Your favorite health food store has plenty of supplements. But trying to figure out which nutrient is the best—decoding them—can be tricky. Here is a codebook for three of the most widely used and most important natural ingredients.
Vitamin: Vitamin C
What it is: Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, and is mostly associated with boosting the immune system.
Where it comes from: Vitamin C is found in many sources, including oranges, kiwis, limes, rose hips, and acerola fruits.
Main use: Our bodies require vitamin C, but we can’t make it on our own—we must get it from dietary sources. And even though it is often considered a cold and flu fighter, vitamin C does a lot more. Vitamin C also promotes wound healing and skin repair, proper iron absorption for better energy, and prevents hardening of the arteries. Vitamin C is most famous for stopping scurvy, a deficiency disease marked by fatigue, muscle failure, dental cavities, and gingivitis, and if not stopped in time, death. British sailors in the 1750s, suffering from scurvy, recovered after citrus fruits were added to their diets.
Even though it’s tempting to think that vitamin C deficiency is a thing of the past, it isn’t. People with diets low in fruits and vegetables, older individuals, and people with alcohol dependency may be especially prone to this problem.
Typical dosage level: 200 mg to 2000 mg daily
What it is: Zinc is an essential mineral for the immune system, mental well-being, muscle healing, and prostate health.
Where it comes from: Beef, turkey, pumpkin seeds, cashews, lentils, and quinoa are all food sources of zinc.
Main use: Zinc interacts with at least 300 different enzymes and reactions in the body, so it is critical. It helps heal tears in muscles, ligaments, and tendons, and keeps your immune system running strong by bolstering white blood cell activity. In one study, zinc reduced the duration of cold symptoms by 42 percent compared to a placebo—but those results were seen in the first 24 hours of a cold, so it’s important to get zinc on board right away if you start feeling ill.
In men, zinc concentrations are highest in the prostate, where it helps maintain the organ’s structure and protects sperm count and viability. It also acts as an antibacterial against urinary infections, defends against carcinogens, and maintains normal androgen metabolism and hormonal balance.
Zinc deficiency has been linked to depression and anxiety disorders, so adding it to your regimen may help your life feel more balanced, productive, and enjoyable.
What to look for: The supplemental form of zinc that is best-utilized by the body is chelated to the amino acid glycine. This amino acid helps shepherd minerals through the intestinal wall, allowing them to be readily used by the body.
Typical dosage level: 7.5 to 15 mg daily
What it is: Echinacea is the name of the genus for many species of related plants. One of the best known is Echinacea purpurea, which is associated with immune defense. Another species, Echinacea angustifolia may be as effective as prescription drugs for anxiety relief.
Where it comes from: Echinacea from various species are found in North America, Europe, and throughout the northern hemisphere.
Main uses: For immune defense, Echinacea purpurea shortens cold and flu duration and relieves symptoms. An analysis of six clinical studies involving over 2,400 patients found that Echinacea purpurea cut the risk of a reinfection of respiratory illness by half. This analysis also found that echinacea reduced the incidence of pneumonia, tonsillitis, and ear infection.
For anxiety relief, a specific Echinacea angustifolia extract—EP107—developed at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, has been shown in studies to have a relaxing effect in the brain similar to Valium or Librium, but without side effects. Compounds in this extract called alkamides affect cannabinoid receptors in the brain much like CBD, promoting a calm—but focused—state of mind. A clinical study found that in just three days anxiety levels were significantly lower in participants using the echinacea extract, and some noticed effects on the same day. These benefits remained stable for the duration of the clinical trial and even for two weeks following treatment.
What to look for: For immune defense, look for an Echinacea purpurea extract that is made from freshly pressed aerial parts of the plant, rather than the root, and contains compounds known by the unwieldy name of β-1,2-D-Fructofuranosides. Those key components help you get over a cold.
For anxiety relief, you need a root extract of Echinacea angustifolia (also called narrow-leaved coneflower) standardized for echinacoside and with a unique alkamide profile. The clinically studied extract is known as EP107.
Typical dosage level: For immune defense, up to 900 mg for the duration of the illness. For relief of ongoing anxiety, 20 mg to 40 mg twice daily. For occasional anxiety (giving a presentation at work, catching a flight) consider 20 mg to 40 mg about 30 minutes prior to the event.