Supplements: What to Take, and What to Avoid

Health Writer
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How much money do you spend on supplements monthly? If you’re like many Americans, you can be lured by headlines that promise better health, better hair growth, stronger nails, and even younger skin.

But studies have shown that if you take too much vitamin C, you will likely lose it in your urine, and those overly high doses can have health consequences. There’s also been a lot of discussion about vitamin D and vitamin D deficiency, though clear guidelines have as yet to be established. Still, many Americans are taking incredibly high doses of this vitamin.

Let’s look at the vitamins worth an investment and those whose benefits are, at this point, unverified.

First off, if you are healthy, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence showing that supplements can be of benefit. Experts interviewed in a column that appeared in Consumer Reports (not available without a subscription) and then shared in a Washington Post column, suggest that supplements geared to prevent hair loss, to promote hair growth due to aging, improve damaged nails or give you younger skin are likely not going to help much and, frankly, don’t have the clinical data to prove the claims. The column featured in the newspaper offers two very small studies in 1990 that showed biotin effective in helping to strengthen soft nails. The studies were small and never replicated.

Lean steak on plate.
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Take this: Lean protein (approximately 30 percent of your daily total calories).

For hair loss you can also try rosemary oil topically, mixed in shampoo or as a “scalp serum.”

Not that: Biotin

If you have chronic hair loss, nail or skin problems, talk to your doctor. He will know the appropriate tests, including an examination of thyroid function and other issues that may be causing the complaints (or in some cases a true biotin deficiency). Other causes of hair loss can be use of hair dyes and chronically wearing a ponytail.

If you are already using biotin, you will need to stop taking it before undergoing thyroid testing, since it can interfere with results.

If you try biotin, take it for three months; if you see no difference, save your dollars. The number one cause of premature skin aging and discoloration is sun exposure. One prescription topical cream that has been show to promote skin collagen is a retinoid cream.

Cinnamon sticks and cinnamon powder.
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Take this: Cinnamon at a dose of 1, 3 or 6 grams daily. These doses should be discussed with your doctor before you start using cinnamon for blood sugar control.

Not that: Berberine supplements. According to ConsumerLab, an independent testing company, berberine may not be safe for certain patients. It can also interact with a number of medications. Current supplements offering berberine may not contain the amount stated on the label. ConsumerLab is planning to test supplements with berberine.

With rate of prediabetes and diabetes still on an upswing, supplement trends show that consumers are trying cinnamon, apple cider vinegar, and berberine. According to a study in Diabetes Care, cinnamon taken in certain dosages daily can help to reduce serum glucose and may also help to modulate triglycerides, LDL, and cholesterol in patients with diabetes. Though apple cider vinegar has been shown in some small studies to nudge weight loss and lower blood sugar levels in some people, larger studies are needed before recommendations can be made on a clinical basis.

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Take this: Include resveratrol-rich red and white grapes, pistachios, blueberries and cranberries as part of your regular balanced diet. Limit saturated fat consumption. Eat plant-based proteins and adequate fiber to keep arteries patent. Eating a diet high in plant-based foods can also provide adequate levels of antioxidants.

Not that: Resveratrol supplements. If you are interested in this supplement, talk to your doctor or cardiologist.

The French diet is high in saturated fat and cholesterol, yet the French have low rates of heart disease. One theory is that despite consumption of foods high in unhealthy fat, the French eat significantly smaller portions.

Another theory is that the French drink red wine on a regular basis. Wine is high in the antioxidant resveratrol. Antioxidants are believed to play a role in minimizing or preventing heart disease by protecting the body from free radicals, naturally occurring but harmful substances implicated in many conditions, including heart disease.

Resveratrol is also a phytoestrogen and may have similar effects on heart disease as soy has on cancer. Benefits of resveratrol have not been documented in any “meaningful research” and it may, when taken orally, break down before even entering the bloodstream.

raw salmon seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme and lemon.
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Take this: Eat oily fish and flaxseed on a regular basis to get the mood-elevating benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Taking a fish oil supplement that is confirmed to have the amounts of omega 3s that are indicated on the label can also help to boost mood.

Not that: B-3, B-6, B-12 supplements or a multivitamin with significant doses of these vitamins. Unless you are being treated by a dietician or nutritionist or your doctor to determine the correct doses of these vitamins based on daily intake from food, age, and current state of health, you should not be taking these vitamins.

A deficiency in B-3 (niacin), B-6 and B-12 can cause depression. Although certain small subsets of the population (some patients on SSRIs, those on tricyclic antidepressants or oral contraceptives who develop depression) may benefit from supplements containing these vitamins, overall supplementation with these B vitamins has not been shown to reduce incidence of depression or improve mood in people who are not deficient in these vitamins.

Another concern is that individuals who consume fortified foods and nutrition bars, and also take a multivitamin, or individual doses of B vitamins, may actually be taking excessive doses and experience negative health consequences.

Worth a quick mention: Manganese, an essential mineral found in leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, tea, pineapple and nuts, if consumed in excess, could cause a Staphylococcus aureus infection of the heart, or "golden staph." In another study, children with excessive levels of manganese showed lower IQ levels. Steer clear of supplementing with manganese unless you consult with a physician.

It’s important to understand that supplements should be “dietary gap fillers,” which means that you determine what vitamins are specifically lacking in your diet. Foods should always be your first source of vitamins, minerals and nutrients. If you feel you need to take supplements, consult with a knowledgeable healthcare professional and make sure the supplements you buy are verified and contain the ingredients and the amounts listed on the label.

See more helpful articles:

Outdated Vitamin Labels Can Be a Risky Business

The Benefits of Antioxidants

How a Balanced Diet May Add Years to Your Life