Guide to Natural Healing

Americans are turning in high numbers to natural supplements for everything from colds to memory lapses. In fact, there are so many options and variations that the real challenge is knowing what to take. If you're looking for a mood booster, you might think about upping your omega-3s. And if you're worried about cholesterol, loading up on lycopene may be the key. From acidophilus to zinc, PT canvasses the best natural remedies, be they classic standbys or cutting-edge extracts. Just don't wait for springtime to try them.

Immunity, Cold And Flu

Echinacea

This daisylike cone flower, used as a medicinal remedy since the late 1800s, is now known as the cold and flu supplement. It also helps boost immune response.

How it Works

Echinacea acts like virus-fighting interferon, which helps resist infection.

The Lowdown

A meta-analysis of 16 trials found that echinacea helps prevent as well as treat common cold symptoms more effectively than a placebo.

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Expert Testimony

"People should take echinacea before cold symptoms really even begin—when you're just starting to feel achy," says Glenn S. Rothfeld, a physician and medical director of WholeHealth New England, an integrative medicine practice in Arlington, Massachusetts. "If you catch symptoms early enough, echinacea can stop a cold in its tracks."

Did You Know?

Up until the introduction of powerful antibiotics in the 1930s, many Americans relied on this native plant to fight off infections. Echinacea's star rose again with the herbal revival of the 1970s.

Suggested Dose

For cold symptoms, take 50 to 300 mg, two to four times daily, depending on extract concentration. Supplements using aboveground parts of E. purpurea and roots of E. pallida are best. Echinacea should not be taken continuously.

Zinc

This essential trace mineral participates in hundreds of bodily functions, from immunity to sense of smell. In lozenge form, when taken at the first inkling of a cold, it can minimize the severity and duration of symptoms.

How it Works

Zinc lozenges appear to destroy the cold and flu virus in the mouth. The mineral likely eases symptoms—runny nose, sore throat, cough—by decreasing chemicals involved in the pathways of inflammation.

The Lowdown

Studies are mixed, but generally positive. In one trial of 50 people, cold symptoms, especially coughing, disappeared about three days earlier in those who sucked on zinc lozenges (versus placebo) every two hours.

Expert Testimony

Both zinc gluconate and zinc acetate lozenges have been studied, but it's not clear which is more effective. "If one formulation doesn't work, try the other next time," says Carol Haggans at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements.

Did You Know?

Balk at the disagreeable flavor of zinc lozenges? Resist swigging orange juice to wash out the taste; citrus fruits can decrease the bioavailability of zinc.

Suggested Dose

Take a lozenge every two hours during waking hours, for as long as symptoms persist. Avoid exceeding total daily dosage of 40 mg. Concentrations vary, so check the label.

Mood

Omega-3s

Depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), high cholesterol levels and heart disease—all are said to improve with plentiful supplies of the essential fatty acids, omega-3s. The body doesn't produce its own, but popular demand has made omega-3s widely available in fish oil capsules.

How it Works

The key omega-3s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), reduce the inflammation that contributes to heart and blood vessel disease. Omega-3s may enhance cognitive function, and they may also ease depression. The third omega-3—alpha-linolenic acid, from plants—has not been as widely tested for mood effects.

The Lowdown

People with depression often have low levels of omega-3s. A Finnish study of more than 3,200 adults found that depressive symptoms were significantly higher among infrequent fish eaters.

Expert Testimony

"It's good to have fish in your diet," notes John C. Reed, an Arlington, Virginia, physician and Vice President of Medical Affairs for American WholeHealth, an integrative medicine provider. "But if you are subject to SAD, you should take fish-oil supplements, which don't pose the same risk of mercury exposure and other contaminants that eating too much fish can."

Did You Know?

Food manufacturers are aware of the merits of omega-3s. Now you can find them in foods as varied as eggs and tortilla chips.

Suggested Dose

Take 3 to 10 grams of EPA and DHA daily in three doses with food.

St. John's Wort

The bright yellow flowers of this shrublike perennial (Hypericum perforatum) contain several antidepressant compounds. An antibacterial and antiviral herb, it has long been used as a topical remedy to fight infections.

How it Works

St. John's wort likely lifts mood by impacting neurotransmitters involved in depression; for example, it boosts serotonin levels, a brain chemical that plays a big part in emotions.

The Lowdown

An analysis of 22 randomized trials found that St. John's wort controls mild-to-moderate depression just as well as antidepressants do (and with fewer side effects), and significantly better than a placebo does. For this reason, it is often used to combat seasonal affective disorder. Its power to ease severe depression is less clear.

Expert Testimony

"In the darker months, people tend to get blue and feel isolated," Rothfeld explains. "I have patients who use a moderate dose of St. John's wort from the end of September to March."

Did You Know?

In Germany, where herbal remedies are widely tested and government-regulated, approximately 30 million prescriptions for St. John's wort are written annually.

Suggested Dose

Take an extract standardized to .3 percent hypericin or 2 to 4.5 percent hyperforin, 900 mg daily in three doses.

Brain Enhancers

Antioxidants

These are the body's defense system against unstable oxygen molecules called free radicals. Fruits and vegetables brim with antioxidants such as vitamins E and C, carotenoids and flavonoids.

How it Works

Free radicals are constantly mopped up by antioxidants, which protect cells from the damage of renegade molecules.

The Lowdown

Oxidative stress from free radicals likely plays a role in memory failure, cerebrovascular disease such as stroke and major dementias. A large German study found that people with vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease had lower levels of many key antioxidants—vitamins C, E and A, carotenoids, lycopene and others—than healthy controls.

Expert Testimony

"Doctors practicing antiaging medicine believe you can slow down aging by taking antioxidants regularly," comments David Edelberg, assistant professor of medicine at Rush Medical College in Chicago. "Free radicals literally press the fast-forward button on aging. And the worst source of free radicals is cigarette smoke."

Did You Know?

Never abandon fruits and vegetables. But when boosting antioxidant intake with supplements, opt for combination formulas; single high-dose antioxidants are not only less effective but dangerous because they can themselves become free radicals.

Suggested Dose

Antioxidant formulations vary widely. Most should be taken twice a day, with meals.

Ginkgo Biloba

This herb boosts memory and alleviates circulatory problems. Active compounds are extracted from the fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree.

How it Works

Ginkgo regulates blood vessel health, increasing blood flow to the brain. Its antioxidant compounds scavenge free radicals and proteins that can accumulate in memory-robbing dementias. Ginkgo also inhibits blood clots that could block vessels.

The Lowdown

Ginkgo may improve mental performance in healthy individuals as well as in those with established dementia. In one study, healthy volunteers taking ginkgo combined with Panax ginseng enjoyed sharper cognitive function and less mental fatigue than volunteers who did not take the supplements. They also had temporary improvement in short- and long-term memory.

Expert Testimony

"Ginkgo may slow down the dementia illnesses," says Edelberg. "However, if your memory is already pretty sharp, don't expect significant improvement."

Did You Know?

Be thankful that ginkgo is available in pill form; for millennia, people resorted to brewing tea from the notoriously stinky leaves.

Suggested Dose

Take 60 mg standardized extract of ginkgo biloba (GBE) twice daily.

Vitamin B Complex

B vitamins preserve the integrity of the central nervous system, keeping vascular health as well as cognitive function in top condition. Most formulas contain B12, B6 and folic acid.

How They Work

Among other actions, B vitamins engage in chemical reactions that can influence cognitive decline. Adequate levels are also necessary to dampen levels of homocysteine, an inflammation-provoking compound that may contribute to vascular disease.

The Lowdown

Memory performance improved in 211 healthy women of various ages who took a short-term daily course of folic acid, B12 and B6 vitamins, but not in those who took a placebo. Recall and recognition, processing speed and verbal ability improved with increased intake of these vitamins.

Expert Testimony

"American diets are often short in the three B's—folate, B6, and B12," says dietician and Environmental Nutrition editor Susan Male Smith. "Elevated homocysteine levels have been linked to cognitive changes, and replenishing depletions of these three B's is a way to get homocysteine down."

Did You Know?

You're dutifully taking your vitamin B complex, but your urine is now an alarming bright yellow. Don't worry; it's a harmless side effect of the riboflavin.

Suggested Dose

Take one B complex daily, or confirm presence of B vitamins in your multivitamin. People over age 50 should get the RDA for B12 (2.4 mcg) from supplements or fortified foods because absorption capacity dwindles with age.

Digestion

Ginger

The knotty underground stems, called Rhizomes, of the aromatic ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) are treasured for their spicy sweetness and healing properties. ginger quells nausea and vomiting, and is a natural antihistamine and decongestant.

How it Works

The stomach-soothing compounds in ginger—shogaol and gingerol—neutralize stomach acids and counter inflammation. These compounds act directly in the stomach to increase intestinal muscle tone and suppress gastric contractions. Nausea lessens as the flow of saliva, bile and gastric secretions picks up.

The Lowdown

Several major clinical trials are underway to assess ginger's ability to control nausea and vomiting in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. More basic benefits for indigestion are widely accepted.

Expert Testimony

"I don't think there's a big difference in how you take ginger, whether in tea, as a liquid extract or a candy," explains Reed. "Although, if your stomach's already sensitive, ginger tea bags could be a problem because there's often other stuff in them (spices, seasonings, sweeteners)."

Did You Know?

As generations of nursemaids have claimed, ginger ale, America's oldest soda, is an effective stomach soother. But it's not the calories or liquid that matter, it's the ginger. Bubbly is best for burps, however.

Suggested Dose

Take 100 to 200 mg every four hours, or up to three times daily in standardized extract form. Prepare tea by adding liquid extract or steeping one-half teaspoon of grated ginger root in eight ounces of hot water; steep root for 10 minutes. Prepared this way, tea contains 250 mg of ginger.

Acidophilus

The use of Lactobacillus acidophilus and other probiotic bacteria to maintain intestinal health and good digestion is on the rise. Many yogurts, fermented dairy products, and pill and powder formulas contain live cultures.

How it Works

About 400 types of bacteria and yeasts live in the digestive tract. Acidophilus and other probiotics stimulate immunity, beat out "bad" microorganisms in the race for nutrients and produce agents that inhibit or destroy microbes.

The Lowdown

Clinical trials largely confirm that increasing the gut's level of probiotics prevents and alleviates many intestinal problems, from simple indigestion to diarrhea, flatulence and bloating. It may also lower cholesterol and prevent tumor recurrence.

Expert Testimony

"Buy from a reputable brand name supplement company that states they assay the product for viable organisms," recommends Reed. "Even if they correctly label it, it doesn't mean healthy bacteria actually end up living in your gut."

Did You Know?

Nearly a century ago Nobel Prize winner Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian physician and bacteriologist, first suggested that foods containing lactobacilli benefit the stomach. He also cited longevity as an added benefit.

Suggested Dose

Take two pills a day with meals, with at least 1 billion live organisms per pill.

Heart Health And Cholesterol

Coenzyme Q10

CoQ10 is an essential part of the body's energy-producing machinery. This antioxidant is often used for heart health and cancer care.

How it Works

The antioxidant CoQ10 teams with vitamin E to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. It is believed to protect the heart—a muscle requiring plenty of CoQ10, given its energy demands—from certain types of injury and from chemotherapy toxicity. It also acts as an immune stimulant.

The Lowdown

Well-designed trials in more than 1,000 congestive heart failure sufferers indicate that CoQ10 supplementation often lessens severity of disease, increases exercise capacity and reduces hospitalizations. Other studies have found improvements in skin tone, ankle swelling and shortness of breath.

Expert Testimony

Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may deplete CoQ10. "This likely explains the achy muscles and fatigue that so many statin users feel," explains WholeHealth's Rothfeld. "I recommend CoQ10—which works independently on cholesterol-lowering anyway—along with a statin medication."

Did You Know?

It was only in 1957 that scientists identified CoQ10, a compound present in all living organisms. They named it "ubiquinone" in recognition of its pervasiveness.

Suggested Dose

Take 100 mg twice daily in a pill with an oil base or with fatty food such as peanut butter.

Lycopene

This carotenoid antioxidant—the natural pigment in tomatoes, guava and watermelon—is good for the heart. Lycopene levels often are inversely proportional to the occurrence of prostate and other cancers.

How it Works

The heart-healthy and cancer-countering qualities of lycopene are largely due to its antioxidant might and its positive effect on cholesterol metabolism.

The Lowdown

A major Dutch study of nearly 8,000 participants found that the higher the level of lycopene in the blood, the lower the level of artery-clogging plaque. Another trial documented a 14 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol concentrations when subjects took 60 mg of lycopene daily for three months.

Expert Testimony

"Lycopene is mainly used for heart disease prevention," remarks Edelberg, "although lycopene may offer some protection against prostate cancer as well."

Did You Know?

Even ketchup percolates with lycopene, but you'd need quite a slathering to do much good. Choose the reddest of tomatoes, then heat and retain the pulp for a lycopene-rich sauce. Other powerhouses include red peppers, ruby red grapefruit and watermelon.

Suggested Dose

Get 25 to 30 mg of lycopene a day, ideally through foods.

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