Dietary supplementsMany of us have heard about the benefits provided by dietary supplements and other natural products, but knowing what to use and when to take it can be confusing at best.

Supplements are becoming consistently more important in the United States, says Tracy Taylor, executive director of the Natural Products Foundation, which also encompasses the Dietary Supplement Education Alliance. “In terms of how well supplements are perceived, I think it’s important to know that there are 190 million Americans who use them,” she says. “Obviously, taking a multivitamin is the most popular thing to do as far as supplements go.”

It’s particularly important now to take a supplement. “This is America and everyone is busy,” Taylor says. “The American Medical Association recommends that every adult and child take a multivitamin. Taking a multivitamin is going to make sure you get essential nutrients every day.”

Dr. Chris Reid, an Illinois chiropractor and nutrition advocate, agrees. “Everyone should take a multiple vitamin-mineral supplement,” he says. Reid notes one study recently found that a MVM supplement significantly reduces anxiety and stress levels and possibly improves energy and the ability to concentrate. However, they are supplemental, not a substitute.

“They are not meant to replace a healthy diet and only serve to enhance the nutritional quality of your diet,” he says, adding that multivitamins are best taken with meals. “If taken between meals they might upset the stomach and they may not be absorbed as well.”

More and more individuals are turning to supplements to combat problems that come with age, Taylor says.

For example, black cohosh has long been known as an herb that might help women who are experiencing symptoms of menopause. Recent trials have shown black cohosh to be especially effective when paired with Saint-John’s-wort. Sage, motherwort and blue vervain also help regulate body temperature. “I think what we’re seeing happening is that a very large segment of the population is aging,” Taylor says. “When you start seeing positive research it makes you consider supplements. Dietary supplements tend to have fewer side effects and problems associated with them than drugs do. So when joint problems occur, for example, people start looking for help.”

Many trial studies suggest that glucosamine sulfate supplements are useful in easing the symptoms of arthritis, according to Andrew Heyman, M.D., a clinical lecturer in family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. Research has also indicated that supplements that contain chondroitin sulfate can be helpful. Arthritis sufferers who prefer to use herbs might consider the anti-inflammatory component of devil’s claw, Heyman added. An extract of avocado and soybean oils can also reduce the stiffness and pain associated with arthritis. Moreover, research has shown that niacinamide, a type of vitamin B derived from niacin, can reduce swelling and pain.

Macular degeneration is another problem that affects older individuals. “The combination product of lutein with zeaxanthin is used for this age-related condition,” Taylor says.

Taking calcium with vitamin D can reduce hip fractures. “In fact, individuals of any age can benefit from this combination as far as bone health goes,” Taylor says.

Some people have found that herbs can even help them rest easier. “Try valerian root before you go to bed. It is a natural muscle relaxant and is nonhabit forming,” Reid says.

When considering a supplement or herb, your doctor should give directives based on how much research is available to support its effectiveness. Taylor recommends the Natural Products Foundation’s Web site Supplementinfo.org, which contains a listing of science-based information on supplements.

Individuals who are taking supplements and herbs should always keep notes of what they use included with their medication list. Medical personnel often check those facts during routine office visits and a complete list is crucial in an emergency situation.