and what does not work for health improvements. While this can require some diligence on your part, your health and pocketbook will benefit in the end.

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