Research shows that 60% of the population in the Western world takes natural supplements such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These people take the supplements to combat stress, enhance general well-being and promote their heart and brain health. Indeed, research evidence shows that natural supplements are vital in promoting and maintaining our physical and psychological health. For example, in the June 2002 issue of the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, the article entitled “Vitamins for Chronic Disease Prevention in Adults” states that:
- Most adults do not take sufficient nutrients such as vitamins and minerals in their diet
- Suboptimal level of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are associated with different types of diseases such as heart disease, cancer and depression
- We should take sufficient vitamins not only to prevent deficiency but to prevent diseases
- We should take natural supplement such as multi-vitamins on a daily basis
It is obvious that the health care profession and the general public need to change their thinking about nutritional supplements such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as more and more research shows that these substances are essential in maintaining good health and preventing diseases.
Types of natural supplements
The different types of natural supplements may be briefly classified into the following groups:
Phytonutrients are chemical compounds unique to plants and herbs which cannot be produced by our bodies. They are essential for our health and well-being. Some examples of phytonutrients include:
- Lutein which can be found in bright orange vegetable and fruits
- Lycopene which can be found in tomato
- Leucoanthocyanin which can be found in grape seed
- Bioflavonoids which can be found in most citrus fruit
- Catechin which can be found in green teas
Carotenoids are a major class of phytonutrients with many well-documented health benefits. Carotenoids provide antioxidant protection to cell membranes and have been shown to protect the skin from the damaging effects of UV light.
The major carotenoids are beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and alpha-carotene. Since all these major carotenoids are present in diets and serum, and all have demonstrated health benefits, it is important to choose multiple carotenoid sources from foods and supplements.
Antioxidants act as free radical scavengers. Free radicals are unstable and highly reactive molecules that contain one or more unpaired electrons. These free radicals are generated by metabolism, environmental pollutants, smoking and sunlight. They try to stabilize the unpaired electron by stealing an electron from a neighboring molecule which can set up a negative chain reaction as each succeeding molecule becomes reactive and then tries to restabilize itself.
The right types and amounts of antioxidant nutrients acting as free radical scavengers are important for the body. Some examples of antioxidants include:
- Vitamin E which is a fat soluble vitamin
- Vitamin C which is a water soluble vitamin and can be found in abundance in citrus fruits
- Vitamin A which is fat soluble
- Phytonutrients such as the carotenoids
- Alpha-lipoic acid which has the ability to neutralize both the water and fat soluble free radicals
Vitamin E is perhaps the body’s most important fat-soluble antioxidant nutrient. It protects healthy cell membranes from oxidative free radical damage. It also provides important protective benefits to the cardiovascular system by reducing LDL (low density lipoprotein cholesterol) oxidation and promoting healthy vascular function.
Vitamin C interacts with and regenerates vitamin E in the body. It can help protect eye tissues from free radical damage associated with the normal aging process. It prevents DNA damage and promotes repair of the body.
Alpha-lipoic acid promotes the body’s production or regeneration of the two major intrinsic antioxidants, L-glutathione and coenzyme Q10 which is essential for the health of the heart. It also has the advantage of crossing the blood-brain barrier. Consequently, it protects the brain and nervous system from the damage of the free radicals.
Vitamins are organic compounds vital for life and indispensable to body functions. They regulate and support chemical reactions in the body, such as the use of body resources and growth. Vitamins may be water soluble or fat soluble. Water soluble vitamins include vitamin C, folic acid and the various types of vitamin B. Fat soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K.
Folic acid and vitamin B12 are essential for the production of red blood cells. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are also vital for DNA production and cell regeneration. Vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid are necessary to maintain a low level of homocysteine in the body. Homocysteine is a metabolite of the amino acid methionine. Homocysteine has been linked to blood vessel damage and a heightened risk of heart and brain diseases.
Vitamin D is essential for proper bone metabolism and growth. It promotes normal bone health and calcium metabolism. Vitamin K is involved in the clotting process and bone metabolism.
Among nutritional antioxidants, vitamin E has been studied more than any other nutrient for its antioxidant properties and for its specific role in helping to prevent heart attacks by reducing oxidation of LDL cholesterol and by reducing the tendency of the blood to clot. The majority of studies suggest that 400-800 IU of vitamin E per day (levels almost impossible to achieve in the diet) can reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 30-60% when compared to a placebo.
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, also performs as an antioxidant. Unlike vitamin E which is a fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin C performs its role as a water-soluble antioxidant within the watery environment inside and between cells. As such, the antioxidant benefits of vitamins C and E complement each other very nicely to deliver a one-two punch to free radicals and prevent them from damaging blood vessels linings and fragile heart tissue. One of the key benefits of vitamin C is its ability to help “regenerate” vitamin E after it has come in contact with a free radical. So, vitamin C recharges vitamin E to again fight against the free radicals.
Minerals are natural or inorganic substances. They are divided into major minerals which are essential minerals required in amounts greater than 5g and trace elements which are required in the body in amounts less than 5g. Minerals act as co-factors in metabolic body functions. Some examples of minerals are:
- Calcium which is necessary for proper bone health, cardiovascular and nervous functions
- Magnesium which is vital for the health of the heart and blood vessels because it can affect the heart muscle contraction and relaxation and contractility of the blood vessels
- Potassium which is also involved in muscle contraction and blood pressure regulation
- Chromium which is involved in the regulation of insulin and blood glucose in the body
- Zinc which is essential in the maintenance of a healthy and strong immune system in the body
- Selenium which is involved in anti-viral defense and other immune functions
- Copper, zinc and manganese are antioxidant cofactors which work with the antioxidants to defend the body from damage and degeneration
Antioxidants, carotenoids and diseases
Antioxidants protect our bodies from cellular damage and diseases. Our bodies do not make enough antioxidants. We have to take enough antioxidants by eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Due to some hereditary reasons of having a low antioxidant level, a poor diet and exposure to high oxidative stress, many people may need to take a good supplement to increase the antioxidant level in the body.
Carotenoids are a family of natural fat soluble nutrients vital for antioxidant defense. They are found in red, orange or yellow fruits or vegetables such as pineapples, citrus fruits, peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, papaya, apricots, carrots, pumpkins and squash. More than 600 carotenoids have been identified but less than 50 are abundant in the human diets. Among these, five carotenoids namely alpha carotenoid, beta carotenoid, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin are found to be important for human health. Certain carotenoids like the alpha and beta carotenoids are precursors to vitamin A.
Carotenoids protect the body from damage and promote regeneration. As a result, they are essential in retarding aging and preventing diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and cancer. Carotenoids are sacrificial antioxidants because they are not regenerated but degraded in the process of neutralizing free radicals. Typically, carotenoids are able to sustain more than 20 free hits by the radicals before it become completely destroyed. In this way, carotenoids protect the body against oxidative stress and diseases.
Maintaining a healthy brain through diet and supplements
As populations are living longer, the incidence of progressive memory loss, dementia and problems associated with ‘brain health’ are increasing rapidly and present a major medical and social problem in western societies. Additionally, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are also becoming more common.
To maintain a healthy brain, it is important that one pays particular attention to one’s diet. The following suggestions are helpful:
- Balanced, regular meals throughout the day are important to provide the brain with an adequate fuel supply. Start the day with a healthy and balanced breakfast. There is increasing evidence that eating breakfast is associated with better memory and mood later in the morning.
- Ensure that there is a minimum of 2 fruits and 5 vegetables daily.
- Maintain a daily diet high in antioxidants. This includes vitamins A, C and E. Food which contains a high carotenoid level helps to provide the necessary amount of antioxidants.
- Take sufficient Omega 3 fat which is essential for a healthy brain. There is sufficient to show that Omega 3 fatty acid protects against depression and memory problems.
- Ensure that there is sufficient intake of multivitamins. A diet high in folic acid, vitamins B12 and B6 helps to minimize homocysteine levels. Folic acid is found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, pulses, whole grains and nuts. Vitamin B6 is found most commonly in vegetable foods particularly in whole grains, bananas, nuts and pulses. Vitamin B12 is most commonly found in meats or dairy products However, in non-animal products, it can only be found in mushrooms and the alga spirulina.
- Ensure an adequate intake of calcium, magnesium, zinc, manganese, copper, chromium, selenium and potassium.
- In the case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, avoid preservatives, colorings, artificial flavorings, check for food sensitivities and allergies. A fresh, whole food diet incorporating fruit, vegetables, whole grains and white and lean meats is important.
- In the case of depression, in addition to the above, ensure there is sufficient caloric intake and hydration.
We are living at a time when the health care and medical professions have changed their opinions about natural supplements. Whilst most people may be taking a sufficiently “good” diet to prevent deficiency of vitamins and minerals, many are not taking a good enough diet to prevent diseases. Besides, environmental degradation and the processing method have contributed to the decrease of nutritional property of food. There is also overwhelming evidence to show that our bodies are exposed to free radical damage which leads to degeneration and diseases. As such, it is prudent for us to take natural supplements to ensure we have a good health.
Functions and sources of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals:
||Milk, cheese, bovine liver.
||Essential for the vision, growth and skeletal development.
Assists in maintaining healthy skin and mucous membranes protecting the body’s major organs.
Enables proper function of most body organs.
Provides optimum immune function.
||Pumpkin, sweet potato, spinach, carrots.
||Fat soluble antioxidant
Carotenoid family member
When required, it is converted in the body to Vitamin A
|Widespread in food. Deficiency in human nutrition is uncommon.
||Involved in metabolism of carbohydrates and synthesis of fats and proteins.
||Citrus fruits, broccoli, green peppers, strawberries, cabbage
||A water soluble antioxidant.
Necessary for formation of connective tissue, teeth and skeletal system.
Important for assisting wound healing and gum tissue health.
Breaks down fat.
Increases iron absorption.
||Dairy products, small fish with bones, tofu, dark green vegetables, legumes, almonds.
||Creates strong skeletal system and teeth.
Stimulates blood clotting after an injury.
Necessary for normal muscle and nerve activity.
||Meats, unrefined foods, fats, vegetable oils.
||Necessary for normal metabolism of glucose.
Influences carbohydrate, lipid and protein metabolism.
|Cobalamin (B 12)
||Meat, fish, poultry, shellfish, dairy produce, eggs.
||Required for normal growth and production of red blood cells.
Necessary for folate, carbohydrate, fat and some protein metabolism.
Assists maintenance of a healthy nervous system
Essential for DNA synthesis.
||Oysters, organ meats, chocolate, nuts, dried legumes, cereals, dried fruits, poultry, shellfish.
||Required for iron metabolism, nervous system functioning, skeletal health and synthesis of proteins.
Component of an antioxidant enzyme.
An element of pigmentation of skin, hair and eyes.
||Fortified milk, eggs, fish, liver.
||Promotes normal skeletal and tooth formation.
Stimulates calcium and phosphorus absorption.
Essential for metabolism of calcium and phosphorus.
||Wheat germ, nuts, shrimp, vegetable oils.
||Fat soluble antioxidant.
Provides protection of the body cells, vitamin A and unsaturated fats.
Assists maintenance of the normal red blood cells.
||Spinach, asparagus, romaine lettuce, parsley, brewer’s yeast, pulses, broccoli, cantaloupe, oranges.
||Folic Acid and B 12 have similar functions.
Important for fetal development.
During reproductive years, adequate folate intake is associated with a reduced incidence of neural tube defects (including spinal bifida and anencephaly).
||Seafood mainly shellfish, fish and seaweed.
||Necessary for the creation of thyroid hormone (regulates growth, development and energy metabolism).
||Beef, fish, beans, shellfish, eggs, dried fruits.
||Necessary component of haemoglobin (carries oxygen in the blood)
Involved in energy metabolism.
||Whole grains, legumes, nuts, tea.
||Required for normal development of skeletal and connective tissues.
Enzyme component involved in fatty acid synthesis.
Required for metabolism of carbohydrates.
||Nuts, legumes, whole grains, dark green vegetables, seafood.
||Necessary for normal muscle and nerve activity.
Involved in metabolism of ATP and DNA.
||Tuna, halibut, pink salmon, shrimp, mushrooms, chicken, bovine liver, wheat bran, asparagus, peanuts, baked potato.
||Promotes the release of energy from carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
|Pantothenic Acid (B5)
||Meat, fish, poultry, legumes, whole grain cereals.
||Assists in releasing energy from food sources.
Essential component of fat metabolism.
||Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, cereals, grains.
||In addition to calcium, required for skeletal and teeth formation.
Regulates energy released from foods.
A component of ATP (body’s major energy source) and DNA (genetic material).
||Baked potato, spinach, Chinese leaves, banana, asparagus, soy beans, sunflower seeds, bovine liver, chicken, tuna, figs, water melon.
||Required for protein metabolism, nervous and immune system function.
Involved in hormone and red blood creation.
||Dairy products, broccoli, mushrooms, spinach, almonds, bovine liver, sirloin steak.
||Promotes the production of energy from foods.
Assists the formation of red blood cells.
Required in many metabolic events within the body.
||Seafood, meats, grains.
||Acts as an enzyme component of an antioxidant.
||Brewer’s yeast, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, watermelon, black-eyed peas, asparagus, ham.
||Promotes carbohydrate metabolism and energy production.
Essential for normal nerve function.
||Oysters, meat, fish, poultry, grains.
||Necessary for proper growth and development.
Involved in protein synthesis, digestion wound healing, skeletal health and synthesis of DNA.
Major antioxidant enzyme.