I’ve long been skeptical of the dozens of nutritional supplements on the market that claim to “enhance your mood” or promote a healthy “emotional balance.” A healthy emotional balance comes from learning specific psychological skills in life to help you better cope with and benefit from your emotions — not from a pill.
So I found it more than a little bit strange when I was recently contacted by a marketing company promoting a “mood enhancing” supplement called Elimidrol. This supplement was marketed for over 2 1/2 years — with apparently little or no scientific evidence — by Sunrise Nutraceuticals as an effective remedy for opiate withdrawal.
How did this supplement make an apparent 180 degree marketing turn from helping to relieve opiate withdrawal to mood enhancer so readily?
In a word, it’s all about disease.
In the U.S., you can make pretty outrageous claims about the benefits of any product with virtually no evidence to support those claims. Big companies do this fairly regularly but with more subtlety in their marketing messages. Smaller companies, like Sunrise Nutraceuticals, seem instead to prey on consumers’ ignorance about supplements and what a company can claim it can do for you.
When the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — which regulates advertising in the U.S. — found out that Sunrise Nutraceutical was making a claim about alleviating symptoms of a disease (opiate withdrawal), they came down hard on the company.
Under the terms of the settlement reached with the company — who admitted no guilt or wrongdoing — they could no longer market products that claimed to treat the symptoms of a disease or condition. “The stipulated order also includes a judgment of almost $1.4 million,” noted the FTC in its July 6, 2016 blog posting. “The defendants will turn over $235,000, with the remaining amount suspended based on their financial condition.”
That’s an astonishing fine — one so large that if the company was forced to pay the entire thing, it likely would’ve put the company out of business.
But what do you do when you have all this product and no way to sell it?
They’re Back… Now With Mood Enhancing Abilities!
Sunrise simply pivoted the product, removing all disease claims from its labeling, marketing, and website. It is now a “mood enhancement” product — a generic, feel-good claim that virtually anyone can make about a product with vitamins, minerals, or micronutrients in it. But it directly contradicts earlier claims the company made about the exact same product in August, 2014. Here’s what Adam Layne of Sunrise told the Addiction Blog at that time:
While we have received feedback from many people who have used Elimidrol to help successfully overcome their dependence on other substances, Elimidrol itself was specifically formulated for opiate withdrawal…
A product that the company originally claimed “was specifically formulated for opiate withdrawal” suddenly has become a product that “was designed for effectiveness and engineered to promote mental and physical comfort, calmness, positive mood, healthy mental and emotional balance, while enhancing your overall well-being” (Elimidrol website, January 13, 2017). The ingredients label on Elimidrol hasn’t changed, and neither apparently has the formulation.
According to their website in 2013:
Our scientifically formulated detox support supplement will provide you with the strength and comfort to successfully overcome opiate withdrawal by alleviating the intense mental and physical discomfort during the process.
Now their website says, “Scientifically formulated with powerful ingredients to also support feelings of mental and physical equilibrium, while providing relief for intermittent anxiety, irritability, and restlessness.”
If you get blocked for one use, just rejigger your marketing efforts and sell the same magic powder for something slightly different. After all, who doesn’t want to feel less restless and irritable, and more calm and mentally balanced?
Marketing to Positive Mood & “Intermittent Anxiety”
It’s ironic, but what usually prods me to write about these companies are their clueless, clumsy marketing outreach efforts to Psych Central. Because they don’t bother to actually research the companies they’re contacting, they apparently didn’t notice we don’t particularly care for mental health supplements’ marketing messages. I find such messaging to be filled with hyperbole and feel-good phrases that mean nothing. And of course, chock full of positive testimonials.1
The marketing company started with a generic email that said, in part, “I am representing Elimidrol, a mood enhancement and anxiety relief supplement. It was engineered to promote positive mood, comfort, calmness, healthy mental and emotional balance, while enhancing your overall well-being.”
Anxiety is a symptom of many mental disorders. So it appears the company is up to its old marketing efforts, making claims about specific symptom relief. I pointed that out and, after some delay, heard back from another person from the marketing company: “Every form of anxiety is not an anxiety disorder, as anxiety is also normal part of life. We are making claims regarding intermittent anxiety, which is normal occasional anxiety that everybody feels at times.”
Ah, that clears things up. Not “anxiety,” the symptom of many mental disorders, but “intermittent anxiety” which the company’s own marketing representative admitted was “normal.” If it’s normal, why would a person need to take a pill to relieve it? This is, in my opinion, simple a squirmy, sleazy effort playing word games — a difference that would mean little to the average person.
Are Supplements Effective? How Can You Tell?
The benefits of supplement use for emotional symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, and well-being are extremely difficult to measure scientifically. The reason for this is because of the power of the placebo. Numerous scientific randomized clinical drug trials have demonstrated that finding a drug formulation that beats the power of a sugar pill is extremely difficult.
Why is that? Is it because drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies are weak and ineffective? On the contrary, it’s because the human brain and body are extremely complex systems that often react — in scientifically measurable ways — in similar ways regardless of the treatment given. If a person believes a treatment is going to be effective, it usually is more effective than if a person holds no specific belief or feels like the treatment won’t work.
In my opinion, many of the supplement products that claim to promote a healthy “mental balance” or increase your sense of well-being are likely taking advantage of the placebo effect. That is, you expect it to work, so it does (at least for awhile). That’s why testimonials alone cannot be considered evidence without other, more objective — and scientific — support.
I’m not sure I would pay $75 for a month’s supply of this supplement, nor encourage others to give money to a company which simply relabeled and changed its marketing of an existing product in order to keep selling it. When companies realize that consumers are smarter than that and are looking for better evidence than, “Hey, trust us, we ‘engineered’ this product for XYZ,” maybe they’ll start to get a clue. After all, you wouldn’t ingest a pharmaceutical drug without scientific support for its effectiveness and safety. What makes a supplement any different?2
There’s so much research on the placebo effect, it’s hard to list the strongest studies here. Instead, I’ll just refer you to the this excellent article: Power of the Placebo from the Aug 2014 issue of Discover Magazine. A lengthy but worthwhile read.
For a look at how complementary and alternative medicine (CAM, also known as integrative medicine) is trying to take over the placebo narrative, check out: Is “harnessing the power of placebo” worthwhile to treat anything? from Science-Based Medicine. Also lengthy, but again, if you want to understand “placebo science,” a necessary read.
You might also want to check out the recent book, Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.
- Seriously, if you’re buying a supplement based primarily upon testimonials found on the company’s own website, I guess the placebo effect is going to work wonders for you. [↩]
- Yes, you can die or overdose from ingesting too many natural minerals, or from many of the herbs listed. Just because something is naturally occurring doesn’t make it any less of a danger to your body. Especially when you put combinations of herbs, vitamins, and minerals together that has never been researched — either in a short- or long-term way. [↩]