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Nutritional Supplements


Overview :

The Natural Nutritional Foods Association estimated that in 2003 nutritional supplements amounted to a $19.8 billion market in the United States. By category, vitamins provided $6.6 billion in sales, herbs $4.2 billion, meal supplements $2.5 billion, sports nutrition products $2.0 billion, minerals $1.8 billion, and specialty and other products totaling $2.7 billion. The nutritional supplement industry provides a huge array of products for consumer needs.

Vitamins

Vitamins are micronutrients, or substances that the body uses in small amounts, as compared to macronutrients, which are the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that make up all food. Vitamins are present in food, but adequate quantities of vitamins may be reduced when food is overcooked, processed, or improperly stored. For instance, processing whole wheat grain into white flour reduces the contents of vitamins B and E, fiber, and minerals, including zinc and iron. The body requires vitamins to support its basic biochemical functions, and deficiencies over time can lead to illness and disease.

Vitamins are either water-soluble or fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins dissolve in water and pass through the body quickly, meaning that the body needs them on a regular basis. Water-soluble vitamins include the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the body's fatty tissue, meaning that they remain in the body longer. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K.

The amount of vitamins needed by the body has been the subject of much research. The U.S. government has published recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for each vitamin for the general population. These figures can be used as guidelines, but individuals may have different needs depending on gender, age, and health conditions.

Vitamins can be natural or synthetic. Natural vitamins are extracted from food sources, while synthetic vitamins are formulated in laboratory processes. The only vitamin for which there is a noted difference between the natural and synthetic forms is vitamin E. The natural form is labeled d-alpha-tocopherol while the synthetic form is named dl-alpha-tocopherol, with the extra l signifying laboratory production. Natural vitamin E has been shown to be slightly more absorbable by the body than the synthetic version, although for other vitamins no significant differences in absorption have been noted.

Minerals

Minerals are micronutrients and are essential for the proper functioning of the body. Cells in the body require minerals as part of their basic make-up and chemical balance, and minerals are present in all foods. Minerals can either be bulk minerals, used by the body in larger quantities, or trace minerals, used by the body in minute or trace amounts. Bulk minerals include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. Trace minerals include iron, zinc, selenium, iodine, chromium, copper, manganese, and others. Some studies have shown that the amount of minerals, particularly trace minerals, may be decreasing in foods due to mineral depletion of the soil caused by unsustainable farming practices and soil erosion. Supplemental minerals are available in chelated form, in which they are bonded to proteins in order to improve their absorption by the body.

Herbs

Herbal supplements are added to the diet for both nutritional and medicinal purposes. Herbs have been used for centuries in many traditional medicine systems, and as sources of phytochemicals, or substances found in plants that have notable effects in the body. Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine from India, two of the world's oldest healing systems, use hundreds of herbal medications. Naturopathy and homeopathy, two other systems of natural healing, also rely on herbal preparations as their main sources of medication. The medicinal effects of herbs are getting scientific validation; about one-fourth of all pharmaceuticals have been derived directly from plant sources, including aspirin (found in willow bark), codeine (from poppy seeds), paclitaxel (Taxol), a patented drug for ovarian and breast cancer (from the Pacific Yew tree), and many others.

Herbs can supplement the diet to aid in overall health or to stimulate healing for specific conditions. For instance, ginseng is used as a general tonic to increase overall health and vitality, while echinacea is a popular herb used to stimulate the body's resistance to colds and infections. Herbs come in many forms. They can be purchased as capsules and tablets, as well as in tinctures, teas, syrups, and ointments.

Meal supplements

Meal supplements are used to replace or fortify meals. They may be designed for people with special needs, or for people with illnesses that may affect digestion capabilities and nutritional requirements. Meal supplements may contain specific blends of macronutrients, or proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber. Some meal supplements consist of raw, unprocessed foods, or vegetarian or vegan options, or high protein and low fat composition. Meal supplements are available to support some popular diet programs. Meal supplements are often fortified with vitamins, minerals, herbs, and nutrient-dense foods.

Sports nutrition

Nutritional supplements may be designed to provide specialized support for athletes. Some of these consist of high-protein products, such as amino acid supplements, while other products contain nutrients that support metabolism, energy, and athletic performance and recovery. People engaging in intense athletic activity may have increased needs for water-soluble vitamins, antioxidants, and certain minerals, including chromium. Sports drinks contain blends of electrolytes (salts) that the body loses during exertion and sweating, as well as vitamins, minerals, and performance-supporting herbs.

Other nutritional supplements

Other nutritional supplements include nutrient-dense food products. Examples of these are brewer's yeast, spirulina (sea algea), bee pollen and royal jelly, fish oil and essential fatty acid supplements, colostrum (a specialty dairy product), psyllium seed husks (a source of fiber), wheat germ, wheatgrass, and medicinal mushrooms such as the shiitake and reishi varieties.

Specialty products may offer particular health benefits or are targeted for specific conditions. These products may consist of whole foods or may be isolated compounds from natural or synthetic sources. Examples include antioxidants, probiotics (supplements containing friendly bacteria for the digestive tract), digestive enzymes, shark cartilage, or other animal products, or chemical extracts such as the hormone DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant.

General guidelines

Considering average dietary needs and the prevalence of certain health conditions, some basic guidelines may provide the foundation for the effective use of nutritional supplements. First, a high quality, broad-spectrum multivitamin and mineral supplement, taken once per day, is recommended to provide a range of nutrients. This should contain the B-complex vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid, which may help prevent heart disease, and the minerals zinc and copper, which aid immunity. In addition to a multivitamin, antioxidants can be added to a supplementation routine. These include vitamin A (or beta-carotene), vitamin C, and vitamin E, and the mineral selenium. Antioxidants may have several positive effects on the body, such as slowing the aging process, reducing the risks of cancer and heart disease, and reducing the risks of illness and infection by supporting the immune system. Coenzyme Q10 is another antioxidant in wide usage, as studies have shown it may improve the health of the heart and reduce the effects of heart disease. Essential fatty acids, particularly omega-3, are also recommended as they are involved in many important processes in the body, including brain function. Calcium supplementation is recommended for the elderly and for women, to strengthen bones and prevent bone loss. Calcium supplements that are balanced with magnesium have a less constipating effect and are better absorbed.

After basic nutritional requirements are supported, supplements may be used to target specific needs and health conditions. For instance, athletes, men, women, children, the elderly, and vegetarians have differing needs for nutrients, and an informed use of supplements would take these differences into account. People suffering from health conditions and diseases may use specific supplements to target their condition and to support the body's healing capacity by providing optimal amounts of nutrients.

Recommended dosage

Dosages of nutritional supplements vary widely, depending on the product and individual needs. For vitamins and minerals, U.S. RDA's are essential guidelines. For other products, manufacturers' guidelines, consumer information sources such as nutritional books and magazines, and practitioners including nutritionists and naturopathic physicians may be consulted.




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