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Anyone who has strolled down a dietary supplement aisle is aware of — and possibly overwhelmed by — the huge variety. Counting different brands and combinations of supplements, there are literally thousands of choices available. You’ll hardly encounter this many in one location, but even a far more limited selection in your local supermarket can be confusing.
One reason for so much variety is that marketers are constantly trying to distinguish their own brands from others, and so they devise different dosages, new combinations, and creatively worded claims for their products. At the same time, scientists have found new and better ways of extracting nutritional components from plants and synthesizing nutrients in a laboratory — discoveries that have resulted in many new products.
To make informed decisions, it’s essential to understand the terms used on supplement labels, as well as the properties and characteristics of specific supplements. But to avoid feeling overwhelmed by all the choices facing you, it’s useful first to learn the basic types of supplements that are available and the key functions they perform in helping to keep you healthy.
A vitamin is a chemically organic substance (meaning it contains carbon) essential for regulating both the metabolic functions within the cells and the biochemical processes that release energy from food. In addition, evidence is accumulating that certain vitamins are antioxidants — substances that protect tissues from cell damage and may possibly help prevent a number of degenerative diseases.
With a few exceptions (notably vitamins D and K), the body cannot manufacture vitamins, so they must be ingested in food or nutritional supplements. There are 13 known vitamins, and these can be categorized as either fat-soluble (A, D, E, and K) or water-soluble (eight B vitamins and C). The distinction is important because the body stores fat-soluble vitamins for relatively long periods (months or even years); water-soluble vitamins (except for vitamin B12), on the other hand, remain in the body for a short time and must be replenished more frequently.
Minerals are present in your body in small amounts: All together, they add up to only 4% of body weight. Yet these inorganic substances, which are found in the earth’s crust as well as in many foods, are essential for a wide range of vital processes, from basic bone formation to the normal functioning of the heart and digestive system. A number of minerals have been linked to the prevention of cancer, osteoporosis, and other chronic illnesses.
As with vitamins, humans must replenish their mineral supply through food or with supplements. The body contains more than 60 different minerals, but only 22 are considered essential. Of these, seven — including calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulfur — are usually designated macrominerals, or major minerals. The other 15 minerals are termed trace minerals, or microminerals, because the amount that the body requires each day for good health is tiny (usually it’s measured in micrograms, or millionths of a gram).
Herbal supplements are prepared from plants –– often using the leaves, stems, roots, and/or bark, as well as the buds and flowers. Known for centuries as medicinal agents, many plant parts can be used in their natural form, or they can be refined into tablets, capsules, powders, tinctures, and other supplement formulations.
Many herbs have several active compounds that interact with one another to produce a therapeutic effect. An herbal supplement may contain all of the compounds found in a plant, or just one or two of the isolated compounds that have been successfully extracted. For some herbs, however, the active agents simply haven’t been identified, so using the complete herb is necessary to obtain all its benefits.
Of the hundreds of remedies that are surfacing in the current rebirth of herbal medicines, the majority are being used to treat chronic or mild health problems. Increasingly, herbs are also being employed to attain or maintain good health — for example, to enhance the immune system, to help maintain low blood cholesterol levels, or to safeguard against fatigue. Less commonly, some herbs are now recommended as complementary therapy for acute or severe diseases.
These nutrients include a diverse group of products. Some, such as fish oils, are food substances that scientists have concluded possess disease-fighting potential. Flavonoids, soy isoflavones, and carotenoids are phytochemicals — compounds found in fruits and vegetables that work to lower the risk of disease and may alleviate symptoms of some ailments.
Other nutritional supplements, such as DHEA, melatonin, and coenzyme Q10, are substances present in the body that can be re-created synthetically in a laboratory. A similar example is acidophilus, a “friendly” bacterium in the body that, taken as a supplement, may aid in the treatment of digestive disorders. Amino acids, which are building blocks for proteins and may play a role in strengthening the immune system and in other health-promoting activities, have been known to scientists for many years. Only recently, however, have they been marketed as individual dietary supplements.
Source:Your Guide to Vitamin, Minerals and Herbs (Reader’s Digest)