by Anthony Almada, M.S.
Nutritional and exercise biochemist Anthony Almada, M.S., reviews the research behind the latest products on the market. Do they stand up to their claims? Do they rely on hard science or simply on marketing hype? And are more studies needed before determining if they really work?
Immune Booster Also Has Heart
Oat bran, the nutrient of the '90s, was a hit — thanks to its cholesterol-lowering effects, which are almost exclusively attributed to its beta-glucan (BG) content. A preliminary study last year found 12 grams of yeast BG to be beneficial in heart health by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and raising HDL (good) cholesterol. However, a recent study with 3 grams of oat BG showed no effect on cholesterol levels.
BG — derived from a number of plant sources, including oats, barley, yeast and medicinal mushrooms — is a complex mixture of chains of carbohydrate molecules arranged in unique patterns. Yet not all BG products are alike — some may be effective, some may not.
The latest wave of excitement surrounding BG is elicited by its potential as an immune booster. Many test-tube and animal studies have shown BG to strengthen the immune response. However, valid claims of BG eclipsing echinacea in humans are still unproven. BG has also been available in some topical skin care products since the early '90s. If good human studies confirm the findings, BG may emerge as a very capable, multipurpose, zero-calorie carbohydrate.
Horsepower for Humans?
As a possible detox, antioxidant and endurance-enhancing agent, Schizandra chinensis has been the subject of much research in the past 10 years, with many of its traditional uses now being validated in Western science. This Chinese herb, simply referred to as schizandra, is one of the few examples of a medicinal plant in which the effective substance is found in the fruit. Chemical explorations of schizandra point to a class of phytochemicals called lignans — also found in flaxseed products — as being key, especially one called Gomisin A.
Several animal studies have shown gomisin to prevent chemical-induced liver toxicity and cancer. Of more acute interest is its ability to reduce liver toxicity induced by acetaminophen, or Tylenol. A keen focus has been its antioxidant and free radical-scavenging action. Schizandra is also considered an adaptogen, meaning it's capable of enhancing the body's ability to cope with and adapt to stress.
Studies with horses have shown increased endurance, but confirmation of this in jockeys and other humans is lacking. Other studies revealed the potential concern that schizandra may alter the metabolism of certain anesthetics, but more research is needed. With valid human studies under its belt, schizandra could become another ginseng.
From the Deep Blue-Green
The blue-green algae spirulina has been the recipient of great accolades — from being the perfect food to providing a possible cure for HIV/AIDS.
Actual studies, however, are showing two areas of promise for spirulina: as a prebiotic — promoting the growth of probiotic bacteria such as acidophilus and bifidus — and as a means to enhance mineral absorption.
Spirulina is unique because it contains notable amounts of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), the treasured fatty acid beneficial in treating inflammatory, hormonal and immune diseases. GLA is found in evening primrose, borage seed and hemp oils. In the test tube, a unique sulfur-containing lipid fraction of the algae has demonstrated anti-HIV activity. Spirulina also contains concentrated antioxidant properties, thanks to its various carotenes.
The future of this alluring algae will depend on the results of human studies.
Anthony Almada, M.S., is a nutritional and exercise biochemist who has collaborated on more than 45 university clinical trials. He is the co-founder of Experimental and Applied Sciences (EAS) and founder and chief scientific officer of IMAGINutrition (www.imaginutrition.com).
Photography by: Jeff Padrick