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Unnecessary supplements sabotage your health

Saturday April 13 2013


With the vast availability of nutritional supplements these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking and they were fairly harmless, health-giving pills. And yes they are – assuming you’re taking the right thing.

So today, I’m talking about certain supplements and when not to take them.

We start with one of the most commonly self-prescribed herb: ginkgo biloba. Due to its ability to improve levels of oxygenated blood to the brain, it’s regularly used as a panacea for memory loss. It’s also great for conditions like diabetes, which may leave circulation impaired (ditto erectile dysfunction).

However, if you suffer from seizures, it’s one of the worse supplements you can take – something I’ve seen quite clearly with a surprising number of patients. Since ginkgo increases blood flow to the brain, it seems to worsen the electrical activity there – the last thing that you want.

Not natural

The next are herbal laxatives. I had touched on this subject last week and the importance of using the right sort of product: one that tones the muscles (as well as clearing out), so that you have regular bowel movements even when you’re not using the product.


Nowadays, many people find themselves taking herbal laxatives regularly, using the argument “but they’re natural” (aloe-based ones are the most common).

I don’t feel that the ‘natural’ label changes a thing, especially since many modern medicines are purified versions of herbs (e.g. aspirin is essentially a purified version of a herb called white willow bark).

What’s more, laxatives, natural or otherwise, stimulate the bowel to move by irritating it, and anything that irritates any part of your body isn’t a good thing. A combination of herbs like cascara, barberry, rhubarb root, bayberry, wild yam, fennel, cayenne and ginger is your best bet.

Another commonly misused supplement is chromium. Regularly taken as a weight-loss supplement, chromium is believed to burn fat while building muscle. It appears to work by improving insulin efficiency, which some claim causes an increase in the production of the feel-good hormone serotonin, which subsequently reduces appetite. 

So far, so good. But as its availability increases, so do the number of people who are taking it and perhaps don’t need to. The side-effects range from shaking and fainting, to blurred vision – all symptoms of low blood sugar.

You see, while chromium’s benefits come from regulating blood sugar, for some, the results can be too effective, leading to hypos, or blood sugar lows. I had one poor woman come in last week convinced that there was something very wrong with her. In reality, she was taking a supplement for weight loss, when her body was already at a fairly healthy weight.

Lastly, calcium and bone-building formulations should be taken with caution. The state of your bones has much more to do with the how acidic your diet is, than with the consumption of actual calcium. Foods like meat and dairy make things worse (yes, really), while lots of fruit and vegetables make things better. In short, this means the more alkaline your diet the better your skeleton.

If you do take a supplement, it’s your digestion that will determine whether or not you absorb it. Specifically, over time we tend to produce less stomach acid, which means that calcium supplements are absorbed less effectively and are more likely to cause deposits in our joints instead – not what you signed up for at all.

So if you are taking a calcium supplements and find white spots on your fingernails, I suggest consulting an expert before taking any more. You really don’t want to set yourself up for joint pain later on.