You may question whether it’s necessary to consume supplements when you already eat a healthy diet. Yet in today’s modern age, the road to good nutrition has plenty of obstacles. Our soil is nutritionally depleted, environmental pollutants contaminate the food chain and highly processed foods dominate our daily diets. Plus, our stressful lifestyles are consistently burning up important nutrient stores. This means the food we eat packs less nutritional punch, while our absorption of nutrients is often impaired.
Supplements help to combat these nutritional deficits. They slow down the ageing process by helping you to more effectively cope with the stresses placed on your body. They work on many different levels: enhancing your health at a cellular level; reducing inflammation; maximising organ function; improving your detoxification processes; promoting healthy brain function; and preventing wear and tear of your joints.
In recent years, the term “nutraceuticals” has been used to describe supplements that offer an isolated or purified extract of a food in a prescribed dose within a capsule, tablet or powder. Nutraceuticals are designed to have a medicinal effect on your health and help to provide protection against chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, osteoporosis and dementia. Talk to your naturopath to determine what supplements and doses are best suited to you and for information on contraindications and drug interactions.
Memory and mood trouble
As you age, your brain begins to degenerate and memory deteriorates along with it. The culprits? A reduction in neurotransmitters, free radical damage to brain cells, reduced blood circulation to the brain and the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone which, if elevated for a prolonged period, can damage cells in the hippocampus (a part of the brain that is instrumental in converting short-term memories to long term ones). Depression can also affect the way your brain processes information and retrieves it. Keeping the mind active, ensuring you have a diet rich in antioxidants, avoiding events that may trigger depression and minimising stress can all help to maintain a healthy brain.
- Ginkgo biloba:Ginkgo is renowned for its positive effects on enhancing memory and works in a number of ways to promote healthy brain function. It acts as an antioxidant, enhances cognition, improves blood flow, is neuroprotective and can assist with the prevention of dementia. Ginkgo comes in tablet, fluid extract or as a dried herb and the adult dose is equivalent to 6–12g of the dried leaf per day.
- St John’s wort:Used medicinally since the ancient Greek times, this herb is so named because of its yellow flowers, which were gathered for the feast of St John the Baptist, while the word “wort” is the old English term for plant. St John’s wort is effective for treating mild to moderate depression, as well as helping to reduce the effects of anxiety, irritability and emotional stress. It is contraindicated with many pharmaceutical medications as well as with the oral contraceptive pill and the correct dosage depends on your symptoms, so talk to your naturopath or herbalist before taking this herb.
- SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine):Made from the amino acid called methionine, SAMe is a naturally occurring compound involved in many bodily processes, including the methylation of brain chemicals — in which a methyl group is donated to a molecule to change its shape and function, allowing important processes in the body to occur. SAMe assists the synthesis and utilisation of some hormones and chemicals such as serotonin, melatonin and dopamine, which are important for mood and sleep. In particular, it methylates fats called phospholipids, which help keep the membranes of brain cells fluid and the receptors healthy so they respond well to neurotransmitters, which enable cells to talk to each other. Studies indicate that in some people, SAMe can be as effective in lifting depression as medication or placebo. Supplementation should be under the guidance of a health professional, who will be able to direct you to good-quality SAMe supplements and monitor side-effects, which may include anxiety.
Aches and pains
Most people become generally stiffer with age so they are less flexible and feel niggling aches and pains in the morning. The problem usually stems from a range of causes, including lack of exercise, poor posture, excess weight, old sports injuries and sitting for long periods at a computer. In addition, stress and poor diet can lead to internal inflammation, which can cause everything from joint pain to eczema.
White willow bark:This herb has potent anti-inflammatory properties and helps to alleviate pain, particularly acute or chronic musculoskeletal pain such as lower back pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions, including bursitis (inflammation in joints, tendons and ligaments). Hippocrates was the first to document the beneficial effects of willow bark. Salicin and salicylic acid are the principal active components in white willow bark and are precursors to aspirin. For joint pain and inflammation, take the equivalent of 120–240mg of total salicin daily in divided doses.
This immune response is essential in warding off infectious diseases and protecting you from foreign invaders and traumatic damage. However, when your immune system becomes overactive, chronic inflammation persists and substances called inflammatory cytokines are released. If elevated for prolonged periods, cytokines can cause organ dysfunction and contribute to the onset of age-related chronic diseases. Controlling your inflammatory status allows a better chance of healthy ageing.
Fish oil:The oil of cold-water fish contains the omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), precursors to eicosanoids that reduce inflammation throughout the body. Supplementing with fish oil helps to mitigate inflammatory processes and has beneficial effects on a range of conditions associated with unhealthy ageing. The dose for fish oil’s anti-inflammatory effects is at least 3g to 6g daily, depending on your requirements. Ensure you are taking a good-quality brand that is mercury tested.
There are many contributing factors to the development of chronic diseases, but a major mechanism underpinning the initiation of age-related diseases is oxidative stress within the body. This is caused when highly reactive molecules called free radicals are produced and then oxidise or damage components of cells, causing these cells to malfunction. Free radicals may be caused by excessive exposure to sunlight, x-rays, radiation, chemicals, pollution and a multitude of other sources. They can also be a byproduct of biochemical reactions within the body.
- Polyphenols:This is a type of antioxidant that plays a key role in combating oxidative stress and helps to prevent the onset of degenerative diseases. There are various types of polyphenols, including the flavonoids, which are widely occurring in nature. High levels of polyphenols are found in berries, pomegranates, olive oil, grapes, green tea, plums and even red wine and cocoa. There is a variety of supplements and concentrated juices on the market that contain polyphenols sourced from particular foods such as blueberries and pomegranates.
- Grapeseed extract:A potent antioxidant containing oligomeric pro-anthocyanidins (OPCs), grapeseed extract has a type of flavonoid that offers significant health benefits. It protects your body cells from damage caused by free radicals and can even help to restore some normal function to damaged tissues. Grapeseed extract comes in fluid or capsule form. For optimal antioxidant effects, take a 12,000mg capsule of grapeseed extract two to three times daily.
- Vitamins and minerals:Taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement is essential to help bridge nutrient deficiencies and head off chronic diseases. In research involving more than 88,000 women, those who took multivitamins for 15 years or more significantly reduced their risk of colon cancer compared with those who took multivitamins for less time. Another study found that taking a multivitamin reduced the risk of first-time heart attack in a group of people aged 45 to 70.
Mitochondria are the powerhouses of your cells, the biological engines that convert carbohydrates, fats and proteins into energy for use by your entire body. Ageing mitochondria are less efficient at converting fuel to energy and consequently can kick-start the production of harmful oxidants, causing cellular damage. To maximise mitochondrial function, certain supplements can reduce your exposure to toxic oxidants, improve metabolic efficiency and enhance cellular health.
- Selenium:An essential trace element that is intricately involved in various detoxification processes, selenium protects the cell membrane from oxidative damage caused by carcinogens. Selenium may have an anti-carcinogenic effect since optimum blood or tissue levels appear to correlate closely with reduced cancer risk. Recommended doses vary depending on your specific needs.
- L-carnitine:L-carnitine plays a pivotal role in your cells’ fat and energy metabolism. It promotes the transport and oxidation of fatty acids in the mitochondria and prevents the toxic accumulation of fatty acids in the cells. Animal studies have shown that L-carnitine slows the effects of ageing and prevents age-related declines in energy metabolism and memory. Clinical studies in humans have also demonstrated positive effects of L-carnitine in slowing mild cognitive impairment and the progression of dementia in Alzheimer’s disease. Take 1g once or twice daily to enhance cellular function.
- Alpha-lipoic acid:This is both a fat and a water-soluble antioxidant, found in the mitochondria of cells. It prevents oxidative damage to cells and is involved in heavy metal chelation. Lipoic acid is able to enter nerve tissue and prevent glucose-related oxidative damage, making it useful for diabetic symptoms such as peripheral neuropathy. Lipoic acid also increases the antioxidant effects of vitamin C, vitamin E and glutathione, helping to enhance detoxification. Alpha-lipoic acid comes in tablet or capsule form and the recommended dosage is 300mg one to two times daily.
- Coenzyme Q10:CoQ10 is a powerful antioxidant present in cell membranes at high concentrations, acting as a powerful free-radical scavenger and taking part in regeneration of other key antioxidants. CoQ10 is necessary for cellular energy production and helps to stabilise cell membranes. Meat and fish products contain high amounts of CoQ10, while lesser amounts can be found in vegetarian sources such as broccoli, cauliflower, nuts, spinach and soy. As an antioxidant, the dose is usually between 50mg and 150mg per day.
Research has shown that stress can accelerate the ageing of our cells. So the more you stress, the faster your body may be ageing. This is particularly evident in relation to the telomere, which is at the very tip of each cell’s chromosome, a little like the end on a bootlace. As you age, your protective telomeres diminish and when they are gone the cell dies. However, stress can speed up the rate of deterioration by interfering with a special enzyme that helps maintain the health of the telomeres and, in turn, protects your DNA.
One University of California study involving premenopausal women had startling results. The scientists found that in women who reported high stress levels, telomeres were shorter and the cells were between nine and 17 years older than the woman’s actual chronological years.
That’s good reason to pursue a less stressed lifestyle. When you are exposed to any type of stress you can become irritable and easily fatigued and lose concentration. Ongoing stress has a huge impact on all your body systems, particularly your adrenal glands, and it may eventually result in adrenal exhaustion.
- Siberian ginseng:Eleutherococcus senticosus, as it is known by its botanical name, can be used to increase your physical and mental stamina, speed convalescence, provide you with an increased ability to withstand stressors and help to normalise physiological processes that may have been altered in response to exposure to stress. Taking 1–5g of the dried root per day can help you manage your stress levels more effectively.
- Magnesium:Stress intensifies the release of stress hormones and can cause a reduction in tissue magnesium levels. Supplementation with this mineral will prevent you from becoming magnesium-deficient and enable you to deal with stress more effectively. Magnesium comes in tablet, capsule or powder form and the average dose is 300–600mg, depending on your symptoms.
Blood sugar stability
As you age, your body’s ability to control blood sugar declines. High-glycaemic foods increase blood-sugar levels, activating free radicals and pro-inflammatory enzymes, which speed up the ageing process. Aim to keep your blood sugar levels stable by eating small amounts regularly throughout the day rather than letting your blood sugar crash in the mid-afternoon when you feel the need to get stuck into a packet of chocolate biscuits. Snacking on nuts throughout the day will also help keep you satisfied and offer sustained energy.
- Chromium:This is an essential trace mineral that helps to enhance the action of insulin. It improves the ability of insulin to bind to cells, thereby aiding the transport of glucose into cells and reducing elevated blood sugar levels. Dietary sources include brewer’s yeast, wholegrain breads, cereals, cheese and eggs. The dose ranges between 50 and 400 micrograms per day.
The use of supplements helps to support and restore your health and prevent the onset of chronic disease. However, supplementation is just one component of living a healthy lifestyle. Continuing to eat and sleep well, ensuring you are exercising regularly and maintaining optimal emotional health cannot be underestimated in the big picture of lifelong health. Adding supplements into the mix of holistic living practices provides your health with an extra boost. The right supplements can enhance your vitality, help to prevent the onset of chronic degenerative diseases and give you additional confidence that you are doing everything possible to support your body and mind through the ageing process.
Body system support
- Digestive enzymes:Digestive enzymes help with symptoms such as gas and bloating, which can occur as a result of incomplete digestion, a problem often associated with the ageing process due to a decrease in enzyme production.
- Probiotics:Beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium can boost digestive function and make you less susceptible to food poisoning and tummy bugs.
- Slippery elm:Prevent constipation by ensuring your bowels are kept clean and healthy with the use of fibre supplements such as slippery elm.
- St Marys thistle:This has significant liver protective and regenerative actions. It protects the liver from damage caused by certain toxins and drugs, including pharmaceutical medications.
- Amino acids:Cysteine, taurine and methionine have various roles in improving liver function, such as detoxifying harmful chemicals, improving fat metabolism, binding to heavy metals and the production of glutathione.
Heart health & circulation
- Hawthorn:This is rich in oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), which have potent antioxidant and connective-tissue-stabilising actions. Hawthorn helps to prevent degeneration of your blood vessel walls caused by atherosclerosis and thereby helps protect the heart from damage and arrhythmias. It increases the force of contraction, improves coronary blood flow and reduces myocardial oxygen demand.
- Calcium:This important mineral, taken in conjunction with vitamin D, protects against bone mass loss and aids in the prevention of osteoporosis.
Not all supplements are created equal. Their quality differs according to where they are sourced and how they are processed. When choosing supplements, here’s what you should be aware of:
- Substitution issues:Manufacturers may substitute a herb with a less effective or inactive part of the plant or a completely different species in order to cut costs. Check the labels for a description of the correct botanical name and to see which part of the plant is being used.
- Potency of plant constituents:The levels of active constituents within a plant may vary depending where and how it is grown and harvested. Chemical analyses such as TLC (thin layer chromatography) and HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) should be undertaken by manufacturers to confirm identification, ensure potency and test for levels of active constituents.
- Organic and quality sources:Preferably use herbs that are from manufacturers who source organically grown and wild crafted herbs. Ensure supplements have undergone quality control processes, eg fish oil supplements have been through purification processes such as molecular distillation and carbon filtration to remove mercury and other contaminants.
- Natural vs synthetic:The long-term health risks of consuming synthetic vitamins is still unclear. Studies conducted on vitamin E show the natural form has approximately twice the bioavailability of synthetic vitamin E and is retained significantly longer in body tissues. Natural vitamin E is listed on the label as d-alpha tocopherol, d-alpha tocopheryl acetate or d-alpha tocopheryl succinate. Synthetic vitamin E has dl- as a prefix (dl-alpha tocopherol).
- Excipients:These are a group of inactive, non-medicinal substances that may be used in the manufacturing of a supplement. Examples include binders, fillers, disintegrates, coating agents, lubricants, emulsifying agents and artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners and preservatives. Some excipients adversely affect the bioavailability of the supplement because they don’t easily disintegrate. Others commonly cause stomach upsets, sensitivity or allergic reactions. Excipients are often allergenic and include substances such as corn, gluten, wheat, yeast, maltodextrin, sugar, starch and silica.
- Binders:These help to bind together the ingredients in the tablet. A supplement must be able to disintegrate for maximal absorption to occur. A tablet binder affects the speed and extent of disintegration.
- Fillers:These are often added to supplements because manufacturers may use only a limited number of tablet sizes. If space still exists after the active ingredients are added, fillers are included to increase the tablet dimensions or to make a capsule look fuller.
- Artificial flavours, colours and preservatives:Added to supplements to make them taste or look better or to prolong their shelf life, these can be problematic for people with allergies or sensitivities.
The trouble with trials
The decision whether to take a supplement or not can be confusing in light of a stream of often conflicting research that is being published about supplements and their benefits or drawbacks. Though well intentioned, scientific research methods such as the clinical trial may not always be as rigorous as they seem because of the following inherent problems:
- It is difficult to satisfactorily measure outcomes, particularly in the case of conditions that can’t necessarily be classified into specific pathological disease states. Herbs are quite often used as a preventive measure to provide extra support to the individual and promote self-repair before a more serious disease takes hold.
- There are sometimes problems with the sample of people used as trial participants. Confounding factors such as differing lifestyles may skew the results. A much-quoted Swedish clinical trial that concluded betacarotene supplements could cause a higher incidence of lung cancer was carried out in a group of male smokers. The result in non-smokers may have been completely different — particularly when you consider cancer often takes 10 or 20 years to develop.
- The timeframe within which the study is undertaken may also present problems when researching nutritional and herbal supplements. Often, results will be reported as negative despite insufficient time being allocated to the study period.
- The form of the supplement used in a clinical trial can be problematic. There are various forms of nutritional supplements and some are less biologically active. If a poor-quality supplement is used in the trial, a negative or inconclusive outcome is more likely.
- Much scientific research is carried out using synthetic vitamins, but the long-term health effects of synthetically produced vitamins are not completely understood.