In addition to vitamins, minerals, botanicals, and phytochemical supplements, there is a growing number of other, hard-to-classify supplements that might slow the aging process that deserve mention. Many are gaining popularity, despite the lack of solid evidence to back their use.
Some have been used for years in Europe, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an American doctor who's ever heard of them, much less feels comfortable counseling you on their safety and effectiveness. Here's some of what we know.
This supplement claims to be a super antioxidant that protects cells from free-radical damage. It is found in spinach, broccoli, and a variety of other foods and is also synthesized by body tissues. Alpha-lipoic acid supplements have been used in Germany to treat nerve damage in people with diabetes.
The typical amount in supplements -- many are standardized to 50 milligrams (mg) per tablet -- can't realistically be obtained from food. And anywhere from 100 to 1,200 mg a day have been used in studies. Studies show alpha-lipoic acid is taken up by the central nervous system and peripheral nerves, suggesting it is needed there. It seems to protect cell membranes, in part by interacting with vitamin C.
In animals, alpha-lipoic acid has been found to be beneficial in the treatment of diabetes, cataracts, radiation injury, and damage to brain cells. Though it appears to be safe, low blood sugar may be a side effect -- a particular concern for people with diabetes, the group found to possibly benefit the most.
Choline and Phosphatidylcholine
These compounds are critical for sustaining life itself. Choline regulates signals sent between cells, and it's a structural component of all the body's cells. You get some from your diet (cauliflower, iceberg lettuce, peanuts, peanut butter, and whole-wheat bread contain high amounts), and the body produces it as well.
One of the most important roles it plays, and there are many, is in the production of phosphatidylcholine, which is essential for the production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Some research has suggested that supplementation with phosphatidylcholine can boost brain levels of acetylcholine and help fight memory loss, including that experienced by Alzheimer patients.
While it is currently being studied -- and research suggests that the more choline that is present, the more acetylcholine is produced -- there is no conclusive evidence that supplementing with either choline or phosphatidylcholine will improve brain function. Phosphatidylcholine is also found in foods such as beef, egg, margarine, and cauliflower.
Found in meat, poultry, and fish, this nitrogen-containing compound is also produced by the body. As a supplement, it is sold as creatine monohydrate and is promoted as a way to increase muscle mass and enhance exercise endurance. It has been tested mainly in athletes, and studies show it does offer them some advantage. But it isn't known if a nonathlete taking creatine supplements will get any benefit.
This antioxidant compound, produced by all cells of the body, is claimed to do everything from enhancing the immune system to reversing aging, but there's only strong evidence for its role in protecting the heart. Research has found that coenzyme Q10 (CoQ) minimizes small injuries to the heart that are caused by inflammation or a limited oxygen supply.
On a day-to-day basis, CoQ helps the body produce energy for all the body's cells to work properly. The heart is a reservoir for CoQ because it is packed with energy-producing cells. CoQ works together with vitamin E, which helps prevent LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, the "bad" cholesterol) from damaging arteries. The body manufactures CoQ, and it is found in a wide variety of foods. So why would you need more?
Illness and chronic use of medications (ironically, those prescribed for heart conditions, such as beta-blockers and cholesterol-lowering drugs) can deplete the body's natural reserves. CoQ deficiencies are common among people with cardiovascular disease, and the more serious the disease, the lower CoQ levels are likely to be. The people most likely to benefit from CoQ supplementation are those with cardiomyopathy or congestive heart failure.
In Japan, CoQ has been an approved treatment for congestive heart failure for years. How much helps? Some researchers suggest 100 to 120 milligrams a day. While CoQ seems to benefit people with cardiovascular disease, there's little evidence it can prevent it.
And claims that CoQ can treat cancer and periodontal disease, help you lose weight, and delay aging are far from proven, although it is being studied for a possible role in treating breast and prostate cancers.
Selenium and vitamin E are important nutrients for maintaining adequate levels of CoQ in the heart. Low intakes of either of these nutrients can affect levels of CoQ.
This is a synthetic version of a compound your body normally produces. Several proponents say supplementation of glucosamine sulfate combined with chondroitin sulfate, another collagen-promoting compound, restores lost and deteriorating cartilage and alleviates arthritis symptoms.
Unlike conventional treatments, which only treat symptoms, these two supplements are supposed to help rebuild and prevent further breakdown of collagen, the stuff that cushions joints.
Several studies in Europe and Asia have found positive results from supplementation. And it's a well-established treatment for arthritis in animals. While no drug or supplement has proven to get rid of arthritis, trying this combo is unlikely to cause you any harm, and it just might help.
The full name is a mouthful -- methylsulfonylmethane -- and it's claimed to have remarkable pain-relief power. MSM is a sulfur-containing compound found naturally in the body and in green vegetables. It's a relative of DMSO, another more well-known prescription sulfur compound that's long been said to relieve pain. If MSM works, its main advantage over DMSO is that it is odorless.
Its proponents claim that it can provide pain relief for 70 percent of patients who take it, and it is used in more than 100 countries. But very little well-controlled research has been done on its use in people, and no one seems to know if it does work, how it works, or why. It is, however, commonly used topically by veterinarians to relieve muscle pain and inflammation in horses.
The amount of sulfur in the cartilage of animals suffering from arthritis may be only one-third that of cartilage found in healthy animals. MSM is sold in capsules or crystals, and it can be applied on the skin in lotion, cream, or gel form. Most experts consider MSM a safe compound even when taken internally in amounts up to 2 grams a day on a long-term basis.
It doesn't work as quickly as prescription pain medications, and it may take several weeks before you experience pain relief, if at all. MSM can, however, cause stomach upset. If you decide to give it a try, break your daily dose into two or three smaller doses during the day.
In the next section, we will discuss the different types of anti-cancer supplements for seniors.