With so many nutritional remedies available, it's tough to sort out which ones are most beneficial to your health. In a new book, Nutricures (Rodale Books, April 2010), author Alice Feinstein, who has been a freelance health journalist for 20 years, and the editors of Prevention magazine, present what their research and interviews with experts determined to be the most effective foods and supplements, and explain which diseases and conditions they're most helpful for. U.S. News asked Feinstein, who spoke with doctors from various specialties to gather information and advice for the book, to list her favorites. Her choices:
Coenzyme Q10 is made naturally by the body, but as you age, your body's supply of this antioxidant may decline. This nutrient is believed to help the body ward off certain cancers and infections, and a deficiency of coenzyme Q10 has been linked to Graves' disease—a thyroid condition—and thyroid cancer, among other ailments. Most concerning, perhaps, is the fact that certain medications can deplete the body's supply of this nutrient, Feinstein writes. Statin medications, for example, lower cholesterol but also inhibit biochemical pathways for coenzyme Q10. And while statins lower cholesterol, the resulting depletion of coenzyme Q10 may increase the likelihood of dying from heart failure, she says. A coenzyme Q10 supplement in the range of 180 to 360 milligrams per day for people with most forms of heart disease can be a solution, according to Feinstein's interviews with experts. Some studies have shown a benefit to taking a coenzyme Q10 supplement both as a preventive and supportive treatment for people who have had heart attacks. Beta blockers and some antidepressants can also deplete the body's supply of coenzyme Q10, says Feinstein.
Most people know they need to get a sufficient amount of calcium, but not everyone knows that vitamin D is important, too, Feinstein says. Studies in recent years have found that vitamin D, also known as the "sunshine vitamin," helps protect against cancer, diabetes, heart disease, colds, flu, tuberculosis, and more, and as a result, doctors are increasingly recommending that patients take vitamin D supplements, even though it's not clear how much vitamin D is optimal for good health. "Doctors frequently recommend taking 1,000 or 2,000 international units per day," of vitamin D, Feinstein says. But don't decide how much you need on your own. Talk to your doctor for advice, she says.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s are helpful for many conditions, such as depression, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and asthma, Feinstein says. Those looking to beef up on omega-3s can eat more fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, and tuna. But "if you don't get fish a couple of times a week, you can also take a supplement," says Feinstein. Why do omega-3s seem to be so widely helpful? "Each of your cells has a membrane around it, and omega-3 fatty acids actually have a positive effect on the membrane, making it more permeable and fluid so that nutrients can get into your cells," she says.
Lutein and zeaxanthin
These carotenoids are what Feinstein calls "natural sunglasses." Fruits and vegetables contain these orange and yellow pigments, which "decrease sensitivity to glare and help prevent or treat macular degeneration," Feinstein says. If you experience discomfort from glare—say, while looking at a computer screen or from oncoming headlights at night—you might want to consider lutein and zeaxanthin supplements, Feinstein writes. A 2006 Spanish study found that these nutrients may also help protect against the development of cataracts, and ongoing research is looking into how these nutrients may be protect against other age-related eye diseases.
The best way to get more lutein and zeaxanthin is to eat more green, leafy vegetables, as well as red peppers, okra, parsley, dill, celery, blackberries, carrots, tomatoes, corn, egg yolks, and paprika, Feinstein advises in the book.
If you suffer from insomnia, a L-theanine supplement might be the ticket to a good night's rest. This amino acid, also found in green tea, works to induce sleep because it's one of the building blocks of GABA, a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the body. For the best results, take a supplement 30 minutes before bedtime, Feinstein advises. Those who take this supplement should start with 30 milligram at first, then can safely build up to 300 milligrams nightly, if needed, according to Feinstein's interviews with experts.
Three key B vitamins made Feinstein's list of top foods and supplements described in the book. B6, for instance, is helpful for women with depression that's tied to premenstrual syndrome, and can be obtained by eating more fortified breakfast cereals, fish, peanut butter, bananas, and chicken. B12 can help people struggling with memory problems, both old and young alike, she says, and can be found in eggs, milk, seafood, meat, and fortified breakfast cereals. Taking 2.6 milligrams of a biotin supplement (a type of B vitamin) for six months can help strengthen brittle nails, Feinstein says.
Don't neglect your diet!
There is no substitute for a good, healthy diet, Feinstein says. "The best source for getting vitamins and minerals is to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and to pay attention to getting the different colors," she says. "There are literally hundreds and hundreds of nutrients, individual nutrients, found in food." Also, beware of false claims about dietary supplements, especially exaggerated information about what a particular supplement can and cannot do, she says. And always tell your doctor about any vitamins and supplements you're taking to avoid unintended interactions with medications, she advises.