Most of us are familiar with omega-3 and vitamin D, but what about all of those unrecognizable extracts, herbs and amino acids lining the shelves of your local health food store? Here’s an A-to-T primer on some beneficial—albeit alternative—products on the market. You just might discover something new that your body needs.
Alfalfa: “Alfalfa is a protein-rich food, containing enzymes, vitamins, amino acids and chlorophyll,” says New York-based nutritional consultant Pati Smith. “It also contains many organic minerals, including potassium, iron, magnesium and calcium, which help to create an alkalizing effect on the body.” So what does all of this mean for you? Alfalfa has been known to help with menstrual and menopausal symptoms, bruising and even bad breath. Note: Alfalfa in capsule form is much more beneficial than its raw counterpart because the plant cellulose (a part of the plant that humans can’t digest) is removed.
Beta Glucan: A nutrient found in several foods—including oats, barley, yeast and some mushrooms—beta glucan may help boost the immune system and fend off colds and flus. As Smith explains, beta glucan has been credited with stimulating white blood cells that bind to viruses (and tumors) and destroy them. Beta glucan is generally considered safe, though there's some concern that it may lower blood sugar. Those with hypoglycemia, or anyone taking medications to reduce blood sugar, should consult a physician before taking beta glucan, advises Smith.
Choline/Inositol: Choline/inositol is a two-in-one supplement that’s helpful for circulation and may also aid memory and cognitive ability, according to Smith. Choline is essential for the health of cell membranes and neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit signals between neurons and cells). Inositol acts to balance chemicals in the body and synthesize choline. When it comes to brain physiology, they work together to support memory, learning, mood and energy levels. According to holistic guru Andrew Weil, MD, while our bodies do produce these substances in small quantities, choline and inositol are mainly obtained through food. Liver, fish, eggs, nuts, spinach, soy and wheat germ are high in choline. Inositol is found in some fruits, such as oranges and cantaloupe. If you’re not sure you’re getting enough of these foods, supplementing may be a smart way to power up your brain potential.
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Chromium Picolinate: Chromium is vital to the function of insulin, the pancreatic hormone that orchestrates the use of fuels from carbohydrates, fats and protein, says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, founding member of the American Board of Integrative Medicine and author of the newly released book Fortify Your Life. “A deficiency of chromium in our diet may increase the risk of insulin resistance and predispose us to obesity and type 2 diabetes,” Low Dog explains. Picolinate is said to prevent sugar cravings and sudden drops in energy. So who might need this supplement? “People with type 2 diabetes, at a dose of 400 to 600 micrograms per day,” advises Low Dog, who recommends starting with a three-month trial to see if there is a beneficial effect on blood sugar. “But don’t take it if you are on blood-thinning medications,” she warns.
DMG: This amino acid found in foods such as beans, brown rice and pumpkin seeds has garnered attention as an all-around health booster. According to Smith, DMG (dimethylglycine) supports the immune system by acting as an antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal agent as well as an antioxidant against free radicals. It may also help cardiovascular functions by supporting normal triglyceride (fat) and cholesterol levels. It is thought to aid in detoxing and enhancing liver function, improving circulation and oxygenation, and reducing fatigue.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin: Both of these elements are found in connective tissues like cartilage. Glucosamine, a natural chemical compound that keeps cartilage healthy, tends to become depleted as we age. Chondroitin is thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect and may help slow the breakdown of cartilage. The combination of the two has emerged as an alternative and seemingly effective treatment for osteoarthritis. “The majority of high-quality clinical trials have shown a beneficial effect for the combination of glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin sulfate in relieving the pain and improving the function of arthritic joints,” says Low Dog. Two caveats: Don’t take it if you are on medications to prevent blood clots (i.e., blood thinners) or if you have a shellfish allergy. The glucosamine sulfate in supplements is derived from the shells of crab, lobster and shrimp.
HTP: 5-HTP (or 5-hydroxytriptan) is derived from the seed pods of Griffonia simplicifolia, a West African medicinal plant that’s often prescribed as an alternative to mainstream anti-anxiety meds, such as Lexapro. In humans, 5-HTP is the nutrient precursor to the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT). It works in the brain and central nervous system by increasing the production of the chemical serotonin, so it may play a role in relieving afflictions such as anxiety, depression, insomnia and migraines, though according to Weil, there’s no hard scientific evidence to date.
Quercetin: A plant pigment that gives many fruits, flowers and vegetables their color, quercetin inhibits the release of histamine in the body, which causes watery eyes and runny noses, says Low Dog. This means it might help control allergies. According to Low Dog, quercetin is found in many fruits and vegetables such as onions, kale, tomatoes, broccoli, green beans, berries and apples, with the highest concentration near the peel. There’s also some evidence that quercetin may have modest beneficial effects on blood pressure and cholesterol, though the research is still early, she says. In any case, Low Dog recommends you don’t exceed 1,000 milligrams per day (some research suggests high doses might hurt the kidneys) and avoid quercetin altogether if you’re taking blood thinners or antibiotics.
Rhodiola Rosea: This root has been used for centuries in traditional medicine in Russia and the Scandinavian countries to treat fatigue and improve memory, according to Weil. Rhodiola rosea is considered an “adaptogen,” meaning it adapts to the body’s needs and has a calming effect, though it doesn’t induce tiredness, says Smith. Low Dog claims that it is one of her favorite herbs for treatment of patients suffering from what she calls “21st-century stress”: fatigue, mental fog, low energy and maybe even mild depression. She says that some people might feel revved up from the supplement and should take it early in the day to avoid any interference with sleep.
Silymarin: Also known as silybin, this compound extracted from milk thistle has been shown to protect the liver from a variety of toxins (e.g., too much alcohol) and the harmful effects of medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), says Low Dog. It’s even been used in European emergency rooms as an antidote for deadly mushroom poisoning! Silymarin works by preventing toxins from gaining entry into cells while stimulating the detoxifying enzymes. The safest dose used in most studies to date, she says, is 420 milligrams per day, divided into two to three doses.
Tyrosine: Tyrosine is one of 22 amino acids used by cells to synthesize proteins found in foods such as chicken, fish, milk and yogurt. According to Smith, it helps control anxiety, blood pressure and the secretion of some hormones. Since tyrosine can improve mental alertness and foster a healthy mood, it’s often recommended for depression, PMS, chronic fatigue syndrome and low sex drive—all of which makes it a supplement that’s worth a try.
- Read supplement labels carefully. Avoid added fillers, binders or additives. And go for quality. While supplements are regulated differently from other drugs, the better ones have a quality seal. Three to look for: USP (United States Pharmacopeial Convention), NSF (National Sanitation Foundation International) or CL (ConsumerLab.com).
- Just because a nutritional supplement is sold in a health food store doesn’t necessarily make it a healthy choice for you. Before you invest and ingest, consult a healthcare professional about side effects or interactions with medical conditions or medications.