Migraines and Supplements - An Important GAO Report

Teri Robert @trobert Health Guide
  • Do you take herbal supplements for your Migraines, headaches, or other health issues? If so, you need to know about a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

    The GAO is known as "the investigative arm of Congress" and "the congressional watchdog." GAO supports the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and helps improve the performance and accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.

    On May 26, 2010, the GAO released a report: HERBAL DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS - Examples of Deceptive or Questionable Marketing Practices and Potentially Dangerous Advice.

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    What the GAO found:

    Certain dietary supplements commonly used by the elderly were deceptively or questionably marketed. FDA statutes and regulations do not permit sellers to make claims that their products can treat, prevent, or cure specific diseases. However, in several cases, written sales materials for products sold through online retailers claimed that herbal dietary supplements could treat, prevent, or cure conditions such as diabetes, cancer, or cardiovascular disease.

    When GAO shared these claims with FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), both agreed that the claims were improper and likely in violation of statutes and regulations. In addition, while posing as elderly customers, GAO investigators were often told by sales staff that a given supplement would prevent or cure conditions such as high cholesterol or Alzheimer’s disease. To hear clips of undercover calls, see http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-662T

    Perhaps more dangerously, GAO investigators were given potentially harmful medical advice. For example, a seller stated it was not a problem to take ginkgo biloba with aspirin to improve memory; however, FDA warns that combining aspirin and ginkgo biloba can increase a person’s risk of bleeding. In another case, a seller stated that an herbal dietary supplement could be taken instead of a medication prescribed by a doctor. GAO referred these sellers to FDA and FTC for appropriate action. The table below includes several deceptive claims made by sellers.

    Deceptive Marketing Claims for Herbal Supplements Found by GAO Investigators Claim


    Garlic prevents obesity and diabetes and cures cardiovascular disease.

    NIH does not recognize this herbal supplement as a treatment for obesity, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease.

    Ginseng cures diseases, including cancer.

    NIH specifically recommends that breast and uterine cancer patients avoid this product, as it may have an adverse interaction with some cancer drugs.

    Garlic can be taken in lieu of prescribed high blood pressure medication.

    Evidence that this product reduces high blood pressure is unclear, and both NIH and FDA state that no dietary supplement can take the place of prescribed medicines.

    Ginkgo biloba can be taken with a daily aspirin prescription.

    Taking this product with aspirin may increase the risk of bleeding.

    Ginkgo biloba treats Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and impotence.

    No clear scientific evidence supports any of these treatment claims.

  • GAO also found trace amounts of at least one potentially hazardous contaminant in 37 of the 40 herbal dietary supplement products tested, though none in amounts considered to pose an acute toxicity hazard. All 37 supplements tested positive for trace amounts of lead; of those, 32 also contained mercury, 28 cadmium, 21 arsenic, and 18 residues from at least one pesticide. The levels of heavy metals found do not exceed any FDA or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations governing dietary supplements or their raw ingredients, and FDA and EPA officials did not express concern regarding any immediate negative health consequences from consuming these 40 supplements. While the manufacturers GAO spoke with were concerned about finding any contaminants in their supplements, they noted that the levels identified were too low to raise any issues internal product testing.

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    The table below describes what some potential effects of the contaminants found in these supplements:


    Potential Negative Health Effects of Contaminants Tested for in Selected Herbal Dietary Supplements Contaminant

    Negative health effects


    Known to increase risk of lung and skin cancer. Long-term exposure can cause skin pigment changes and a thickening of the skin of the hands and feet.


    Known to cause increased risk of leukemia and testicular tumors. Long-term exposure to lower levels can lead to kidney disease, lung damage, and fragile bones.


    May cause increased risk of lung, stomach, and bladder cancer.


    May cause fever, insomnia, and mood shifts. High levels may cause blindness, deafness, and long-term exposure may cause severe renal damage.


    Cholinesterase inhibitor.


    Light exposure may cause headaches, blurred vision, watery eyes, dizziness, confusion, diarrhea, and change in heart rate. Heavy exposure may cause seizures, coma, and death.


    May increase risk of liver and thyroid tumors.


    May cause liver or kidney problems.


    May cause liver, thyroid, and kidney damage; may increase risk of liver, kidney, and thyroid cancer.


    There are some dietary supplements that can be quite helpful for Migraines and headaches. Some of them are integral parts of my own Migraine management regimen. We must, however, be very careful in choosing which supplements to take and where we purchase them. We must also remember that supplements are drugs, and we need to talk with our doctors before adding them to our regimen. (See Supplements for Migraine - They ARE Drugs for more information.)

    If you'd like to read more about this particular issue, I encourage you to read HERBAL DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS - Examples of Deceptive or Questionable Marketing Practices and Potentially Dangerous Advice.



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    U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). HERBAL DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS - Examples of Deceptive or Questionable Marketing Practices and Potentially Dangerous Advice. May 26, 2010.

    Live well,


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    Page copy protected against web site content infringement by Copyscape© Teri Robert, 2010
    Last updated June 1, 2010
Published On: June 01, 2010