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Top 5 Dietary Supplements and What They Do for You

Updated on July 1, 2009

Due to an increasing population of elderly and the increasing awareness of the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, more consumers are turning towards health supplements as a form of prophylaxis and as a natural alternative treatment to taking drugs. Of the numerous supplements available today, the top five commonly used supplements appear to be Echinacea, ginseng, gingko biloba, glucosamine and omega-3 fatty acids. These findings are based on a government survey that was reported in 2007. Each of these top five supplements will be discussed in detail below.


Echinacea is commonly recommended for colds and respiratory infections. It functions by stimulating the immune system. To date, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Echinacea helps to prevent or reduce the duration of colds or other respiratory infections. The results of some studies appear promising however others reveal no statistically significant effects.

The side effects of taking Echinacea are primarily allergic in nature, such as asthma attacks, anaphylaxis, abdominal pain, nausea and dizziness. Echinacea is also contraindicated in individuals with ragweed or similar allergies. It is not recommended for use beyond ten days, in children under 12, during pregnancy, or in lactating mothers. It should not be used by individuals with progressive systemic and auto-immune disorders, connective tissue disorders, or related diseases. It should also be avoided in individuals taking immunosuppressants, or drugs that affect the liver. Echinacea also has the potential to interfere with anesthesia.


Ginseng is another commonly used herbal supplement that is believed to stimulate immune system; increase stamina, physical and mental performance; and lower blood sugar and blood pressure. It has also been recommended for the treatment of erectile dysfunction, Hepatitis C, and symptoms of menopause.

Current research on the efficacy of ginseng is inconclusive. Results vary from study to study and depend on the type and quality of the ginseng preparation. Further research is necessary to determine the true benefits derived from consuming ginseng supplements.

Possible side effects of taking ginseng are headaches, insomnia and diarrhea, euphoria, high blood pressure, low blood pressure and breast tenderness. Ginseng is contraindicated in diabetics because of its effect on reducing blood sugar levels.

Gingko biloba

Gingko biloba is generally recommended for the treatment of circulatory disorders, dementia or Alzheimer's disease. It is also taken to enhance memory function and reduce eye problems. There is no conclusive evidence that consuming gingko biloba provides any of these benefits as the results of the studies on this supplement are often contradictory.

The side effects are rare but there have been cases of gastrointestinal upset, headaches, skin reactions and dizziness. Gingko biloba is contradindicated in individuals on drugs that affect blood clotting as it increases the risk of bleeding. It should not be taken by pregnant or breastfeeding women, and individuals with allergies to poison ivy, mangoes and other similar allergens. Gingko biloba may interact with certain drugs, such as anti-convulsants, anti-depressants, anti-hypertensives, blood thinners, therefore best to consult a doctor before taking it.


Glucosamine is generally recommended for individuals with osteoarthritis because it contains glycosoaminoglycans which may help rebuild cartilage. Although there is no conclusive evidence that it is effective in reducing pain related to osteoarthritis, some studies have found it to be more effective when taken in combination with chondroitin.

The side effects are mild glucosamine may cause stomach upset. Because glucosamine is extracted from shellfish, it is not recommended for individuals with shellfish allergies. Glucosamine also increases blood sugar levels, therefore, it is not recommended for individuals with Type 2 Diabetes.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are recommended as a preventative measure for numerous medical conditions. Some of these are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, weight loss, osteoporosis, arthritis, certain mental disorders, burns, skin disorders, irritable bowel disease, asthma, menstrual pain, and certain cancers.

Some studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids to be effective as a preventative measure against various heart-related conditions, high blood pressure and high cholesterol however, the results are not conclusive.

Regardless of the medical benefits, omega-3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient that must be obtained through external sources as the body is unable to synthesize it. Therefore, as a nutritional supplement, omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for individuals that do not consume enough natural omega-3 fatty acids food sources.

The side effects of taking omega-3 fatty acids are flatulence, bloating, belching, and diarrhea. High doses may cause bleeding therefore it is contraindicated in individuals on blood thinning medications. There is also possible interaction with certain medications such as cyclosporine, cholesterol-lowering medications, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories therefore it is best to consult your doctor.


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