Do you have so many bottles spilling out of your vitamin cabinet that you can't keep track of what's really essential? Maybe it's time to rethink your daily pill routine, and zero in on the right mix for your health needs.

First, start with a daily multivitamin. "A good multivita-min is basic 'health insurance' for everyone," says Douglas Husbands, DC, CCN, a chiropractor and nutritionist in San Carlos, California. "In fact, according to many research articles, 80 percent of Americans are deficient in one or more essential nutrients." (For details on picking the right daily multi, check out "Six Tips for Choosing and Using Multivitamins," below.)

Next, decide what else to take by pinpointing where your body needs support. Whether you have seasonal allergies, digestive disturbances, or joint pain, specific supplements and herbs can help. The supplements in these pages address particular common concerns. And, as always, before taking any new pills or mixing medications, talk to your health care practitioner.

Concern: digestive troubles
Supplement solution: Chamomile (Matricaria recutita; drink 3-4 cups of tea or take 2-3 grams daily), probiotics (1 billion-2 billion colony-forming units daily), or psyllium (1 teaspoon mixed in water or juice, three times daily)

How they work: Chamomile aids all kinds of tummy troubles, including garden-variety indigestion. "This herb has been used medicinally for thousands of years by various cultures for its reported soothing and calmative effects," says Husbands. "Research on chamomile's mode of action indicates sedative influences on the tissues of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract, as well as promising anti-inflammatory effects." Probiotics are also great for general digestive complaints because they limit the growth of harmful bacteria, aid good digestion, boost immune function, and increase resistance to diarrheal diseases. If your problem is more specific, such as constipation, try psyllium seeds and husks taken with plenty of water. Psyllium's mucilage expands tenfold upon contact with water to form a gel. This gel keeps feces soft and bulky, making them easier to pass.

Concern: seasonal allergies
Supplement solution: Vitamin C (1-2 grams daily) and quercetin (500-1,000 mg daily)

How they work: "Any nutrient that aids immune-system function is great for allergies," says Georgianna Donadio, DC, PhD, founder and director of the National Institute of Whole Health. Vitamin C eases hay fever symptoms, such as itchy eyes, runny nose, and sneezing, by blocking the release of histamine (Alternative Medicine Review, 2000, vol. 5, no. 5). You'll get the most out of vitamin C if you start taking it several weeks before allergy season hits and combine it with quercetin, another natural antihistamine.

Concern: weight control
Supplement solution: B vitamins (B50 complex daily), cinnamon (2-4 grams daily), or pyruvate (6 grams daily)

How they work: B-complex vitamins play important roles in metabolism, digestion, liver function, and proper thyroid function; problems in any of these areas can thwart weight loss efforts. Cinnamon helps maintain normal blood sugar, promotes normal blood fats, and enhances cell energy. "Anything that helps regulate and control insulin and hormone function is going to help with weight loss," says Donadio.

Pyruvate increases the body's use of fat as an energy source and boosts metabolic rates (Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association, 2004, vol. 44, no. 1). A six-week study of 26 overweight individuals who combined either 6 grams of pyruvate supplement or a placebo with a three-times-per-week exercise program found that the pyruvate group lost more weight and fat mass (Nutrition, 1999, vol. 15, no. 5). More is not necessarily better with this supplement; large amounts (10 grams per day and up) can trigger stomach upset, bloating, gas, and diarrhea in some people.

Concern: stress
Supplement solution: B vitamins (B50 complex daily) or rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea; 200-600 mg daily)

How they work: "Without a doubt, the B complex is the number-one nutrient for stress relief," says Donadio. B vitamins aid the adrenal glands, which help you adapt to stressful situations and recover from them quickly, according to Donadio.

The herb rhodiola also helps the body handle physical or mental stress (Alternative Medicine Review, 2002, vol. 7, no. 5; Phytomedicine, 2003, vol. 10, nos. 2-3). For ongoing stress, take a standardized extract of rhodiola for several months. For an acute situation, such as a final exam or athletic event, take a one-time dose of 600 mg.

Concern: joint pain
Supplement solution: Glucosamine (1,500 mg daily) and/or chondroitin (1,200 mg daily)

How they work: Glucosamine and chondroitin play important roles in rebuilding cartilage within joints, helping to create an essential joint substance called proteoglycans, which acts like a sponge to hold water in the joint and provide a springy resiliency.

A review of studies on these nutrients, conducted between 1980 and 2002, found that both glucosamine and chondroitin are exceptionally effective in treating osteoarthritis (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2003, vol. 163, no. 13). Many osteoarthritis experts recommend taking glucosamine and chondroitin before trying nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or other conventional treatments. You can take these supplements alone or in combination.

Concern: aging
Supplement solution: Amino acids (1-2 grams of L-arginine and 1-2 grams of L-ornithine daily)

How they work: "As we age, one of the major hormones released by the pituitary gland—growth hormone—decreases," says Husbands. "This results in many of the common signs attributed to aging, such as weight gain around the midsection, loss of muscle tissue, and decreased libido and sexual stamina." Take amino acids L-arginine and L-ornithine before bedtime to help your body secrete more of its own growth hormone.


Oregon-based freelancer Victoria Dolby Toews, MPH, is the author of User's Guide to Sexual Satisfaction (Basic Health, 2003) and User's Guide to Glucosamine and Chondroitin (Basic Health, 2002).