Be Supplement Savvy

April 15, 2011 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Walking down the miles of aisles of nutritional supplements in any given health food store is enough to intimidate almost anyone. Which brand do you choose? How much should you take? Do you ask for advice from the on-site “supplement expert” or “go with your gut”? The best rule of thumb is to never shop for something of importance without first preparing. Nutritional supplements, when used in an informed and judicious manner, have the potential to impact your health in a decidedly positive manner. But if you don’t do your homework ahead of time then you’re essentially gambling with your health. This often means wasting time and money. And, worse, it could even mean that you’re inadvertently endangering your health.

Astaxanthin is a powerful carotenoid that is most notable for giving salmon and select shellfish (crayfish, krill, shrimp) a pink and/or reddish color. In prior columns, I’ve pointed out a variety of health benefits associated with this potent antioxidant ranging from cardiovascular support to immune system modulation. But, if you look at the suggested dosage listed on many astaxanthin product labels, you’ll find that the recommended daily intake can vary dramatically. Fortunately, several new studies can help inform your decision about just how much astaxanthin is right for you.

The current edition of the journal Phytotherapy Research evaluated the relative impact of two different dosages of astaxanthin (5 mg/day and 20 mg/day) in a group of 23 overweight adults. Over the course of 3 weeks, the study participants were provided with the high and low doses of astaxanthin in a randomized, double-blind fashion. Measures of antioxidant status were taken at baseline and at the 1, 2 and 3 week marks. The results indicate that both amounts of astaxanthin performed equally well in increasing antioxidant activity (superoxide dismutase and total antioxidant capacity) and lowering oxidative stress biomarkers (isoprostane and malondialdehyde levels). This finding comports with a previous study presented in the January 2011 issue of the British Journal of Nutrition which determined that 6 mg/day of astaxanthin is capable of elevating antioxidant status and protecting against the accumulation of phospholipid hydroperoxides “which may contribute to the prevention of dementia“. This information is welcome news for anyone interested in reaping the antioxidant rewards of astaxanthin. However, it still doesn’t address the issue of using higher dosages to provoke other positive physiological changes such as improved insulin sensitivity and lower blood pressure. (1,2,3)

Up until a few years ago, saffron was primarily considered a natural coloring agent used in expensive recipes. Nowadays, you’re as likely to find Crocus sativus extracts in the supplement section of your friendly, neighborhood health food store. Several months back, I scientifically documented the reasons which include the relief of numerous mind-body symptoms including anxiety, depression and PMS. But science never stands still.

It seems that saffron is now on the verge of making inroads in the fields of immunology and oncology. At the core of the saffron-cancer connection is a phytochemical by the name of crocetin. Much like astaxanthin, crocetin is also a carotenoid or antioxidant pigment. A current analysis put forth by the Kansas City Veterans Affairs Medical Center details the anti-cancer mechanisms of this constituent of saffron: a) it “enhances the anti-oxidative system”; b) it induces apoptosis (cancer cell death) and hinders “growth factor signaling pathways” and; c) it “inhibits nucleic acid synthesis”. Preliminary animal and test tube studies reveal that this results in suppression of tumor growth in various models of cancer including breast, lung, lymphoma and pancreatic malignancies. What’s more, a just released trial involving 99 human volunteers reveals that 100 mg/day of saffron extract over a 6 week period safely modulates the immune system. Since the immune system plays a pivotal role in the prevention and treatment of cancer, further inquiries will likely address this additional avenue of interest. (4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

Higher Dosages of Astaxanthin May Counter Insulin Resistance

Source: Int J Med Sci 2011; 8:126-138 (link)

Of all the spices in the Healthy Fellow pantry, cinnamon is the one most often used. It finds its way into coffee, hot breakfast cereal and a variety of desserts in our household. I even chew xylitol-sweetened cinnamon gum to keep my breath fresh as it combats the growth of harmful microbes and reduces volatile sulfur compounds. But far and away, the most important use ascribed to cinnamon is its utility in lowering elevated blood sugar levels. In fact, a recent survey of type 1 and type 2 diabetics reports that up to 83% of them were aware of this naturopathic application. In part, this is because there’s a growing body of reliable evidence to support the use of cinnamon in conditions associated with high blood sugar and insulin resistance such as metabolic syndrome. (11,12)

A new meta-analysis appearing in the Journal of Medicinal Food concludes that both cinnamon extract and whole cinnamon powder are efficient means of lowering fasting blood glucose “in people with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes”. Some trials go beyond that by providing proof that modest amounts of the spice (2 grams/day) are capable of moderating long term blood sugar concentrations (HbA1c) and reducing diastolic and systolic blood pressure. Giving even more weight to the case for cinnamon are experimental findings that explain how this common spice is capable of provoking these benefits. According to a recent animal study, cinnamon works its “anti-diabetic effect independently from insulin by at least two mechanisms: I) upregulation of mitochondrial UCP-1, and II) enhanced translocation of GLUT4 in the muscle and adipose tissues”. I’m well aware that UCP-1 (uncoupling protein-1) and GLUT4 (glucose transporter 4) may not mean a lot to most supplement users. But when physicians see this type of technical data presented in prestigious medical journals, it sometimes opens their minds to the possibility that natural remedies can actually be considered “real medicine”. (13,14,15)

Cinnamon also presents an interesting case study about how to “shop smart” for healthy foods and supplements. Some natural remedies contain potentially toxic substances that should only be used in an appropriate dose and manner. Many cinnamon products that you’ll find in many markets and specialty stores are derived from the bark of Cassia cinnamon. The problem this can pose is that this form of cinnamon frequently contains unacceptably high levels coumarin, a conditionally-toxic chemical. Studies now reveal that naturally-occurring coumarin and pharmaceutical-grade coumarin share a very similar rate of absorption in the human body. This may present a very real health threat for those that include high doses of Cassia cinnamon in their daily diets. Thankfully, this risk can be largely avoided by opting for cinnamon bark or powder that’s derived from “true cinnamon” or Ceylon cinnamon. On the supplement side of the aisle, there are clinically validated, aqueous extracts of cinnamon that are devoid of coumarin altogether. This appears to be a safer option for those who plan to use cinnamon on a chronic basis. So by all means, enjoy cinnamon whenever you’d like. It’s a wonderfully healthful addition to most menu plans. But be mindful of what type of cinnamon you’re consuming. Knowing such details can make all the difference in the world. (16,17,18,19,20,21,22)

Be well!


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Posted in Diabetes, Food and Drink, Nutritional Supplements

8 Comments & Updates to “Be Supplement Savvy”

  1. Iggy Dalrymple Says:

    “Although the effectiveness of statins in preventing CHD has been accepted in Western countries, little benefit seems to result from efforts to limit dietary cholesterol intake or to TC values to less than approximately 260 mg/dl among the general population and the elderly. Instead, an unbalanced intake of omega6 over omega3 polyunsaturated fats favors the production of eicosanoids, the actions of which lead to the production of inflammatory and thrombotic lipid mediators and altered cellular signaling and gene expression, which are major risk factors for CHD, cancers, and shorter longevity. Based on the data reviewed here, it is urgent to change the direction of current cholesterol-related medication for the prevention of CHD, cancer, and all-cause mortality.”

  2. Nina K. Says:

    Good morning, JP 🙂

    i see, you read about the “true” cinnamon, happy to see. Most people are unaware of that…

    My very loved combo is: cinnamon mixed with organic white plain almondbutter (brand: rapunzel)+ a little bit ground organic bourbon vanilla. tastes like fresh cookie dough but better. use that over fresh strawberries (or mixed fresh berries), soooo delicous! You must try! 🙂

    Have a great weekend ☼!
    Nina K.

  3. Brian Ellwood Says:

    Thanks for the informative article! I recently published an article on the importance of phytochemicals in the diet, carotenoids being one of them. Some orange vegetables and fruits, such as carrots, pink grapefruit, apricots, and cantaloupe are all safe and healthy means of ingesting immune boosting, high antioxidant carotenoids as well. This article is about using supplements, which is, of course, highly powerful. But when in the produce section, show some love for orange, folks!

  4. JP Says:


    The omega-3/omega-6 ratio will likely become a much bigger factor in disease management in the coming years. It’s an important consideration to be sure.

    Be well!


  5. JP Says:


    That sounds like a delicious recipe. We’ll try it out! 🙂

    I recall that you’ve mentioned Ceylon cinnamon in the past. I was aware of the earlier research but decided to make more of an issue about it now due to newly published data that suggests a greater risk than previously hypothesized. The time was right.

    I hope you have a wonderful weekend too!

    Be well!


  6. JP Says:

    Thanks, Brian. I agree. Food should be the primary source of carotenoids. That’s why I include plenty of green leafy vegetables, organic pumpkin and wild salmon in my diet. A good rule of thumb is to “eat like the rainbow”. Where there’s naturally occurring color in food, there is almost always an abundance of antioxidants.

    Be well!


  7. Brian Ellwood Says:

    Wow, Nina. That sounds DELICIOUS! I am going to make the “cookie dough” as soon as possible, as I am already a huge fan of almond butter 🙂

  8. Nina K. Says:

    Good Morning ☺

    @Brian: try that over a small sliced organic apple too, use more cinnamon, like a fresh unbaked apple pie ☻♥ a healthy sweet treat, with not too much carbs….

    Have a great sunny and relaxed weekend @all!
    Nina K.

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