A man goes to the hospital for a routine surgery. Though he has had prostate cancer, it’s in remission. He appears healthy. He says he cycles 50 miles a week.

Then his doctors discover that his blood oxygen levels are extremely low. They run tests and find a elevated levels of cyanide in his blood. Why?

For 5 years, he had been self-medicating with apricot pits and kernel supplements in hopes of keeping his cancer at bay. The amygdalin (also referred to as laetrile) they contain is touted by some as an anti-cancer nutrient. The body converts it to cyanide, which in turn is said to kill cancer cells while sparing healthy ones.

The case history was recently published in BMJ Case Reports.

Whether there’s a time and place for this particular supplement isn’t our concern here. What jumped out at us when we first heard about this report is how it illustrates one of the perils of self-medication.

This case illustrates how chronic dosing of complementary medicines can result in harmful toxicities, which may carry potential for serious consequences and how these chronic toxicities may present to physicians in atypical ways.

In these days of soaring medical costs and easy access to all kinds of health info online, it’s not hard to see why someone would choose to self-diagnose and self-medicate. On the whole, supplements are extremely safe – far safer than pharmaceutical drugs – and are readily available. There would seem to be no harm in trying out this “natural” DIY treatment or that.

Yet it’s important to realize that supplements are not drug analogs. Rather, they’re a way of supplying nutrients (or, in the case of homeopathics, information) that the body can use to self-repair and restore as it was designed to do. And there are a lot of things to consider, such as

  • Is the supplement the right supplement? Does it address real physiological needs?

  • supplement aisle

    Are you taking a good quality supplement? Not all supplements are created equal. Synthetic forms may not be as effective as natural forms, derived from organic whole foods.

  • Are you taking the right dosage? Presuming the supplement is appropriate, are you taking enough to get the effects you desire? Are you taking more than you need and risking harmful side effects?

  • Do you know if there are any harmful interactions between the supplement and other medicine you’re taking? Combinations such as St. John’s wort and SSRIs or B complex and statins can cause serious damage. If there is a risk of harm, is there another supplement that might still be appropriate?

  • Is the supplement alone enough? Does it need to be taken with other nutrients or medicines in order to do what you want it to? Are other therapies or lifestyle changes called for?

The most common chronic illnesses today are multifactorial and thus need to be addressed by far more than just taking a single supplement or remedy. Because of that complexity, it’s wisest to have a trained and knowledgeable physician or other health professional to guide you – not just to the right supplements but the right overall approach for meeting your health goals.

Taking charge of your health doesn’t mean you go it alone.

Holistic, functional, integrative medicine aims to do more than just manage symptoms. We look for the root causes of your health woes and help you address them by giving your body what it needs to heal and thrive.

So we look at the big picture to give you a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. We analyze your whole health history, as well as your current health status, challenges, and lifestyle.

With this broader understanding, we can create a personalized plan – one suited to your needs, goals, and values – to help your body mend.

No, it may not be as convenient as trying something you saw on the internet, but it’s far more apt to deliver the results you want and deserve.

Image by Clean Wal-Mart, via Flickr


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