Dr. Jacqueline Gerhart: Proper Supplements Can Be Beneficial
Madison, Wisconsin - UW Health Family Medicine physician Jacqueline Gerhart writes a column that appears Tuesdays on madison.com and in the Wisconsin State Journal. Columns are re-published here with permission.
Dear Dr. Gerhart,
I just stocked up on a bunch of vitamin C, zinc, and multivitamins for my cold. I am taking megavitamins that give me over 1000 percent of the daily recommended amount. Should I keep taking these once my cold is over to help my general health?
Vitamins and supplements are a huge market in the U.S. More than half of adults take a daily multivitamin, and we spend $9.2 billion on vitamins each year. About 20 percent of Americans use other dietary supplements, with the most common being fish oil (37 percent), glucosamine (20 percent), echinacea (20 percent), flaxseed (16 percent), and ginseng (14 percent).
People tend to grab supplements when they are ill. Vitamin C, zinc and echinacea are often used for colds. There is some evidence that vitamin C may shorten the course of a cold by one day, and zinc, if taken within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms, could mildly decrease symptoms and duration. A study on the herb echinacea performed by Drs. Bruce Barrett and David Rakel at UW-Madison showed echinacea — at the dose they studied — had minimal effect on symptoms or duration of a cold.
Regarding taking vitamins and supplements for general health: There are two-year teaching programs where physicians study the benefits and risks of supplements, so I will give a quick, non-comprehensive overview — but suggest you speak with your physician about what supplements are best for you.
Here are the supplements I often discuss with my patients:
1. Bone Health — Calcium and vitamin D: Taken together can improve bone health, fatigue, and prevent osteoporosis. Glucosamine-condroitin: Although initial evidence was favorable, we are unsure if this significantly reduces arthritis or improves cartilage.
2. Heart Health — Niacin: Can lower your triglycerides, increase your healthy cholesterol (HDL) and decrease your bad cholesterol (LDL). Fish Oil: Can improve HDL, reduce triglyceride levels by 20-50 percent and reduce the risk of heart disease. Flax: Can decrease total cholesterol and LDL and is a good source of Omega-3. It may even help lower hemoglobin A1C levels — a measure of overall blood sugar control in type 2 diabetics. Coenzyme Q-10: Can help lower blood pressure and improve heart health and immunity.
3. Gut Health — Magnesium (like milk of magnesia or magnesium citrate): helps with bowel regularity and decreases constipation. Probiotics (like lactobacillus): help restore healthy bacteria to your gut after taking antibiotics, or when having diarrhea. Soluble fiber: can help lower cholesterol and improve heart and gut health. Insoluble fiber: adds stool bulk and helps prevent constipation. Peppermint Oil: May help with symptoms of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
4. Diabetes: Alpha Lipoic Acid may help improve insulin sensitivity and decrease nerve symptoms, especially when taken with the diabetic drug metformin.
5. Pregnancy: Folic Acid: promotes nerve and brain of the baby. Vitamin B6: reduces nausea of pregnancy. Iron: Improves low blood counts (anemia) in pregnancy.
So what do I take? I take vitamin D and calcium, and occasionally have flax on my oatmeal. I eat quite a bit of fish, and I occasionally take fish oil supplements. Sometimes I will take a multivitamin with iron, but I don't take it daily. Now that's honesty — literally "from the doctor's mouth."
As always, talk to your doctor about the supplements that you do take, as they could interfere with your other medications, and occasionally can be harmful in high doses.
This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Gerhart to people submitting questions.
Date Published: 04/10/2012