Does your supplement regimen need a makeover? We asked a team of well-known experts to share their latest choices in natural health-enhancing products for people of all ages. From old standbys with newfound importance to up-and-coming extracts and promising herbs and nutrients, here are some essential supplements on the health horizon.
Kids and teens
Because allergy-related diseases, such as asthma and eczema, are becoming more prevalent, consider starting your kids on probiotic supplements to rev up the immune system as early as possible, says pediatrician William Sears, MD. In fact, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that giving infants probiotics reduced their risk for and the severity of eczema, a skin condition that affects approximately 15 percent of children.
To enhance immunity, replenish the body's supply of good bugs during a course of antibiotics, or alleviate gastrointestinal troubles such as diarrhea, Sears recommends one capsule daily of Lactobacillus rhamnosus strain GG (available in products such as Culturelle). If your youngster is too little to take a capsule, simply open it up and sprinkle it over food, says Sears. But avoid food that is hot; heat may damage the probiotics.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Most American kids' diets aren't high enough in omega-3s, says Sears. In addition to boosting brain function and sharpening vision, omega-3 fatty acids also may improve behavior in kids with ADHD and decrease the risk of developing type 1 diabetes, according to two recent studies in Nutrition Journal and the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“Omega-3s are head-to-toe nutrients,” says Sears. “Children who get enough of them will be smarter and have healthier hearts, brains, skin, and joints.” Sears recommends kids and teens take 600 mg of docosahexaenoic acid (or DHA, a key omega-3) daily. (Supplements may also contain eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, another healthy omega-3.) Breastfed babies should get the DHA they need from mom's milk if she consumes 600 mg every day, but infants who aren't breastfed should receive 300 mg through fortified formula daily.
According to pediatrician Alan Greene, MD, brain-boosting choline is particularly important during times when the brain undergoes significant changes, such as during the teen years. In addition to helping build a key neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, choline aids the proper metabolism of fats and helps keep the liver healthy. If your teen doesn't regularly eat choline-rich foods, such as eggs (282 mg per serving), cauliflower (22 mg per serving), or peanut butter (26 mg per serving), Greene recommends a daily supplement of 425 mg for girls or 550 mg for boys.
Women: childbearing age
Despite mounting evidence that vitamin D may guard against high blood pressure, depression, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer, most women in the United States still aren't getting enough, says women's health expert Christiane Northrup, MD. And vitamin D may be particularly crucial for women of childbearing age, according to research. In one recent study, 9-year-old kids had higher bone mineral content if their mothers had taken vitamin D supplements while pregnant. In another, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine last year, researchers followed 31,487 women for 10 years and found that those with higher vitamin D and calcium intakes had lower risks of premenopausal breast cancer.
“The recommended daily allowance is 400 IU, but the average person needs 1,000 IU just to maintain their levels,” says Northrup. To boost your intake of both the sunshine vitamin and heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, Northrup suggests taking cod-liver oil, containing at least 1,000 IU of D, daily.
“Women desperately need magnesium,” says Northrup. “It's essential to nerve function and can help enormously with calming the anxiety and headaches that affect so many women.” Also found to lower blood pressure and reduce heart-disease risk, magnesium, when increased during pregnancy, may protect against complications such as preeclampsia and preterm delivery. Women should get at least 310 mg of magnesium each day and should up that amount to 360-400 mg during pregnancy and 320-360 mg when breastfeeding.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
In Ayurvedic medicine, this herb is prescribed for anxiety and memory disorders. But bacopa also shows promise for people with hypothyroidism, a condition most common in women over age 50. Hypothyroidism thwarts the thyroid's ability to produce the hormones T3 and T4, which can lead to obesity and heart disease. One of the few herbs that stimulates thyroid function, according to David Winston, herbalist, ethnobotanist, and author of Adaptogens (Healing Arts, 2007), bacopa was found to increase the thyroid hormone T4 by 41 percent in a 2002 animal study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Winston suggests taking 2 ml of a bacopa tincture three times daily.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Several studies suggest that this Ayurvedic, adaptogenic herb may tame inflammation and help alleviate symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Also found to possess anticancer and antianxiety properties, ashwagandha can help relieve the fatigue and pain of fibromyalgia, a condition most common in middle-aged women. “Ashwagandha deals with fibromyalgia's underlying causes by helping to regulate the nervous system, the immune system, and endocrine function,” says Winston. He recommends taking 1-2.5 ml of an ashwagandha tincture twice daily.
Sutherlandia (Sutherlandia frutescens)
An up-and-coming plant medicine, sutherlandia is popular among southern African herbalists. Both a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory, the amino acid-rich legume also may enhance mental health. “In Zulu medicine, sutherlandia is often used as a relaxant and an antidepressant, and it may help alleviate chronic fatigue, irritability, and anxiety,” says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council. The recommended tablet or capsule dose is 400 mg twice daily.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
Several new studies support folk medicine's use of the hibiscus plant to treat high blood pressure, a problem more prevalent in men than in women until age 45. In one report, published in Planta Medica in 2007, researchers found that extract of the flower's outermost parts remarkably lowered blood pressure in a group of 100 hypertensive adults when taken for four weeks. The study also found that the extract — rich in a class of antioxidants called anthocyanins — was 100 percent safe and well tolerated. “My prediction is that we'll soon be seeing more cardiovascular health supplements containing hibiscus extract,” says Blumenthal. In the meantime, look for the herb in tea or tincture form.
Danish rosehips (Rosa canina lito)
Not only sweet for sipping in herbal tea, rosehips may soothe symptoms of osteoarthritis. Several studies during the past few years — including a 2007 report from Berlin's Charité University Hospital — have suggested that supplementing with rosehip powder can reduce osteoarthritis-related pain and increase range of motion. To see an improvement in symptoms like these, Blumenthal points out, you'll have to take five 500 mg capsules twice daily. Look for powders made from Danish rosehips, the variety best studied for its effects on osteoarthritis patients.
Red-orange complex (Citrus sinensis)
Native to Italy, red oranges (also known as blood oranges) are rich in compounds that may curb oxidative stress, a key factor in aging-related diseases like Alzheimer's and atherosclerosis. Several studies found that red-orange complex's antioxidant properties shield against diabetes-related complications and cardiovascular disease. “It's also good for the skin because it protects against free radical damage,” says Blumenthal. Not yet widely available here, red-orange complex is currently sold in Italy under the name Bionap.
Founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council
Alan Greene, MD
Author of Raising Baby Green (Jossey-Bass, 2007)
Christiane Northrup, MD
Author of Mother-Daughter Wisdom (Bantam, 2005)
William Sears, MD
Author of The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood (Little, Brown & Company, 2006)
Herbalist, ethnobotanist, and author of Adaptogens (Healing Arts, 2007)