Dietary supplements are wildly popular among Americans, with more than half of us taking one or more of these pills or potions either daily or occasionally. But there’s a short list of supplements that most of us stick to—either intentionally or inadvertently—without learning more about less hyped varieties that could significantly boost our well-being.
Which supplements make the A-team? The best-known include vitamins C, B complex and D, along with fish oil—choices that the National Institutes of Health say are among the most popular with consumers.
LOOKING BEYOND THE BASICS
Why should we look beyond these supplements to identify the best possible mix for our individual needs? For the simple reason that our bodies are wonderfully complex. Certain supplements can help prevent and/or control troublesome symptoms…reduce our vulnerability to various diseases…and enhance the ways that we metabolize or respond to prescribed drugs.
Four little-known supplements that deserve your attention—and why…*
Glucomannan is a dietary fiber known generically as konjac root.
Why it’s useful: Used by the Japanese for centuries and recognized in traditional Chinese medicine for helping with “stagnant” liver function, the use of glucomannan has been linked to significantly lower blood cholesterol levels because of its ability to bind to and remove cholesterol from the digestive tract. For this reason, glucomannan can lower total and LDL cholesterol, provide additional lowering effects for people taking a statin and, in some cases, replace the need for cholesterol-lowering medication.
Glucomannan also promotes beneficial changes in gut bacteria as it passes through the intestine undigested…and helps ease constipation by increasing peristalsis (muscle contractions that help move food through the digestive tract).
Among those who should consider taking glucomannan: People who may not want to take a statin or are having side effects from this medication, and those who suffer from diarrhea, constipation and/or gas.
How to take it: Once a day with an eight-ounce glass of water about a half-hour before mealtime so it has time to pass out of the stomach and work effectively in the intestines.
L-carnitine is a naturally occurring compound derived from an amino acid. Deficiency is rare, although body levels do decline with age.
Why it’s useful: Well-recognized in Europe, L-carnitine is now beginning to capture attention here. It is found in highest concentrations in red meat, particularly beef—the redder, the more L-carnitine.
An impressive body of research has shown that L-carnitine helps the body shift from burning sugar as a fuel to burning fat as a fuel—an ability that’s particularly important for people with sluggish circulation either in the brain or the heart (that is, those at increased risk for stroke or heart attack).
L-carnitine also improves the heart’s “ejection fraction” or pumping strength in people with compromised heart muscle function, including those who have already suffered a heart attack or have other cardiac conditions such as heart failure.
Who should consider taking -L-carnitine: People over age 50 who have circulatory issues.
How to take it: Twice a day between meals with a fruit snack to improve the rate and level of absorption.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is a naturally occurring, sulfur-containing element found in foods (such as eggs, onions, garlic and certain other vegetables, fruits, meat, poultry, fish and milk) and is produced by our bodies. MSM also is manufactured as a supplement.
Why it’s useful: Sulfur-containing (disulfide) bonds are what the body uses to form the amino acids of the DNA double-helix into complex proteins. These elastic bonds, called elastomers, help keep skin supple, resilient and youthful-looking and strengthen connective tissues, which protects arteries, muscles, ligaments and tendons.
Who should consider taking sulfur/MSM supplements: People who want to improve their hair, nails and skin…and preserve muscle, tendon and ligament strength.
How to take it: Twice a day with meals. Our bodies will not absorb more sulfur than needed, so if you emerge from the bathroom thinking that it smells a bit like deviled eggs, that’s the excess being excreted.
Selenium is a trace mineral.
Why it’s useful: Selenium improves our so-called “superficial immunity,” by fortifying skin and mucous membranes to resist organisms from taking root on and inside the body. Ever have dandruff? One cause is skin cells on the scalp turning over too rapidly due to a mild yeastlike fungus infection. A popular dandruff shampoo, Selsun Blue, contains the active ingredient selenium sulfide, which drives away the offending invader.
As a supplement, selenium also supports the immune system’s ability to identify allergic or parasitic threats and mount a defense against them at the mucosal level. This helps ward off colds…calm irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)…ease skin conditions…and relieve dry eyes caused by blocked tear ducts. It also helps protect the thyroid.
Who should consider taking selenium: People with frequent colds, impaired gastrointestinal function, sensitive skin, dry eyes or autoimmune hypothyroidism should consider increasing dietary sources of this trace mineral or taking a selenium supplement.
Good food sources: Brazil nuts, mackerel, flounder, tuna, garlic, whole grains and sunflower seeds. If you opt for a supplement, consider using the liquid form for optimal absorption.
How to take it: Once daily, during or after a meal.
*Before trying any of the supplements listed here, consult a doctor with formal training and a clinical residency in nutritional medicine—this includes naturopathic doctors (NDs), many chiropractors and some medical doctors and doctors of osteopathy—for advice on dosage, side effects and/or any possible interactions with medications or supplements. To find an ND near you, consult The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, Naturopathic.org.