Supplement This: A Rant About CoQ10 and MSA

Hey, you want to piss me off? Talk to me about the miraculous health benefits of vitamins and supplements! Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, Vitamin R2D2, Fish Oil, Hemp Oil, Pressed Hipster Oils, whatever it is that a cousin of a friend of a colleague says works to cure, relieve, or reverse cancer, multiple system atrophy (MSA), or death itself.

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Say what you will about the moral standards of the pharmaceutical industry: They at least have to adhere to some pretty strict testing and quality standards before they can put their (typically overpriced) products on the market. So it’s galling to me to think that manufacturers of vitamins and supplements can bypass the whole “clinical trial” phase, slap a label on any old vitamin, and make money hand over fist on the strength of a dubious claim. It’s modern-day snake oil and the kind of practice that spurred the creation of the FDA in the first place.

There are differences, of course: Today’s consumers are typically a bit savvier than 100+ years ago. And the stuff being peddled today isn’t as lethal as what great-great-grandpappy bought (tincture of cocaine, anyone?). I’m also not saying that there aren’t health benefits to be had from Vitamin C or a good old-fashioned multivitamin. But when someone has a condition as serious as multiple system atrophy (MSA)—a disease with symptoms such as lack of coordination to loss of bowel and bladder control—the promise of something, anything to help ease the symptoms must to seem like a beacon in the night.

And that brings us back to supplements. Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician who blogs and answers questions for Wisconsin Public Radio. One of those questions came from a listener who’d heard that the antioxidant CoQ10 does wonders for strengthening your heart and boosting your energy. Dr. Paster’s full answer is worth a read. As he points out, there actually is some evidence that CoQ10 can help with the symptoms of MSA, as shown in a small study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. That’s promising, but more studies with larger patient groups are needed to turn an interesting theory into verifiable evidence of efficacy.

So… what to do in the meantime? As Dr. Paster points out, much depends on you being an educated consumer and working closely with your doctor to figure out what you’re comfortable with. And if you decide together that yes, a supplement is worth your while, you need to do a little more work to determine which supplement brands actually do what they say on the label. It turns out that while clinical trials aren’t required to market vitamins and supplements, there are consumer organizations out there doing their own quality tests.

So what’s the takeaway here? Basically, approach using vitamins and supplements the way you’d approach any other medication. Ask your doctor questions, do your research, and figure out if the benefits are worthwhile. And if the claim you’re hearing is completely outrageous and too good to be true… well, you know the rest.

Ronald Ledsen

Ronald Ledsen

After emigrating from his native Sweden, Ronald spent a stint in the Merchant Marines while trying to work out what he wanted to do with his life. He discovered a love of writing while helping a friend write anonymous Harry Potter fan-fiction online; he discovered meaning to his writing when he began journaling after an anxiety disorder diagnosis. Ronald is most relaxed when spending quiet time with his wife, two sons, and hyperactive cat.

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