Fit to practice: 5 supplements that may save your life


Along with a healthy diet and lots of exercise, nutritional supplements should find a place in your daily routine.

I confess that I'm a believer in supplements. I've reviewed the scientific literature and have concluded that adding certain nutrients to my daily meals seems like a good thing to do. I don't claim that taking supplements will make me live longer or give me super-human abilities. I believe they're part of a healthy lifestyle that I hope enables me to live a vigorous and vital life well into my nineties. Our current understanding of most diseases is that they're caused about 30 percent of the time by genetics and about 70 percent by lifestyle. That makes me very keen to address the 70 percent of health I have at least some influence over.

With little government regulation and claims that range from absurd to ridiculous, it can be challenging for the average consumer to make healthy and economical decisions. While there are no absolutes in medicine, we can educate ourselves on the current research and make informed decisions that may help improve not only our quality of life but our life expectancy as well. The following is a partial list of some of the most popular and well-researched nutritional supplements that I take, give to my family and pets, and recommend to others. By partial, I mean that I take over 30 pills, capsules, and tablets a day in addition to a variety of powders, tinctures, and concoctions. This is on top of a mostly raw, vegetarian diet and almost daily physical activity. Before taking any nutritional supplement, consult with your healthcare professional regarding potential drug interactions or issues you may encounter with a specific supplement.

Omega-3 fatty acids: DHA and EPA

Perhaps no other supplement or dietary component has been as hyped in the past decade as the omega-3 fatty acids DHA/EPA. Our American diet is to blame. We have severely skewed our diets toward almost exclusively consuming omega-6 fatty acids, those found in corn, beef, soybean and other sources. The resulting imbalance between the normal healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is reeking havoc on our health. Studies show that humans evolved with about an 1:1 omega-3 to omega-6 essential fatty acid ratio and now our highly-processed Western diet has created about an 16 to 17:1 ratio.

When this ratio is imbalanced, inflammation can occur throughout the body, increasing the risk of cardiovascular, autoimmune disease, and many forms of cancer. The truth is, we're just beginning to research and understand this vital topic. What we do know from current scientific studies is that a diet with a lower omega-6:omega-3 ratio is associated with reduced risks of disease and even lessening or reversal of some disease states. For humans, the most recent guidelines are that you take between 1 to 3 grams of DHA/EPA per day. Wild-caught salmon from western Canada is perhaps the best, and safest, naturally occurring source. An alternative I like is algal sources of DHA/EPA. A bit more expensive than traditional fish oils, if you're a strict vegetarian or vegan, algal sources are the way to go to get your omega-3s.

Most researchers recommend eating wild-caught salmon at least three times per week. A 50-pound dog should receive about 160-180 mg (0.16-0.18 grams) per day and cats should receive about 240-280 mg (0.24-0.28 grams) per day. More is indicated if you have pre-existing inflammatory conditions. It's not uncommon for me to double that amount in my pet patients. I take about 4 grams DHA/EPA each day. We don't really know what the threshold is for pets and people for fish oils. A good rule of thumb is that if you experience loose stools, back the amount of DHA/EPA down a bit.

Tip: The label of most fish oils express total fatty acids. That is, many will claim 1-gram fish oils yet only contain about 300-mg DHA/EPA. Be sure to analyze the label to ensure you're taking enough DHA/EPA. Because of fraudulent label claims and the potential for contamination (mercury, DDT, etc.) choose your supplement carefully from a trusted source. Consumer Labs is a good starting point when it comes to investigating your supplements. Otherwise, look for safe waters such as those found off the coasts of Canada and northern Europe. The health benefits of omega 3 fatty acids are unparalleled. Everyone from two to four-legged critters should ensure that they receive adequate amounts. Your skin, heart, brain, joints, immune system-everything in your body will thank you for it. This is without a doubt my desert island dietary supplement.

Glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate

Glucosamine is necessary for the synthesis of mucopolysaccharides, the building blocks of the body's tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and synovial fluid. Glucosamine stimulates the creation of chondrocytes in the cartilage on the joint surface. It stimulates the creation of synovial tissue cells, which line the joint capsule and are responsible for the creation of synovial fluid. Chondroitin sulfate has been proven to inhibit degradation of articular cartilage and improve the production of hyaluronic acid, the primary component of joint fluid.

The addition of glucosamine/chondroitin to your diet then requires a leap of faith. Some studies prove benefit while others don't. My belief is that I want to keep my joints as healthy as possible for as long as possible. I've been popping a capsule daily for the past twelve years. I think of it as my joint insurance. I recommend supplementing glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate for any dog over seven years of age, at-risk breeds starting at one year of age, and any active human or those with joint pain. There have been no reported side-effects to date associated with this supplement and it is an excellent adjuvant to NSAID therapy.

The choice of a reliable glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate supplement is risky. Numerous studies have shown that most brands do not contain what the label claims. Do some research and make your choices on safety and efficacy.

Coenzyme Q10

Coenzyme Q10 or Co Q10 is a naturally occurring antioxidant found in the body. Co Q10 is essential in the manufacture of ATP, the fuel of our cells. Co Q10 is also a powerful antioxidant and helps regenerate vitamins C and E in the body. Dr. Karl Folkers was one of the first to suggest a link between declining levels of Co Q10 back in the 1930s and 1940s and many illnesses associated with aging, such as heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's. His theory was that since Co Q10 is involved in the production of ATP, any decline would affect the body's energy production.

We now know he was correct in his hypothesis. Numerous studies have shown Co Q10 to be a major player in the development of many age-related disorders. While studies demonstrating that the addition of Co Q10 has improved any disease, theoretically maintaining higher Co Q10 levels should help prevent many diseases. That's why I take Co Q10 daily. Anyone taking statin drugs (Lipitor, Zocor, Crestor, etc.) should take supplemental Co Q10. Since the same enzymes in the body that make cholesterol also make Co Q10, any drug that blocks these enzymes such as the statin drugs will also block Co Q10 formation. Coenzyme is a very important nutrient, and, as a preventive measure, the recommendation is to supplement 30 mg to 60 mg of Co Q10 twice a day. Dogs and cats with heart disease or many forms of cancer should take 30 mg per day.

SAM-e (S-adenosylmethionine) or Milk Thistle (silymarin)

Perhaps the hardest-working organ of the body is the liver. It must metabolize, digest, detoxify, and assimilate millions of cellular reactions and compounds per day. Fortunately for us, the liver has significant detoxification and regenerative powers, yet today's increased exposure to environmental toxins can easily overcome the liver's ability to complete its duty of detoxification. The seeds and fruits of the milk thistle plant, a member of the daisy family, contain the bioflavinoid silymarin that has powerful liver-protecting properties. Silymarin has been shown to protect the liver from free radical damage as it goes about its business of ridding the body of toxins.

The synthetic form of silymarin is SAM-e or S-adenosylmethionine. Numerous clinical trials have shown that SAM-e can protect the liver from damage from multiple sources. For instance, in cases of exposure to the poisonous mushroom Amanita phalloides, or death cap, SAM-e has been shown to protect the liver from toxic failure. Patients who have received SAM-e as a treatment for acute viral hepatitis have shown a decrease in their elevated liver enzymes suggesting healing. Remember that silymarin in contained within the husk of the milk thistle seeds and simply ingesting them is of no benefit to the body since the seeds pass undigested. For this reason, most researchers agree that the synthetic SAM-e is a much more reliable and ultimately beneficial way to stake this supplement. Side effects with milk thistle and SAM-e are uncommon and serious toxicity has rarely been reported. Daily silymarin dosages range from about 70 mg to 420 mg. I take about 200 mg daily.


Astaxanthin is an antioxidant you may not be familiar with, but you should be. This is one of nature's most powerful antioxidants. Research has shown astaxanthin to be 65 times more powerful than vitamin C and 54 times beta-carotene when it comes to free radical scavenging. All that sounds nice but it's also been reported to help reduce wrinkles, dry skin, and even age spots. Some studies show an improvement in brain function and cognitive abilities. Now you're talking. Pass me a bottle.

To be fair, some of the claims and studies are a bit sketchy, but astaxanthin is what gives the orange color to salmon and flamingos. Both eat sources rich in astaxanthin and undergo a color change. Don't worry, I've been taking astaxanthin for more than five years and have yet to notice any orange-ish hue. Astaxanthin is in the family of carotenoids, the healthy pigments you're familiar with in carrots, red beets, peppers, and more colorful vegetables. I take 4 mg astaxanthin daily. I use a Hawaiian source. Do a little research when selecting this supplement. It's the most expensive one I've listed and I'm particular about getting my money's worth. One oddity I have noticed with astaxanthin as I've been tracking my sleep patterns the past year is that it interferes with my deep sleep. Maybe it's just me, but my deep sleep time is shortened if I take astaxanthin before at dinner. I previously took 4-mg twice daily but settled on 4-mg in the morning due to this sleep interference. This is yet another reason I encourage you to use technology to hack your health to optimize your lifestyle.

For more information about the supplements I take, click here.

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