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Another patient, a healthy woman in her mid-30s who came to Dr. Andrew with sinus issues, tells the Scene she was prescribed 18 different supplements totaling more than $1,000. These included a $35 "ionic footbath" that former patients and employees report is offered to nearly all patients. The footbath purports to draw heavy metals through the feet using an electrical current, thus detoxifying the body. The water is supposed to change colors, representing the toxins being expressed from the body. A Guardian Unlimited science reporter found that the color change in the water was actually caused by oxidized iron, not toxins, from the corroding electrodes.
If 18 different supplements sounds like a huge amount to ingest, especially for a woman in her mid-30s, that's because it is, say medical professionals.
"If somebody's in the situation where they're getting prescribed that many supplements, if there's something that wrong with them, they probably need to see [a medical doctor]," says Jamie Pope, a licensed dietician and Vanderbilt University professor. "So much of that goes out your urine, but not all. It can still tax your kidneys. It can still cause some [gastrointestinal] upset."
Still, even for the Food and Drug Administration, it's difficult to track the actual number of people reporting adverse reactions to dietary supplements. In the early '90s, the United States Congress began considering legislation that would strengthen the FDA's ability to crack down on products with fraudulent health claims. Under intense pressure from the dietary supplement industry, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which took an entirely different tack: From then on, supplements would be regulated as food — which is to say, there'd be very little regulation at all.
The new legislation essentially turned the regulatory landscape into the Wild West, placing the onus on the purveyors of dietary supplements to ensure that their products are safe and that their advertisements are honest. A 2002 Harris poll showed a majority of us believe the FDA approves supplements before they go to market. Not true. It took a neutered FDA years to get products containing ephedra off the market, even after a number of deaths and thousands of adverse reactions were reported.
Rules regarding what statements can be made about a particular supplement's health benefits are vague. Almost anything other than the most outlandish promise is considered valid so long as the label states that the product isn't intended to treat, cure or diagnose any condition, and that the claims on the bottle haven't been evaluated by the FDA.
The loophole allows the products Dr. Andrew sells, for example, to tiptoe around the language by carefully claiming to "help with the symptoms" of complicated ills like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, depression and "Bipolar issues" — if the disclaimer is somewhere on the label.
Naturally, the supplement market became a bonanza as suppliers found themselves off the leash. At the time of the bill's passage in 1994, according to a Government Accountability Office report, a mere 4,000 dietary supplement products were available. By 2008, the report found, some 75,000 flooded the market.