Half of all Americans pop a multivitamin and/or mineral supplement each day to try to stay healthy. But far fewer people turn to dietary supplements to replace over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs that are used for common conditions such as insomnia, allergies, high cholesterol and depression.
Why don't more people use supplements to treat such ailments? One reason may be because these products are not manufactured by big pharmaceutical companies that heavily advertise their medications. But the supplements described in this article are in many cases just as effective as popular prescription medications—and, in general, the nondrug treatments have fewer side effects.
Important: Be sure to consult your doctor before trying any of the supplements in this article or substituting any of them for a prescription drug you're taking. You may need to gradually reduce your medication dose, under a doctor's supervision, before transitioning to the supplement. Certain supplements may also interact with other drugs you're taking.
Best medication substitutes…
Instead of allergy drugs. Prescription and OTC medications, such as fexofenadine (Allegra), loratadine (Claritin) and cetirizine (Zyrtec), combat allergy symptoms, including a runny nose, itchy eyes and hives, by blocking the effects of histamine, a natural compound that the body releases in response to an allergen. But quercetin, a plant-derived flavonoid, goes a step further by preventing allergic reactions from happening in the first place.
Scientific evidence: Most studies showing quercetin's overall allergy-fighting effects have been performed in test tubes. However, a 2009 study published in Allergology International confirmed that quercetin prevented watery, itchy eyes among 24 human subjects allergic to a type of tree pollen more effectively than a placebo.
Why it's worth considering: People who have allergies may suffer from headaches and cough, and discontinuing the allergy drug can produce a “rebound effect” of worsening allergy symptoms. With quercetin, however, no such rebound effect occurs.
Also, quercetin does not cause the drowsiness that most antihistamines can cause. Side effects of quercetin are rare but may include headache and tingling in the arms and legs. Typical dosage: Taking 300 mg daily of quercetin for several weeks or months before allergy season begins can head off symptoms before they take hold.
Instead of statins. Atorvastatin (Lipitor), simvastatin (Zocor) and other statin drugs help block an enzyme in the liver that produces cholesterol, lowering the amount that can seep into the bloodstream and clog arteries. The supplement Cholestene (made with high-quality cholesterol-lowering red yeast rice) also performs this function.
Scientific evidence: A 2009 study published in Annals of Internal Medicine showed that a red yeast rice supplement reduced cholesterol levels significantly more than a placebo among patients who couldn't tolerate side effects caused by statins. Some research has shown that red yeast rice decreases total cholesterol by as much as 19%.
Why it's worth considering: The severe muscle weakness and pain that can occur in some people who are prescribed a statin (sometimes within the first few months it's taken) is not likely to occur with Cholestene.
Side effects of Cholestene may include heartburn and mild dizziness. Any muscle weakness that may, in rare cases, develop with Cholestene tends to be mild. If this occurs, the supplement should be stopped. Typical dosage: Two tablets twice daily.
Instead of antidepressants. The popular antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)…and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the tricyclic antidepressant imipramine (Tofranil) help prevent the breakdown of the key mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin.
But a naturally occurring amino acid known as SAM-e (short for S-adenosyl methionine) also helps keep serotonin levels high.
Scientific evidence: A 2002 study published in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology showed that SAM-e was just as effective as imipramine at reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression while producing far fewer side effects.
SAM-e has also been shown to boost the effect of Prozac and other SSRIs when taken in combination. However, be sure to talk to your doctor before using SAM-e in conjunction with any prescription antidepressant.
Why it's worth considering: In addition to its depression-fighting properties, SAM-e also has anti-inflammatory effects and can be used to help relieve arthritis symptoms. Side effects of SAM-e are generally mild but may include stomach upset. Typical dosage: 400 mg daily.
Instead of heartburn drugs. OTC Mylanta, along with OTC or prescription antacids such as ranitidine (Zantac) and famotidine (Pepcid), neutralize acid that is produced by the stomach.
Aloe and licorice do the same thing, but they also coat and soothe the lining of the esophagus, which is susceptible to irritation.
While scant research has focused on these herbs, both have long histories of use in European and Asian medical traditions. I've also found the herbs to be highly effective in my practice.
Why they're worth considering: Prescription and OTC antacids come with a host of unpredictable side effects, including flulike illnesses, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting and skin rash. And prescription antacids, such as esomeprazole (Nexium), can raise the risk for fractures if taken for more than a year—they make it more difficult for the body to absorb calcium.
Aloe is mild and generally well tolerated but may cause diarrhea. If taking licorice, it's better to use a slightly processed form called deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), which increases the production of protective mucus in the stomach without raising blood pressure and causing water retention as the unprocessed form can. Typical dosage: Aloe juice, 1 ounce to 2 ounces daily…DGL, 300 mg to 400 mg in chewable form before each meal.
Instead of sleeping pills. The naturally occurring amino acid 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) plays a key role in the production of serotonin, which not only helps regulate mood but also is a biochemical precursor to the sleep hormone melatonin. Some people prefer taking 5-HTP rather than a melatonin supplement because 5-HTP can also have an antidepressant effect.
Scientific evidence: Research published in Experimental Brain Research showed that 5-HTP promotes relaxation and deeper sleep.
Be sure to check with a doctor before using 5-HTP with any prescription medication you may be taking—5-HTP may interact with certain drugs.
Why it's worth considering: The sleep drug zolpidem (Ambien), while not addictive, can become habit-forming after being taken for prolonged periods. It can also induce amnesia or forgetfulness and trigger sleep-walking.
Side effects of 5-HTP are rare but may include excessive sleepiness and high blood pressure. Typical dosage: 100 mg to 300 mg, as needed, 30 to 45 minutes before bedtime.
Source: Richard Firshein, DO, director and founder of the Firshein Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City. Board-certified in family medicine and a licensed acupuncturist, he is an authority on preventive medicine and medical nutrition. Dr. Firshein is the author of several books, including Reversing Asthma (Warner), The Nutraceutical Revolution (Riverhead) and The Vitamin Prescription (for Life) (Xlibris). www.DrFirshein.com