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Know the science of supplements. Supplements can be a controversial topic in pharmacology because there are a lot of wild claims out there and not a lot of clinical trials evidence to back them up, especially where things like herbal medicine are concerned. Even if there were, people are not exactly talking about prescriptions, where a doctor has diagnosed a health complication and has determined a safe and productive dose. Every individual is different, and every individual absorbs, distributes, metabolizes, and expels drugs at different rates and in different ways. However, people do know a lot about the nutritional needs of the human body through an understanding of gastroenterology and thus can safely assume effectiveness, with minimal toxicity in some compounds.
Sorting Out the Science of Supplements
Vitamins & Minerals
Vitamin A is essential for embryonic development and is an important factor in human eyesight. It combines with opsin proteins to form rhodopsin, the light-absorbing molecule responsible for color vision. Vitamin B plays an important role in maintaining cells via synthesizing red blood cells. Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant and helps to prevent the development of diseases like scurvy. Vitamin D plays an important role in the immune system and can prevent bone disorders like rickets or brittle bone disease. Similarly, minerals like zinc are an essential compound in the constitution and function of many amino acids necessary for many metabolic and cell functions. Interestingly, it is also particularly important in young men, as it is used extensively by the male body to produce sperm.
Bypassing Allergens & Gastric Disorders
There is no substitute for a healthy, balanced diet, and most of these vitamins and minerals can indeed be found in fruit and veg and mineral-rich carbohydrates. However, that does not always help individuals with severe or life-threatening health conditions, such as allergies, coeliac, or Crohn’s disease. Many essential fatty acids also, such as Omega-3, which is vital for the development of grey matter in the brain, can be difficult to find in sources other than meat, fish, or dairy products, which doesn’t always help those on a vegan diet (seaweed is a good vegan source of omega-3, however.) Supplements like cod liver oil or elderberry capsules can bypass many of these complications if administered correctly.
Herbs are where the pharmacology gets complicated, however. Most drugs and supplements isolate compounds to target an intended protein or enzyme within the digestive system and/or the blood. Plants, however, contain vast multitudes of compounds, some of which interact with each other inside the body to create what’s called a synergistic effect. This can make herbal medicines particularly potent if the dose is high enough, but it also introduces an increased risk of side effects if administered carelessly. Herbal medicines can also interact with prescribed medications. A notorious example of this is taking St John’s Wort to treat post-natal depression and for the compounds in the herb to inhibit the effects of contraceptives, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, which can then be disastrous for the mother’s already tenuous mental health. For this reason, herbal medicinal doses are usually kept fairly low in over-the-counter form, and even then, consultation is universally recommended, especially when on prescription meds.