If you’ve never taken a supplement before, we can help you out. Here are the basics of what supplements do and how they work, so that you’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether or not to take them.
What supplements really are
Before we go over the benefits of taking supplements, let’s first define what supplements are. They’re basically any type of vitamin, mineral, herb, amino acid, etc., which is placed into some sort of capsule, tablet, powder, liquid, etc., for human consumption. While there are many types of these compounds, most supplements fall into one or two broad categories:
also known as micronutrients, vitamins are organic compounds used in the body’s metabolism to produce energy, maintain healthy skin and hair, regulate hormones, synthesize proteins, fight infection, etc. There are more than 100 different vitamins, but each one has a specific role in the human body. The body needs at least eight different vitamins (B1, B6, B12, C, E, K, folate, and biotin) in order to function normally. Vitamins aren’t stored in the body, so you have to get them from food or supplements. Some people may need to take a daily multivitamin because they don’t eat their recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables every day. Many of the best-known vitamins include: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, folic acid, and vitamin A.
minerals are naturally occurring elements found abundantly throughout nature, such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, and zinc. Although they’re present in the body all the time, your body only absorbs certain minerals depending on the amount needed, the state of health, and other factors. Minerals are essential to cellular growth, blood formation, bone development, nerve transmission, muscle contraction, hormone regulation, immune system activity, etc. Some of the best-known minerals include: calcium, chromium, copper, iodine, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, silicon, titanium, vanadium, and zinc.
herbs are plants containing natural chemicals that have medicinal value. Herbs can be found in dried form (such as oregano), fresh form (such as parsley), or extracts (such as cayenne pepper). Most herbs contain active ingredients like polyphenols, phytosterols, saponins, anthocyanins, flavonoids, alkaloids, tannins, carotenoids, terpenes, and volatile oils. These compounds have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, anticancer, and cardiovascular effects. Some of the best-known herbs include: garlic, ginger, ginkgo biloba, green tea, hawthorn berry, rosemary, valerian root, turmeric, red clover, and black cohosh.
Amino Acids –
amino acids are a group of small molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which are vital components of almost every cell in the body. Proteins are responsible for everything from digestion to neurotransmission. Some amino acids are essential, meaning they must be obtained through diet and cannot be produced by the body. Others are non-essential, meaning the body can manufacture them (although it does so inefficiently). The most important ones are glycine, alanine, arginine, cysteine, glutamine, histidine, proline, serine, tryptophan, tyrosine, and valine.
Other compounds –
there are also some compounds called “non-nutrient” or “functional” compounds that don’t fit into either category above. These compounds are typically natural substances derived from plants or animals. They may have beneficial effects on the body, but they’re not necessary to sustain life. Some examples of functional compounds include: creatine, coenzyme Q10, carnitine, chondroitin sulfate, glucosamine, hydroxyproline, lutein, melatonin, methylsulfonylmethane, resveratrol, ubiquinone, and whey protein.
As you can see from this list, supplements come in a wide variety of forms. They can be pills, powders, liquids, capsules, tablets, drinks, lozenges, creams, and more. As long as each supplement contains at least one of the three compounds listed above, it will likely benefit your health. If you decide to start taking a supplement, remember that supplements should always be taken with meals and after exercise. You can find out what dose is appropriate for you by consulting your doctor or pharmacist.
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Now that you know the basic characteristics of supplements, here are some benefits you might see if you start taking them regularly:
Improved immunity –
antioxidants and other nutrients can help prevent free radical damage to cells and DNA. This can lead to healthier immune systems.
Increased brain power –
a number of studies suggest that people who consume high levels of omega 3 fatty acids have improved cognitive function compared to those who don’t consume enough of them. In fact, researchers believe that the positive effect of omega 3s on cognition may explain why fish oil has been shown to improve memory, learning ability, and attention span.
Better heart health –
vitamins and minerals can lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, while antioxidants can reduce oxidative stress in the body. Omega 3 fatty acids have also been shown to decrease inflammation of arteries and help control blood pressure.
Improved sleep quality –
several studies show that people who consume adequate amounts of magnesium have better sleep quality, even when they suffer from insomnia.
Types of Supplements
There are three main categories of supplements:
Multivitamins contain multiple vitamins in a single pill. They often come in 100% RDI doses, meaning they contain the same amount of vitamins as you would receive if you were eating a well-balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables. Multivitamins also usually contain additional vitamins, minerals, herbal extracts, and/or probiotics.
Omega 3s –
Omega 3s are another type of supplement. They are primarily composed of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Like multivitamins, omega 3s are usually sold in 100% RDI doses, which means they contain the same amount of EPA + DHA that you should be getting if you were eating a well-rounded diet rich in fish.
Supplemental Creatine –
Creatine is a popular supplement that helps build lean muscle mass. It provides extra energy during workouts and can increase endurance levels.
Most of the supplements listed above are available over the counter without a prescription. However, there are a few exceptions. For instance, some medications require a prescription, and some supplements require a medical exam before they can be prescribed. If you’re worried about getting sick or making yourself ill from something that you may have accidentally consumed, talk to your doctor.