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As many as 75 percent of all Americans use nutritional and herbal supplements to treat everything from the common cold to high cholesterol. But with so many products on the market, it's hard to know which ones really work -- and whether any of them work at all. The truth is, some studies on these products don't meet the scientific standards for research set by modern medicine. And unlike medications, dietary supplements are classified as foods, and lack the strict government controls for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing imposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As a result, supplements may be uneven in their quality.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't make some supplements part of your diet, says Mark Stengler, ND, a naturopathic physician in San Diego and coauthor of Prescription for Natural Cures (Wiley, 2002). Some supplements, he says, have been used for several decades -- even centuries -- and are backed by plenty of scientific research as well as anecdotal reports of their effectiveness.
To help you determine which ones might have benefits for you, we've compiled a list of super supplements for your mood, brain, heart, and bones. For more information, check out www.consumerlab.com, which tests and evaluates health and wellness products, including supplements. Always check with a physician before taking any supplement. Some supplements have significant interactions with other medications.
Findings on echinacea have been mixed, but some studies suggest that echinacea boosts resistance against colds and other upper respiratory infections. Taken after a cold has started, it can shorten the cold's duration and severity. Best results have been achieved with echinacea purpurea.
Dose: Take 2ml of liquid echinacea three to four times a day, 500mg extract a day, or two 300mg capsules every two to three hours. For best results, use it only for a short period of time when you first feel a cold coming on. Select products with at least 1 percent phenols, the active ingredient. Echinacea is not recommended for people with autoimmune diseases or who are allergic to daisies.Zinc
Zinc is an essential trace mineral involved in cell growth and repair. As a supplement, zinc gluconate lozenges have been found to reduce the duration and severity of the cold by killing the virus.
Dose: At the first signs of a cold, take 15mg of zinc gluconate lozenges three times a day. Avoid taking too much zinc, which can suppress the immune system. Also resist taking zinc with orange juice; citrus fruits decrease the effectiveness of zinc.
These essential fatty acids can lower your risk of complications from cardiovascular disease, lessen the symptoms of inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, and possibly improve insulin resistance and alleviate depression. Studies released in 2004 show that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce deaths and problems associated with heart disease, primarily by lowering triglycerides, a fat in the blood. The evidence of its impact on other conditions is mixed, but promising.
Dose: For heart health, take 650 to 1,000mg of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid), the most important omega-3s. Fish oil is probably the best source of omega-3s, but they're also found in flaxseed and hemp oil.St. John's Wort
St. John's Wort is widely used for the treatment of mild or moderate depression in Europe, where several studies have demonstrated its effectiveness as an antidepressant. But recent studies show it is not effective for severe depression. The herb is believed to work by increasing the activity of serotonin in the brain. It may also help with anxiety and sleep disorders.
Dose: Recommended dosage is 900mg, taken three times a day. Choose products that contain 0.3 percent hypericin, the active ingredient.
Warning: St. John's Wort interacts significantly with several drugs including Prilosec, oral contraceptives, and HIV medications.Ginkgo Biloba
Extracts from the leaves of the ancient Chinese gingko biloba tree may improve memory, and slow the progression of dementia. Gingko works by increasing blood flow in the brain and boosting neurotransmitter activity. A phase III clinical trial now under way will examine gingko's effects on the elderly who have Alzheimer's disease.
Dose: To enhance memory, try 120 to 240mg a day, taken in two or three doses. For best results, choose gingko that contains 24 percent of flavoglycosides and six percent terpene lactones, the active ingredients.
Studies have found that garlic may lower total cholesterol, LDLs (the bad cholesterol), and triglycerides, at least in the short term, and that regular use may prevent colds. Preliminary studies indicate it may prevent esophageal and stomach cancers.
Dose: It isn't easy to select a garlic remedy. Some don't have enough allicin, the active ingredient, and others contain allicin of such poor quality as to render the garlic useless. Look for products that yield at least 3,600 to 5,400mcg of allicin. Eating a clove a day also works.Vitamin E
This fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin reduces the risk for cardiovascular disease, primarily by lowering LDL cholesterol and inhibiting the formation of blood clots. Some studies suggest vitamin E may also protect against certain cancers, prevent cataracts, and reduce the risk for dementia.
Dose: Take 200IUs (international units) of vitamin E with a meal, but do not take more than 400IU. (Contact your pharmacist to get the IU to mg conversion, since IU depends on the potency of the substance.) A January 2005 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that adults who took more than that had a higher risk for dying. If you take it at higher doses, stick with the natural form called d-alpha tocopherol, which is less likely to cause problems with bleeding.
Glucosamine is a naturally occurring substance in your body that improves the formation of cartilage and helps ease the pain of osteoarthritis. Studies show glucosamine alleviates the symptoms of moderate osteoarthritis, but does not work in severe cases or in cases affecting the spine. A major study now under way will examine whether glucosamine and chondroitin, a supplement that builds and maintains cartilage, either together or separately, can alleviate pain or halt the progression of osteoarthritis in the knee.
Dose: The recommended dose is 1,500mg a day of capsules or liquid to enhance cartilage.Soy Isoflavones
Soy isoflavones contain phytoestrogens, which are plant estrogens that mimic the actions of estrogen. Studies suggest that soy isoflavones may alleviate hot flashes, relieve the symptoms of PMS, and boost bone density. But too much soy may be linked to a greater risk for breast and uterine cancer. Soy proteins found in food may enhance heart health.
Dose: Take 50mg for menopausal symptoms. As part of a healthy diet, eating 25g of soy protein a day may lower the risk for heart disease.
Originally published on LHJ.com, February 2005.