Get Supplement Savvy
Vitamin makeovers to help you reassess your needs

By Brooke Foster

With hundreds of vitamins, minerals, and herbs on the market, selecting the ones most beneficial for your particular health concerns can be confusing. Although most people know the importance of taking a daily multivitamin, what other supplements could help you achieve optimal health and wellness and perhaps ward off potential disease? For guidance, we asked Shari Lieberman, PhD, CNS, FACN, author of The Real Vitamin & Mineral Book (Avery, 2003), to analyze the supplement regimens of three of our readers. Lieberman, who has run a private clinical nutrition practice in New York City for more than 20 years, suggested ways our supplement makeover candidates could enhance their diets with the appropriate herbs and supplements.

“People want to think that they’re getting a full day’s nutrients with just one pill, but that’s not the reality,” says Lieberman, who stresses the importance of individualized supplement plans to optimize health. “It’s important to learn what your body needs.” Read on for tips on how to create a supplement program tailored to your specific health concerns.

Lesley Brooks
Age: 33
Profession: Second-year medical student.
Health Concerns: Having a healthy pregnancy, easing stress, and gaining energy.
Current Supplement Regimen: Prenatal vitamins, herbal teas. Lesley’s health profile
As a medical student, Lesley Brooks experiences stress on a regular basis. Now that she and her fiancé are expecting a baby, Brooks wants to reduce her stress level and learn how to have the healthiest pregnancy possible. She’d also like to feel less fatigued and eat better.

“During the school year, I’m absolutely shameless about my diet,” Brooks admits. “My eating habits go to hell in a handbasket.” But now that she’s pregnant, Brooks wants to eat more regularly and healthfully, and she wants to find dietary supplements that will help ensure her baby’s health.

Although reduced stress might seem like wishful thinking to most medical students, for Brooks, easing stress has become a necessity—both for her physical health and for her peace of mind. In addition to her usual school-related stress, Brooks has found herself almost constantly fatigued since becoming pregnant, and plentiful sleep doesn’t come easily for medical students.

She fully understands the importance of supplements, especially prenatal multivitamins, but Brooks admits that she’s not as diligent about taking them as she should be during this busy time of her life. “I’ve started taking my supplements with meals,” says Brooks. “That way I don’t forget to take the supplement, because I’m eating—and because I need to take the supplement, I don’t make the mistake of skipping meals.”

Our advice
Prenatal support. Lieberman agrees that a healthy diet is of the highest importance for pregnant women. Prenatalvitamins are also a must, Lieberman says, “but the prescription prenatals have virtually no minerals in them and just [minimal] levels of vitamins. You can find better supplements with meaningful levels of nutrients at a health store.” Brooks should look for prenatal vitamins developed specifically for pregnant and lactating women. These should include highly absorbent calcium, iron, and vitamins B, C, and D, and 800 mcg of folic acid, which helps prevent neural tube defects in the fetus.

For easing morning sickness, a good prenatal supplement should also include nutritive herbs such as ginger (Zingiber officinale) and red raspberry (Rubus idaeus). “Ginger supplements have been shown to be safe and effective in pregnant women for alleviating morning sickness,” says Lieberman. The same is true of red raspberry, which is rich in phytoestrogens that help maintain hormonal balance. Lieberman also advises pregnant women to take fish oil supplements; the omega-3 fatty acids found in these supplements assist in fetal brain and retinal development. Be sure to look for a high-quality brand with low mercury levels.

Easing stress and fighting fatigue. No matter how hectic Brooks’ class schedule may be, Lieberman emphasizes the importance of rest and meditation. For supplements, Lieberman recommends two types of ginseng: Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus), formerly called Siberian ginseng. “Both of these herbs are adaptogens,” Lieberman explains, “which means they attenuate the body’s response to stress.” People respond to stress in different ways—some lose sleep while others can’t fight off fatigue—and the herbs adapt accordingly to help the body maintain balance and well-being. “If you are fatigued, [these herbs] can increase your energy,” says Lieberman. “And if you can’t sleep, they can help you sleep.” It’s important to note that a recent study suggests taking ginseng in the early stages of pregnancy might be harmful to the fetus (Human Reproduction, 2003, vol. 18, no. 10). However, in this study, tests were done on rats, not humans. Until more research is done, pregnant women should be cautious and avoid high-potency ginseng concentrates.

Sharon Roberts-Meyer
Age: 56
Profession: Roberts-Meyer owns a successful catering business; she also works as an advertising and marketing consultant.
Health Concerns: Managing menopause symptoms, preventing diabetes.
Current Supplement Regimen: Green tea and herbal tea (Celestial Seasonings’ Cinnamon Apple Spice and Red Zinger are her favorites); a daily multivitamin. Sharon’s health profile
Sharon Roberts-Meyer wants to stay healthy and vibrant so she can enjoy life for decades to come. “My friends and I are all in our 50s, and we’re comfortable with who we are,” says Roberts-Meyer. “We’re not as caught up in body image as we were in our 20s or our 30s, but we do want to feel good.”

One of Roberts-Meyer’s biggest health concerns is finding a safe and effective hormone replacement therapy (HRT) that doesn’t have serious negative side effects. After a complete hysterectomy 10 years ago, Roberts-Meyer suffered all of the classic symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings. Her physician prescribed HRT, which Roberts-Meyer took for nearly seven years. But in 2001, when HRT’s questionable usefulness and serious side effects became known, she quit taking her pills. After going cold turkey, Roberts-Meyer once again found herself irritable and physically uncomfortable. Deciding she couldn’t afford the distraction and discomfort of these menopausal symptoms, she returned to HRT six months ago, but she would like to find a safe and natural alternative.

Roberts-Meyer would also like to lose 30 pounds to help prevent diabetes, which runs in her family. Although she doesn’t have the disease, her father does, and she wants to take precautions to avoid developing type 2 diabetes. To help shed weight, Roberts-Meyer walks, bikes, and dances regularly. “I want to be able to enjoy my grandchildren,” she says. “If I do live to be in my 80s or 90s, I still want to be dancing and having fun.”

Our advice
Popular in North American Indian medicine as a treatment for gynecological disorders, black cohosh is prescribed by many nutritionists to alleviate hot flashes, insomnia, and other menopausal symptoms. Help for menopause. “Hormone replacement therapy increases the risk of breast cancer, stroke, and heart disease,” warns Lieberman. “This is an extremely dangerous way to treat something that is not life threatening.” As an alternative, Lieberman recommends black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), a perennial plant that is used in natural hormone replacement therapy preparations. Popular in North American Indian medicine as a treatment for gynecological disorders, black cohosh is prescribed by many nutritionists to alleviate hot flashes, insomnia, and other menopausal symptoms. Although it doesn’t contain estrogen, black cohosh has similar symptom-relieving properties, making it a natural alternative to HRT’s synthetic hormones. Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is another excellent supplement for postmenopausal women, Lieberman adds, because it has the dual benefit of increasing energy and libido, concerns of many older women.

Build healthy bones. Because Roberts-Meyer is going through menopause, it’s important that she gets plenty of magnesium, calcium, and vitamin D to build strong bones to ward off osteoporosis, a disease affecting 28 million Americans, 80 percent of whom are women. When taken together, calcium and vitamin D increase the body’s calcium absorption, which in turn strengthens bones. As an added bonus, calcium may also help regulate metabolism and burn fat.

Weight management and diabetes prevention. There is a significant link between being overweight and developing type 2 diabetes, agrees Lieberman, especially for individuals genetically predisposed to the disease. In addition to maintaining a healthy diet, Lieberman encourages Roberts-Meyer to continue drinking green tea every day. Among green tea’s many other health benefits, it can stimulate metabolism and aid in weight loss.

On the topic of weight loss supplements, however, Roberts-Meyer needs to be cautious. Prescription weight loss drugs should be avoided at all costs, says Lieberman, because they can have dangerous side effects. As an alternative, natural plant-based supplements can bring healthy, noticeable results to individuals looking to shed extra pounds. Lieberman regularly recommends the Ayurvedic herb Coleus forskohlii, which boosts metabolism without stimulating the central nervous system or producing the undesired side effects—rapid heartbeat, insomnia, and jitters or nervousness—of a caffeine- or ephedrine-type supplement. “It’s a valuable aid in losing weight and experiencing satiety sooner,” says Lieberman.

Joe Gamble
Age: 29
Profession: Gamble is a full-time musician; he plays guitar and does production work for other musicians.
Health Concerns: Maintaining energy, easing eczema, and preventing colds and flu.
Current Supplement Regimen: A daily multivitamin; occasionally takes calcium, iron, and vitamin B. His children take multivitamins. Joe’s health profile
Joe Gamble has his hands full. Not only is he a traveling guitarist and music producer, he also has two young children. He and his wife, Erin, are invested in their health and in the health of their 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. Joe is a vegetarian and depends largely on whole foods for nutrients.

Gamble is concerned about getting the right nutrients and maintaining high energy. “I deal with stress—heavy workloads with tight deadlines and balancing work and family,” he says. “The typical stuff that everyone faces.” Skipping meals and skimping on sleep are also major factors in raising his stress level. And with two young children in their busy household, he and Erin make it a priority to identify and treat cold and flu symptoms before they worsen and spread to the rest of the family. He and his son also have moderate cases of eczema and would like to find ways to ease the discomfort caused by this skin condition.

Our advice
Finding the right multi. Lieberman lauds Gamble’s keen focus on his family’s health and agrees that whole foods are the best source of vital nutrients. She also encourages Gamble to find supplements that are more specifically suited to his and his family’s needs. “Most commercial vitamins provide the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of vitamins, which I compare to the minimum wage—barely enough to get by,” says Lieberman. “They provide very few minerals; you can’t fit even the RDI of all minerals in any one-per-day, even if it is high potency.” That’s why Lieberman advises adults to find a daily multivitamin that is divided into several pills taken throughout the day. If, however, Gamble continues to take one multi per day, Lieberman recommends adding a multimineral (or at least calcium and magnesium) so he gets a minimum of 800 to 1,000 mg of calcium per day and about half that amount of magnesium.

When choosing a children’s multivitamin, Lieberman says each chewable tablet should have the following: 250 mg of vitamin C, 400 mcg of folic acid, at least 30 IU of natural vitamin E, and 1 to 3 mg of the B vitamins. “Most important, however, is to make sure the multi does not have any artificial colors or flavors in it. They don’t belong in a children’s multi—or any multi for that matter.”

Treating eczema. “Fish oil, a source of omega-3 fatty acids, can be particularly helpful in curbing the discomfort of eczema,” Lieberman says, adding that fish oil is available in child-friendly orange or peach natural flavors. Dietary changes can also make a significant difference for eczema sufferers. Lieberman recommends a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. After two weeks, many people with eczema find that their skin has become clearer and their itching less severe.

Fighting off colds. It’s hard to make it through the winter without catching a sniffle, especially in households with small children. To lessen the frequency and severity of colds, Lieberman recommends that everyone in Gamble’s family take multivitamin/mineral supplements that include antioxidants and zinc, both crucial to boosting immune function. And if members of the family do catch that bug going around? “Elderberry-and-zinc lozenges should be taken at the very first sign that you are getting sick,” Lieberman says, “and everyone should consider taking extra vitamin C, which helps alleviate the duration and severity of colds.”

For active lifestyles and disease prevention. For young and on-the-go people like Gamble, Lieberman recommends vitamin A and vitamin E. Among their other benefits, vitamins A and E prevent cancer and protect immune function—a definite boon to someone with a busy career and home life.

St. Louis–based freelance writer Brooke Foster specializes in health and wellness topics.