6 Supplements That Might Actually Help You

♪Intro♪ Supplements are super popular. One recent survey estimates that more than
half of Americans use them, and we spend billions of dollars on them each year. The truth is, though, most people don’t
need any supplements, unless they’re deficient in a vitamin or mineral. And even if they are, they should probably
switch up their diet instead of buying pills or powders. That’s because when these chemicals are
eaten in food, your body can absorb and use them better. Plus, it’s much harder to overdose. A surprising number of supplements have actually
been shown to hurt us. In fact, every year, about 23,000 Americans
head to ERs because of adverse reactions. All that being said, there are a few supplements
— in the right situations — that might be worth it. Before you take anything, though, you should
definitely talk to a doctor, who will look at your personal situation and help you make
an informed choice. We’re not doctors. So, that being said, here are 6 supplements
that scientific research seems to give a green light to. At least… in some cases. One of the clear winners in the supplement
world is one that might look kinda sketchy, since it’s all over bodybuilding powders
and energy bars. But creatine is the real deal. It’s a molecule that you naturally make
in your liver and kidney, and mostly store in your muscles. And besides workout supplements, you can get
it from foods like beef and fish. Not everyone responds to extra creatine, but
studies have shown that many people see improvements in sports that require short bursts of power,
like sprinting. People can run faster, lift heavier weights,
and build more muscle. Creatine can also help with muscle recovery
from intense workouts, but doesn’t seem to help with endurance sports, like long-distance
running or swimming. Scientists think that the extra creatine gets
modified by your body and helps make the main molecule that cells use for energy: ATP. That extra available energy lets muscles work
harder than they normally would, especially in bursts. Outside of weightlifting competitions, creatine
also can help people with muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that causes progressive
muscle loss and weakness. These patients tend to have lower levels of
natural creatine. And, in certain forms of the disease, supplements
increase muscle strength and let patients go about their daily lives more easily. Didn’t think we’d mention a trendy juice,
did you? But beet, or beetroot, juice seems to actually
do something! It’s made from beets — no shocker here. And in multiple studies, researchers have
found that it can improve athletic performance, specifically for aerobic sports, like running
or swimming. While the juice has a lot of potentially good
stuff in it, scientists think the part that’s most beneficial for exercise is the nitrate. Beets are chock full of it, and our bodies
will turn it into nitric oxide, which triggers blood vessels to get wider. This allows more blood to flow, so more oxygen
gets to your muscles. Your muscles use oxygen to break down food
to create energy to contract. So, with more oxygen around, you don’t tire
out as quickly. At least, that’s the working theory. For those same reasons, beet juice might also
help lower blood pressure. If you drink a lot, though, just be prepared
for some pink or red pee. Now, like we said, you typically don’t need
supplements unless you have a deficiency, so there’s no real good reason to take multivitamins. And non-food antioxidants generally don’t
help either. But there is one exception, for people with
age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. People with this condition are usually over
the age of 50. They slowly lose their vision, because of
damage to the macula, which is the central part of the retina — the light-sensitive
cells at the back of your eye. The basic idea is that because cells in the
retina absorb light, which can excite electrons and create reactive molecules called free
radicals, they could get damaged. So antioxidants, which sop up free radicals,
might help. And some of the most familiar vitamins, including
vitamin C and E, are antioxidants. There’s been quite a bit of scientific debate
and lots of clinical trials to pin down which vitamins and antioxidants are actually helpful. The general consensus is that certain combinations
do work well enough to slow the progression of AMD. They don’t prevent eye damage, but slowing
it down is still good. You’ve probably heard about this one, but
it’s worth mentioning because it’s one of the few cases where we have pretty indisputable
evidence that a supplement does some good. Folic acid, or folate, is a B vitamin — B9
to be exact. Vitamins are compounds that your body needs
to work and grow that you can’t make on your own, so you have to get them from somewhere
else, like food. Specifically, folic acid is important for
making red blood cells, and thymine and cytosine, two of the four bases that make up DNA. If that sounds kind of important, let me assure
you: it is. You can’t make new cells without it. So, while everyone needs folic acid, pregnant
people really need it, because they’re rapidly growing a whole new human inside them. That means the usual folic acid that we eat,
either naturally in leafy vegetables and other foods, or in fortified things like breakfast
cereal, may not be enough. Doctors advise pregnant people to take folic
acid supplements, both before and during the pregnancy. Without enough folic acid, they can develop
anemia, or too few healthy red blood cells. That can mean their tissues don’t get enough
oxygen, making them tired. And deficiencies can affect the baby’s growth
too, since they’re getting the vitamin from their parent. Not enough folic acid can cause a neural tube
defect early in development, which can be serious. In one defect, known as spina bifida, the
baby’s spinal column doesn’t close all the way, which can damage nerves and sometimes
leaves kids paralyzed. In another, called anencephaly, the baby doesn’t
fully develop its brain or skull. Most of these babies die before or just after
birth. Melatonin is sometimes marketed as a cure-all
for sleep-related problems. Its track record is a little spotty, but studies
have found small benefits in certain cases. It may be most useful for people who have
abnormal or disrupted circadian rhythms — like people with jet-lag, night shifts, or a condition
called delayed sleep phase syndrome, which is when your biological clock is perpetually
several hours behind. And that’s because melatonin is a hormone
that helps control our cycling in and out of sleep. As it gets later and dark outside, the pineal
gland in your brain starts to release the hormone, and it binds to receptors deep in
the brain to help usher you into dreamland. So when your body isn’t naturally making
melatonin — like if you’ve changed time zones — taking some could help ‘reset’
your internal clock, and let you get more rest than you otherwise would. And some studies support this idea, while
others find barely any improvement. Also, melatonin might help people with insomnia
fall asleep faster, and increase the total amount of time they sleep. It’s typically only about 10 extra minutes,
though… and in some experiments, those gains aren’t there. Last year, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine
even revised its guidelines to say that they don’t recommend melatonin for insomnia. Although they also admit that’s based on
relatively weak evidence. So the scientific community isn’t positive
about this one. Part of the problem is that even though melatonin
is relatively well studied, researchers have tested different dosages at different times
and for different things. So we can’t be too confident about what
it can do. The other big thing worth mentioning is that
even though people may use melatonin like a drug, basically to treat or prevent a condition,
the FDA doesn’t classify it as one. So it’s regulated in the US like a supplement. Which basically means… it’s not very regulated. A study published in 2017 found that 70% of
melatonin supplements have 10% more or less melatonin in them than their labels say, with
some falling in a enormously wide range. The supplements can also have other things
that aren’t listed on the label, like the neurotransmitter serotonin. And this could get dangerous, like too much
serotonin can lead to overactive nerves and a bunch of potentially severe symptoms, like
seizures. Last but not least is one of the oldest supplements
in the world: St. John’s wort. The saintly name comes from the fact that
the plant’s yellow flowers bloom around the birthday, and feast day, of John the Baptist. It’s been used for lots of maladies, going
back at least to the ancient Greeks. But it’s most famous for its effects on
mood. Modern scientists think that’s because of
the chemical hyperforin. Hyperforin prevents neurons from taking up
certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which leaves
more of them in synapses between cells. Scientists aren’t sure why this helps, but
having more of these neurotransmitters around may let neurons communicate better, and strengthen
the circuits in the brain responsible for controlling mood. Many standard antidepressants do the same
basic thing, even if their mechanisms are slightly different. Now, St. John’s wort has been tested in
multiple placebo-controlled trials. These are clinical trials in which some people
get the substance being tested, and others get a placebo, like a sugar pill. That way, researchers can tell if a drug or
supplement does anything. And those experiments showed that it helped
people with mild to moderate depression. The best case for St. John’s wort is a 2008
meta-analysis that included 29 different studies. It concluded that the supplement does better
than a placebo and is just as effective as standard antidepressants, but with fewer side
effects. But that meta-analysis also included a lot
of studies from Germany, where St. John’s wort is popular and tends to do well in trials. And other studies, especially those outside
Germany, have sometimes failed to see St. John’s wort doing much more than a placebo. Regular antidepressants sometimes fail in
those same tests too, though. So really, it goes to show how strong the
placebo effect can be. A huge downside of St. John’s wort is that
it interacts with a lot of other drugs and makes them less effective — like HIV antiretrovirals,
birth control, and organ transplant rejection drugs. And we’re not even close to listing them
all. Researchers think hyperforin triggers the
liver to make more of an enzyme that breaks down certain medicines, so you go through
them more quickly. And you most definitely should not combine
St. John’s wort with other antidepressants, because those drugs can also increase serotonin
levels, which can lead to a serotonin overdose. Because of other mechanisms, St. John’s
wort can also make you more sensitive to the sun, and it can lead to miscarriages, so pregnant
people should avoid it. Not to mention, some people are straight-up
allergic. So even the best-of-the-best supplements come
with some pretty huge caveats, or are very specific to certain people. And… that’s the biggest lesson here. In recent years, study after study has debunked
any benefit from a lot of supplements that we assumed were good. So, unless you work out a specific plan with
a medical expert, resist the urge to pop vitamins and botanicals to get healthier. Usually, you’re better off without them. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
which is produced by Complexly, a group of people who believe the more we understand,
the better we get at being humans! If you want to learn more about evidence-based
medicine, check out our other channel Healthcare Triage at youtube.com/healthcaretriage. ♪Outro♪