Pulse: Health: Natural Born Healers

Six supplements that can keep you healthy.

Wouldn’t it be great if medical science announced a magic bullet—a pill or an herb—that would prolong life and stimulate good health? Any health food store is full of substances, from shark cartilage to blue-green algae, touting miraculous qualities that could change your life. But University of Pennsylvania internist Michael Cirigliano, who is a big proponent of supplements, says the fact is that “no natural remedy can substitute for a healthy lifestyle—no smoking, exercise, enough sleep, a diet rich in vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and kale.” That being said, he points out there are several safe and effective supplements backed by good studies that can give you a boost to a longer and healthier life.

The buzzword in the supplement world in recent years is “nutraceuticals,” products derived from plants that have long track records of health benefits. Plant derivatives have been around for eons as staples on pharmacy shelves for their medicinal properties. What’s different is that they are now being seriously considered to prevent conditions, rather than as a component of drugs to treat them. Many nutraceuticals work as anti-oxidants. That means they scavenge around the body attacking free radicals, those destructive elements that cause the cellular wear-and-tear associated with aging and illness. “We’re all slowly oxidizing to death,” says Dr. Ara DerMarderosian, professor of pharmacognosy at the University of the Sciences. “Our bodies are constantly assaulted with environmental toxins that reduce the lifespan of cells. Supplements are one way to slow down the process.” Here are six supplements he lists: 

» Ginseng
Used in Asia for 2,000 years, it has countless studies behind it indicating that it improves memory performance, resists disease, and, perhaps most important for our overloaded lives, helps us cope with stress. Check the label to be sure you’re getting either Korean or American ginseng, not Siberian.

» Garlic
You can reap the benefits without the odor by taking it in pill form. Garlic lowers blood pressure, wards off heart disease, and has anti-microbial properties, so it battles infection. Look for enteric-coated pills so they bypass the stomach and get absorbed in the intestine.

» Ginko biloba
Derived from the same stinky ginko trees that line so many Philly streets, this is another nutraceutical with a raft of benefits, particularly when it comes to an alert mind and a sharp memory. It works in part by increasing blood circulation to the brain. DerMarderosian favors German-made ginko under the names Ginkgold or Ginkoba as the most standardized of the many available brands.   

» Milk thistle seed
More than 100 studies have shown that it regenerates, regulates and strengthens liver function. Since we rely on liver enzymes to break down the toxic chemicals and environmental pollutants we breathe and eat, it’s critical to keep the liver in tip-top shape. DerMarderosian advises sticking to brands that are made in Europe.

» Bilberry
Another product getting increased attention, due to hordes of studies showing that extracts of certain blue and purple fruits are powerful anti-oxidants. Bilberry is also good for stabilizing vision. It won’t keep you from wearing glasses, but it could slow down the need for a stronger prescription.

» Milled flax seed
Consider sprinkling some on your cereal or yogurt. High in lignans, a source of the omega 3 fatty acid that’s considered essential to the diet, it lowers cholesterol and regulates the bowels.

In choosing supplements, don’t get sucked into the hype, advises DerMarderosian: “There are lots of products that promise more than they deliver. Only take what’s got solid medical evidence behind it.”