43 Supplements Exposed: Which Ones to Consider, Which Ones to Avoid
Last Updated: May 16, 2013
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Facing a shelf of vitamins and supplements at a drugstore or grocery store can be intimidating. How can you tell B1 from B6, chromium from chondroitin, or lutein from lysine? Eating balanced meals filled with vegetables, fruits, fish and lean proteins can eliminate the need for many supplements. But even the healthiest eaters might need to turn to supplements to offset the impact of genetics, lifestyle and health history. For example, do you know which two minerals are lost via sweat (and may require supplementation)? There is one mineral on our list that 68 percent of Americans are deficient in on a daily basis. Do you know which vitamins can be dangerous in large doses? We examine 43 supplements from A-to-Z. (NOTE: Consult with your doctor before you start taking any supplements.)
Vitamin A plays an important role in immune function, growth, reproduction, and cell development. Fun fact: it also enables the eyes to recover after exposure to bright light! Vitamin A is also essential for normal bone growth, and a deficiency can cause weaker bones. That said, chronic high intakes of vitamin A can be toxic, and a safer option would be provitamin A or beta carotene. Carrots are a great food source of vitamin A.
Arginine is a popular amino acid that increases blood flow to muscles, enhancing nutrient delivery and muscle pumps in an effort to increase size and strength. Arginine allows the body to create nitric oxide, a compound responsible for dilating blood vessels, though Arginine supplementation to increase blood flow has little scientific backing. Other downsides? A dose of 5 to 9 grams is needed to increase blood flow, and such high doses can cause significant stomach pain and discomfort. Peanuts, spinach and lentils are foods containing decent amounts of arginine.
B COMPLEX VITAMINS
The B-vitamins (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 12) are water-soluble and play important roles, ranging from immune function to cellular replication and energy metabolism. With the exception of B12, B vitamins are not readily stored in the body, and excess levels are excreted in urine. Since many of the B vitamins are readily found in foods (such as milk and dairy products), a well-rounded diet generally eliminates the need to supplement with a B Complex vitamin.
Also known as thiamine, vitamin B1 breaks down carbs and proteins, and synthesizes certain neurotransmitters. B1 is added to many energy and sports drinks, though research has yet to show a benefit of B1 supplementation for those already eating a complete diet. Some good sources of thiamine are eggs, peas and legumes.
Also known as pyridoxine, vitamin B6 plays a key role in hemoglobin, which is needed for the delivery of oxygen throughout the body. Thus, pyridoxine often is used as a supplement to improve exercise performance, though there’s no clinical support for such benefits. B6 is part of a healthy diet and excessive amounts can cause neurological problems such as balance issues and loss of sensation in the arms and legs, so supplementation is not recommended. B6 can be found in turkey, salmon and sunflower seeds.
Since vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is found exclusively in animal products such as meat, poultry, milk, and eggs, vegetarians and vegans should supplement to be sure to get this one. Seniors and those suffering from inflammatory bowel or digestive conditions might also need to supplement with B12 as these conditions may decrease B12 absorption. B12 deficiencies lead to a specific type of anemia, which will leave you feeling tired and weak.
A precursor to vitamin A found in red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables such as carrots and colored peppers, beta-carotene has been widely researched. It is thought to be effective in treatment of macular degeneration, some forms of arthritis, and exercise-induced asthma. Beta-Carotene has been shown to be ineffective in the treatment of heart disease and most other cancers except for ovarian cancer in postmenopausal women. High doses of beta-carotene (either from supplements or foods) can cause skin to turn a yellow or orange color.
Originally called vitamin H, biotin is used in the metabolism of protein, carbs, and fats. Because it is widely available in our diets, biotin deficiencies tend to be rare and there is no reason to supplement this one unless specified by your doctor. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that adding extra biotin will improve performance. Food sources of biotin include mushrooms, avocados, wheat bran and cauliflower.
An herb from the buttercup family, black cohosh is used to treat menopausal symptoms. Some studies show a benefit in reducing frequency of hot flashes, while others show no effect. As a result, taking black cohosh might be effective in some women but should be avoided by those with liver problems.
Vitamin C (also known as ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin and antioxidant needed to make collagen, a protein that strengthens connective tissue, bones, teeth, cartilage, and skin. Vitamin C deficiencies are rare in the United States. Its supplementation is touted for its immune-bolstering effects, but taking Vitamin C during or after cold symptoms begin has not been proven to impact severity or duration of a cold. Too much vitamin C (as a result of supplementation) can result in diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps. Strawberries and oranges are great food sources of vitamin C.
The most abundant mineral in the body, Calcium is used for building bones. An important fact for the LIVESTRONG.com audience, calcium can be lost via sweat. Thus, active individuals (especially women) should be aware of their calcium intake. Calcium supplementation is advisable for those who do not consume dairy products. Be careful not to overdo it, though, as too much calcium can contribute to kidney stone formation.
Chondroitin is part of a protein found in cartilage. As a supplement, chondroitin is traditionally combined with glucosamine to reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis. The effects of chondroitin are similar to blood-thinning medications. For this reason, chondtroitin should not be taken with these medications or with blood-thinning vitamins and supplements like vitamin E and fish oil. This could cause extremely thin blood and abnormal bleeding.
Chromium is a trace mineral found in broccoli, potatoes, cheeses, lean meats, beef, some spices, and whole grains. Most people get sufficient chromium in their diets. For several decades chromium was a popular weight loss supplement because of its ability to improve insulin’s action in the body; however, clinical trials failed to show any weight loss effects due to supplementation. Although there is little evidence, there may be a benefit for type 2 diabetics taking chromium but this should be discussed with a physician.
COD LIVER OIL
A supplement extracted from the liver of codfish, cod liver oil is different from other fish oil supplements that contain only the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Cod liver oil also contains vitamins A and D. Supplementing with high dosages of cod liver oil is not recommended due to the risk of vitamin A and D toxicity, which can cause nausea and vomiting. Cod liver oil also can cause “fishy” burps, leading to bad breath.
CONJUGATED LINOLENIC ACID
Also known as CLA, conjugated linolenic acid is an omega-6 fat found in beef and dairy products. Research in animals has shown CLA to be a potential anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity, and even anti-cancer compound. Further research, however, has failed to show a significant transfer of these benefits to humans and safety in humans has not been established for CLA.
Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant produced naturally by the body and also found in whole grains and oily fish such as tuna, salmon, and sardines. As we age, our levels of CoQ10 decrease, though that can be counteracted by supplementation or diet. Some studies have suggested that CoQ10 plays a role in reducing the risk of heart disease and also that it may even play a role in healthy skin, sperm mobility levels, and the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease
Cranberry extract is most commonly used for the treatment of urinary tract infections. Compounds found in cranberries prevent E.coli bacteria from clinging to the walls of the urinary tract, making it effective at preventing infections. Cranberry extract has also been linked to reducing the severity of strokes and the risk of tooth decay.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble compound found in milk, egg yolks, and mushrooms grown under ultraviolet light. Sunlight is the major source of vitamin D. A lack of sun exposure, living in northern latitudes, and having darker skin all reduce the body’s ability to absorb vitamin D naturally. Vitamin D is a hot research topic, and it may provide protection again certain types of cancer, bone loss, and even obesity.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a steroid hormone precursor to both estrogen and testosterone. DHEA levels peak during a person’s twenties and decline with age. Initially thought to be effective as an anti-aging supplement, research has refuted DHEA’s impact in that area when it comes to body composition, bone strength, insulin insensitivity, etc. However, DHEA has shown promise in the treatment of women with schizophrenia, improving symptoms of lupus, and sexual dysfunction in men; but more research is needed to support these claims.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble compound found in sunflower seeds, wheat germ, olives, spinach, and asparagus. Because vitamin E is an antioxidant, it protects cells against oxidative stress and damage. Vitamin E once was thought to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, but clinical trials have since shown little effect. Research also shows little evidence to support the use of vitamin E for improving mental function or prevention of cancer.
An herbal supplement derived from the coneflower plant, Echinacea is used for the treatment of the common cold and boosting immune function. Its use is generally regarded as safe, but is not recommended for those with serious illness. Echinacea’s effectiveness in the treatment of illnesses is unclear due to the mixed findings in scientific studies. It still is thought to be effective for the treatment (but not prevention) of the common cold. Echinacea may reduce the effectiveness of immune-suppressing medications, and some people can also be allergic to it.
EVENING PRIMROSE OIL
Evening primrose oil is extracted from the evening primrose flower and is high in the anti-inflammatory omega-6 fat gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is an essential fatty acid found in small amounts in the typical diet. Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, evening primrose oil might have a beneficial effect on PMS, eczema and arthritis. Side effects can include headaches and abdominal pain.
The fats that make up fish oil are used to help lower triglycerides. Fish oil is thought to have positive impacts on depression, anxiety, body weight, and joint function. The minimum recommended intake of EPA and DHA is 100 milligrams per day. A dose of up to 3,000 miligrams per day may be prescribed by physicians to lower blood triglyceride levels.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that plays an integral role in the processes of metabolism and DNA replication. This makes folic acid very important during the early growth stages of a fetus. Folic acid is recommended for pregnant women and those trying to get pregnant in order to prevent birth defects. Spinach, nuts, and legumes contain Folic acid, and many breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals are fortified with folic acid.
In addition to being enjoyed in some seriously delicious pasta dishes, Garlic is also commonly taken as a supplement for the treatment of heart disease risk and the prevention of stomach and colon cancer. Clinical trials do not support the use of a garlic supplement for lowering high cholesterol, but garlic might help lower blood pressure for those with hypertension.
One of the most popular supplements, ginseng is taken to improve blood sugar levels, athletic performance, mental acuity, and overall vitality. It may also help with erectile dysfunction. Since ginseng can act like a stimulant, side effects can include nervousness and trouble sleeping.
Derived from the shells of shellfish, glucosamine is used to alleviate osteoarthritis symptoms. It is considered safe with minimal side effects, though those with shellfish allergies should make sure to choose a synthetic version of the supplement.
Iron is a mineral used in the transport of oxygen through the blood and into muscles via hemoglobin (in red blood cells) and myoglobin (in muscle cells). Iron deficiency can result in anemia and feelings of weakness, headaches, and pale skin. Since excessive iron is toxic to the body, supplementation is not recommended unless a need for additional iron is confirmed by a physician and a blood test. Food sources of iron are meats, poultry and fish.
Also called xanthophyll, lutein is a naturally-occurring pigment made by certain types of microorganisms and plants. Lutein is an antioxidant and a type of carotenoid that may be beneficial in the maintenance of eye health. Food sources of lutein include leafy, green vegetable, such as kale, spinach, lettuce and collard greens. Lutein is also found in egg yolks and pistachios.
Lysine is an essential amino acid that may be used to reduce the severity and duration of cold sores. The recommended dosage is 1 gram. Lysine in the diet is safe but supplementation has been known to lead to gallstones and kidney dysfunction. Food sources of lysine are beans, split peas, lentils and poultry.
Magnesium (a mineral primarily stored in your bones, muscles and organs) is responsible for over 300 different reactions in the body, including maintaining your energy level, helping you relax, and sustaining the health of your heart and blood vessels. As with other minerals, magnesium is lost via sweat during exercise. As a result, many athletes and other hard-training people might not be getting enough magnesium. A 2005 study found that 68% of Americans don’t get enough magnesium – the average intake is well below the current recommendations. Adult supplement doses begin around 300 milligrams a day.
Melatonin (a hormone released the pineal gland in your brain) is responsible for preparing your body for sleep. Melatonin is released in conjunction with darkness and the associated circadian rhythm. Excessive exposure to artificial light can impact natural melatonin release. Melatonin supplements are frequently used as a sleep aid for insomnia, work shift sleep disorder and jet lag. Side effects can include daytime drowsiness, mood changes and increased cholesterol.
Milk thistle or Silybum marianum, has been used for thousands of years to treat many health conditions. It contains silymarin, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that can benefit the liver and heart. Although generally considered safe, milk thistle may cause upset stomach, diarrhea and rashes. If people have ragweed allergies, they should avoid milk thistle.
Niacin is a common name for vitamin B3 and is found in meat, poultry, fish, and fortified grains. Its most important role is assisting with the body’s energy production. It can help release calcium stored in our bodie, and it’s important to the health of our hair, skin, and nails. In severe cases, large doses of niacin can damage your liver.
Also classified as an electrolyte, Potassium is a mineral that plays a key role in heart and bone health. While inadequate intakes of potassium can increase your risk for heart disease and hypertension, consuming high levels of potassium can negatively impact heart function and is dangerous. Adequate potassium can be obtained from a diet rich in vegetables and fruits such as bananas and avocados.
Probiotics is a term used to describe healthy bacteria that helps maintain an optimal balance in the intestines to promote digestion and improve immunity. In addition to being available as a supplement, lactobacillus acidophilus is a probiotic that is found in dairy products such as yogurt and cottage cheese that contain active cultures. Probiotics are commonly used to fight causes of diarrhea and control inflammatory bowel disease flair ups.
RED RICE YEAST
Red rice yeast is created by fermenting rice with a strain of red yeast called Monascus purpureus. It has along history of use in China and Japan as both a food and a medicinal product. These days, it’s sold in supplement form and taken to reduce cholesterol, as well as for a variety of other health promoting purposes. Side effects can include stomachache, heartburn, nausea, and diarrhea.
SAM-e (which stands for S-adenosylmethionine) is an amino acid made in the liver. SAM-e is used in the treatment of depression, arthritis pain, and adult ADHD. It’s also believed to protect against liver damage. Since SAM-e dosage can vary greatly, it’s best to check with a health professional before use.
Saw palmetto is a plant in the palm tree family that grows in the southeastern United States. It has been traditionally used for bladder disorders, hair loss, hormone imbalances, and treatment of enlarged prostate glands. More recent clinical trials have not shown any significant effect of saw palmetto on enlarged prostates, however. Possible adverse reactions to saw palmetto include stomach pain, nausea, bowel changes, dizziness and headache.
A mineral and powerful antioxidant found in seafood, poultry, eggs, and whole grains, selenium has been associated with reduced incidence of several types of cancers as well as a stimulant for the immune system. Adequate selenium intake also appears to protect against cardiovascular disease and to support male fertility. Since it’s a trace mineral, selenium is only needed in small doses, and supplementation is not recommended. Selenium can be toxic in high doses.
Soy isoflavones are a specific class of antioxidant found in soy that attach themselves to your body’s estrogen receptors. Soy isoflavones can reduce cholesterol, protecting you against heart attacks and strokes. Isoflavones reduce your body's production of cells that lead to plaque buildup in your arteries. While safe for most people, soy and isoflavones can cause side effects such as nausea, bloating and constipation.
ST. JOHN’S WORT
An herbal supplement derived from goatweed, St John’s wort has been used for centuries to treat depression and symptoms of anxiety. Findings vary, though. While an October 2005 study found that St. John’s wort was more effective than fluoxetine (Prozac) at treating major depressive disorder, a large scale April 2002 study found no benefit to St. John’s Wort use over the placebo in the treatment of major depression. St John’s Wort also has multiple drug interactions and thus should only be taken under a doctor’s supervision. Side effects are unusual, but may include fatigue, stomach pain, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, dizziness, headache, and dry mouth.
Zinc is an essential mineral found in seafood, poultry, beef, nuts, dark chocolate and fortified cereal. It plays an important role in cell growth, the immune system, and maintaining your senses of smell and taste. Zinc also helps shorten the duration of the common cold and promotes the healing of wounds. Zinc deficiency is unusual, but vegetarians, alcoholics, and the elderly are at risk for having low zinc levels. The body cannot store zinc, so getting enough – either through diet or supplementation – is vital.
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