Death by supplements

The annoying death crud that has gripped me continues apace. Fortunately, I happen to have a rather interesting guest blog post that I’ve had lying around a while, and now seems like the perfect time to use it. It comes from Dr. Arnon Krongrad, an expert in prostate cancer and minimally invasive surgery. I’m publishing it because he has a rather interesting observation about the use of supplements and how it may contribute to the development of aggressive prostate cancer. Here is Dr. Krongrad’s contribution:

What would you pay to have erections? Would you pay with your life? A report from Texas suggests that in some cases maybe you might. The report focuses on two men who developed aggressive prostate cancer after taking over-the-internet supplements. What is the risk?

In a day of pomegranate, lycopene, and other magic potions that “may” help you, the realities are: 1) the supplement industry is largely unregulated and 2) the Institute of Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration have found that health claims are largely unsupported, and 3) supplement use can be associated with death. The cancer supplement PC-SPES, which was spiked with the blood thinner warfarin, is a recent example. With supplements, the risk may be as real as the temptation.

Let’s examine two stories related to prostate cancer. One comes from the tightly controlled world of clinical trials. The other comes from the more tolerant world of online commerce.

In 1996, my colleagues and I published a study on selenium in prostate cancer prevention. In brief, we found an unprecedented 60% reduction of prostate cancer in men who received dietary supplements of selenium. Our study was imperfect and while it produced an interesting hypothesis – selenium reduces prostate cancer incidence – it had not been designed to give a definitive answer. Last year, a National Cancer Institute report found that selenium supplementation is associated with more aggressive prostate cancer and prostate cancer death. In other words, despite the hope given by our imperfect 1996 study, it may actually be that selenium supplements accelerate prostate cancer.

Doctors in Texas have now reported that two men developed aggressive prostate cancer after taking the same herbal supplement which they bought over the internet; they reportedly later died of prostate cancer. They had bought the supplement to improve muscle strength and sexual vigor. Both had had normal prostate examinations in the not-so-distant past. Both had unusually aggressive clinical courses. Laboratory analysis of the supplements revealed unlisted ingredients, including testosterone, and potent cancer-cell promoting properties of these supplements. The FDA has now become involved and the supplements have been taken off the market. But what about all the other supplements still available? What’s in them? We cannot easily know.

We have not yet identified a way to prevent prostate cancer. It may be that we have instead identified means to accelerate prostate cancer. Before you start to take supplements, see if they are being promoted as something that “may” provide a result. If they are, be careful. You want something that “will” provide a result, as proved with appropriately designed trials. As you’ll soon discover, products proven to provide results are rare. As shown, things that “may” help you “may” hurt you too.

Guest blogger Arnon Krongrad, MD is Medical Director of the Krongrad Institute for Minimally Invasive Prostate Surgery. He is Chairman of the Prostate Cancer Mission and Author of “Behind the Mask,” essays on prostate problems and more.