Dietary supplements call to mind images of over-muscled male airheads chugging protein shakes or slick salesmen touting their vitamin formulation as a panacea. Many web pages about herbs quote mystics rather than statistics. It is true that some supplements are formulated for athletes or bodybuilders, some are a rip-off, and others have little to recommend them besides an endorsement from a long dead alchemist. However, for the smart consumer, dietary supplements can be a reliable way to maintain or even improve your health.
The first step in choosing a supplement is reading the ingredients. It can often be cheaper to buy the individual components rather than a blend. For example, a formulation advertised as a “metabolism booster” or “energy supplement” is probably a multivitamin with an herb such as gaurana or ephedra. Price the individual components and see if you save anything by getting the blend.
Make sure you understand how the supplement works, not just what effect it claims to have. For example, corosolic acid is deceptively marketed for weight loss. This compound, a natural plant extract, has been shown highly effective in treating diabetes, rivaling prescription drugs in its ability to lower blood sugar. However, people with normal blood sugar will have agonizing headaches if they take this compound in an attempt to lose weight.
Some supplements that are a smart idea for almost anyone are calcium, B-vitamins, vitamin C, iron, and essential fatty acids. Most of us do not get enough of these nutrients from food and yet our bodies require them in large quantities. A “stress formula” vitamin will usually have high levels of all the B-vitamins, C, and iron. Getting enough of these essential nutrients will help with immunity, psychological well-being, and energy levels. The essential fatty acids found in fish oil and flax oil are essential for the nervous system as well as overall tissue health. Even people who eat a high fat diet aren’t necessarily getting enough of these specific compounds. A calcium supplement is helpful in preventing or minimizing bone loss, although if you frequently take calcium containing antacids you don’t need one.
If you want to assess your nutritional needs, nutritiondata.com has a “daily needs calculator” to do just that. Based on your age, gender, size, and activity level it will give a detailed analysis of your nutritional needs. You can then check various foods for their nutritional content and decide if your diet is adequate. If not, you can search for foods containing a particular nutrient you’re missing. If none of those foods appeal to you, I recommend a supplement.
Protein supplements are another useful item. Powders like Designer Whey have a full complement of essential amino acids and a tolerable taste. Mix with a flavoring or blend with frozen fruit and you have a breakfast shake that gets all your daily protein requirements out of the way from the get-go. Other products market themselves as “meal replacements” but are usually high in sugar and low in protein. Designer Whey is a much better choice if you need an easy meal to fit your hectic schedule.
While protein and vitamin supplements are good wellness boost, herbs are an option for treating occasional minor health problems. Senna is a powerful laxative which is sometimes unethically marketed as a “diet” tea. It won’t help you shed pounds, but it will cure constipation more effectively than over the counter medications. Water retention can be alleviated with dandelion root, a natural diuretic. Triple Leaf Tea’s Blood Pressure Tea will lower your blood pressure a few points, although you shouldn’t rely on it as a sole measure to control serious hypertension. Passionflower, skullcap, and melissa are all effective for insomnia, especially in combination. Unlike prescription medications or the over the counter sleep aid doxylamine succinate, these herbs will not leave you groggy in the morning or have any withdrawal effects if you take them for several days and then stop. These herbs and a few others like valerian and chamomile are common ingredients in “calmative” formulations, an alternative to tranquilizers. The blends are effective, so avoid them in situations where you need to be alert.
The one supplement that should be in every medicine cabinet is Airborne (or the generic Air Health). This blend of various herbs, minerals, and vitamins delivers on its promise to ward off colds when taken before or shortly after exposure. If you begin taking it after you have a full-blown cold it will shorten the duration. I was skeptical but tried it out of desperation when my husband came down with a particularly nasty sore throat and was amazed that for once in a ten-year marriage I didn’t share his misery. I’ve used it to ward off two colds since then. In the past, an itchy throat always developed into an illness lasting several days for me.
Whichever supplement you choose, make sure to read up on it and check for potential interactions with any other supplements or medications you might be taking. Google scholar makes it easy to search the primary literature, which is essential. You’ll find plenty of message boards, blogs, and websites offering opinions but the hard evidence is the journals. There are a lot of effective supplements on the market, and with a little research you can find one or more that will help keep you out of the doctor’s office and enjoying life.