You can’t watch TV, search the internet, or walk into the pharmacy section of your favorite grocery store without being bombarded by advertisements and promotions that all but promise that this supplement will give you energy, cure whatever ails you, and guarantee a long and healthy life. No wonder the nutritional supplements business racks up billions of dollars in sales every year.
But is all that money doing us any good? The claims for many supplements seem too good to be true. And many of them are. But you – you’re not swayed by all that advertising hype! You’re a savvy buyer, and want the best value for your health dollar.
I often get asked about nutritional supplements by patients and others who want to live healthy and feel better the natural way. And that’s smart. So here’s my list of recommended nutritional supplements. It’s a short list, because I demand strong research before being able to recommend any supplement or product. Some of these recommendations are guarded, as you will see. But you asked, and here’s my list.
The supplements I can recommend to my patients and to you:
Few of us get the recommended 9+ servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. These supplements can help make up the difference between a healthy diet and what our body’s cells need most to remain healthy. Look for a product that’s made from ripe whole fruits and vegetables. Among other benefits, these products contain concentrated phytonutrients in the ratios and combinations God built into nature. The downside is that these products aren’t regulated, so investigate the company you purchase from. Data is accumulating on the benefits of these supplements for general health in such areas as chronic inflammation, immune system function, and more. These and similar benefits are thought to decrease the risks heart disease and other illnesses, and research is ongoing to document this. JuicePlus+® is the phytonutrient supplement I’m most familiar with. I take it every day, and recommend it to my patients. Taking it with a full glass of water will help to prevent any gastrointestinal side effects.
Fish oil/omega 3s:
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of studies have been done on fish oil supplements. Much of the research supports the likely benefits of fish oil supplements for cardiovascular health, especially for people with elevated triglycerides. Omega 3 supplements may help to prevent, slow down, or even slightly reverse atherosclerosis. Research is less clear on its possible benefits for brain health, asthma, and other conditions. There’s considerable debate among contemporary scientists on whether people without high blood lipids or heart disease can benefit from fish oil supplements. If you choose to take them, 1 gram/day on days you don’t eat fish is reasonable.
This is one of the most exciting supplements I have encountered in recent years. A number of studies indicate that inositol improves ovarian function especially in women with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). Both forms of inositol are helpful, and may be best in combination for many women with PCOS. Individually, the myo-inositol form is more effective in improving egg quality and ovulation rates, and d-chiro-inositol is more effective in improving the androgenic problems of women with PCOS. Two brands to consider are Pregnitude or Chiral Balance, or you can find generic options.
St John’s Wort:
Numerous research studies have demonstrated that St John’s Wort is as helpful for mild to moderate depression as many prescription antidepressants are such as Prozac, Celexa, and Paxil. And it doesn’t appear to lower sex drive as many antidepressants do. Some believe St John’s Wort also helps with premenstrual syndrome and the mood swings some women experience with menopause. It’s available in tea, liquid extract, or time-release capsules, and it may take 3-4 weeks to notice any improvement in symptoms. St John’s Wort may interact with a number of other medications and supplements, so be sure to check with your pharmacist before taking.
If you take a phytonutrient supplement and eat a healthy diet you almost certainly don’t need a multi-vitamin. I can’t point to any evidence that multi-vitamins improve people’s health in general. In fact the Iowa Health Study followed over 38,000 women for 20 years, and found that those who took vitamins died sooner than those who didn’t. That doesn’t mean multivitamins make you die sooner, but it does likely mean taking vitamins probably won’t make you live longer. One study in male physicians showed a decreased risk of cancer among those who took multi-vitamins. Pregnant women, those who struggle to eat a healthy diet, or those with other specific medical problems may do well to take a vitamin supplement. If you do take a multi-vitamin, check the list of ingredients against any other vitamin supplements you may choose to take. Getting too much of certain vitamins can be dangerous, especially vitamins A, D, and K.
Green tea is less oxidized and closer to “natural” than black tea, and therefore contains more antioxidants. Compared with powdered or bottled teas, brewed green tea maintains the most phytonutrients. Many studies show that long-term use is associated with a decreased risk of certain cancers, and mental alertness is increased in those who use it daily. The large Ohsaki study from Japan showed that women who drank green tea regularly had a decreased risk of dying from all causes and from cardiovascular disease specifically. One recent review concludes that regular tea drinking is associated with a decreased risk of stroke, diabetes, and depression. While fresh brewed green tea may be the best, green tea extracts are likely to be similarly beneficial. Beware of the potential side effects of too much caffeine, including anxiety, insomnia, and calcium loss from bones.
The best place to get your calcium is from your diet, such as from dark green leafy vegetables or dairy products. Take extra only if needed, and only under a doctor’s recommendation. A number of studies indicate that calcium supplements, even 1000 mg daily, may increase cardiovascular disease by increasing the calcium deposits in areas of atherosclerosis. A combined calcium/magnesium supplement may be helpful for symptoms of PMS or muscle cramps. If you’re getting adequate calcium from your diet, taking supplements isn’t likely to lessen your risk of osteoporosis. However, if you’re taking any medication that increases your risk of osteoporosis such as steroids, drinking a lot of green tea, or already have osteoporosis, taking a supplement may be important. Women past the age of menopause need 1200mg of total calcium daily from both food and supplements. Use with caution.
The research on vitamin D could fill hundreds of pages. Who needs it, how much, and how vitamin D affects various areas of health is very controversial. We know it’s necessary for strong bones. Inadequate vitamin D levels have been associated with just about any disease you can name including diabetes, obesity, fertility and pregnancy problems, heart disease, cancer, and multiple sclerosis. The much bigger question is whether supplements of vitamin D improve your health in any of these areas. I highly recommend having a vitamin D blood test before taking any vitamin D supplement. If your level is 30ng/ml or greater, you don’t need extra vitamin D. Women over age 70 usually need vitamin D supplements because of the difficulty they develop in absorbing it adequately from food, and the extra help they need to maintain strong bones. If you need supplements, your doctor should monitor your blood levels periodically until they’re stable. Don’t overdo vitamin D; too much of this good thing can be dangerous.
Research overwhelmingly shows that adequate folic acid intake before and during the early weeks of pregnancy reduces the risk for specific birth defects, especially those affecting the brain and spinal cord. Women who are or who may become pregnant should start with .8-1 mg daily. That amount is commonly found in prenatal vitamins, or can be taken individually. Those who have a personal or family history of these birth defects, or those taking certain medications such as anticonvulsants (for seizures) need significantly more folic acid. There’s a long list of other illnesses that folic acid has been recommended for, including heart disease, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and others. Most research does not demonstrate that using folic acid supplements will prevent these illnesses.
Yes, this list is short. Research continues to expand, and my list my expand or change in the future. Stay tuned.
In the area of nutritional supplements, it really is BUYER BEWARE! Research carefully before spending your money, or potentially risking your health. Feel free to contact me if you have specific questions about an individual supplement.
Your Turn: Are you using any nutritional supplements? Are you satisfied that you’re getting the benefits you’re paying for? Leave a comment below.
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P.S. This is adapted from one section of my book Dr Carol’s Guide to Women’s Health. Get your copy today!
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