Americans may love to eat junk, but we’re nearly as passionate about doing penance, with more than half of us scarfing down dietary supplements on a regular basis.
From herbal remedies to energy boosters, vitamins and weight-loss pills, supplements form a massive global industry — one that’s expected to reach $200 billion in value by 2025, according to the AMA Journal of Ethics.
Trouble is, it’s a largely “Wild West” scene — and that’s by design, believe it or not. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 limits the ability of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate products marketed as dietary supplements.
By hobbling the FDA, manufacturers are able to sell their modern-day potions and miracle cures without any evidence of their potency, safety or effectiveness.
“As for herbal supplements, they are not regulated by the FDA and, therefore, you are really at your own risk when taking them,” Dr. Lisa Young, a registered New York dietitian-nutritionist and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim” and “The Portion Teller Plan,” told The Post.
“Dietary supplements are often used in excess and little research proves that they provide benefit, unless you are deficient,” Young added.
Still, scientists and medical professionals have been working diligently for years to try to keep up with the thousands of products lining store shelves, hoping to determine which are safe and can actually help people live a longer, healthier life.
Turns out, there’s evidence aplenty that some supplements can provide real and lasting health benefits.
Here are six you can pop down with confidence.
Gardeners throughout the United States are fans of the coneflower, a colorful North American native plant that goes by the scientific name Echinacea. The plant has been used by indigenous people for centuries as an herbal remedy.
Echinacea is best known as a treatment for the common cold, flu and other upper-respiratory infections. It’s also used to treat pain, inflammation, migraines and other health concerns.
Preparations containing echinacea have also been promoted for topical use for wounds and skin problems, and the plant’s roots, stems and leaves are known to contain potent antioxidants, such as flavonoids, cichoric acid and rosmarinic acid.
Ginger and turmeric
The ginger family of plants, which includes turmeric, have thick roots that are dried and ground into spices, as well as a popular herbal supplement.
Evidence has shown that ginger can help to ease nausea, vomiting and motion sickness, especially for pregnant women and people taking chemotherapy drugs.
And turmeric — often used in Asian cooking such as curry dishes — is widely known for its anti-inflammatory properties, which can help people with arthritis and other joint disorders, colitis, allergies and infections, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Research published last month has revealed that turmeric can treat indigestion as well as omeprazole, commonly known as Prilosec, a widely used indigestion drug.
A staple of Chinese medicine, the extract from the leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree has for centuries been used to treat a variety of conditions, including asthma, bronchitis, fatigue and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
There’s some evidence that ginkgo can help with memory and brain function, but studies have been conflicting: the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study showed ginkgo does not improve cognitive performance or prevent Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
But other studies have found that ginkgo can help people with schizophrenia when combined with olanzapine, an antipsychotic medication. Also, the flavonoids in ginkgo may help with inflammation and eye health.
There’s also evidence that ginkgo can increase the risk of bleeding, so it should not be used with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and ibuprofen, anticoagulants, anticonvulsant medicines or tricyclic antidepressants.
The so-called “sunshine vitamin” is produced in our bodies when we’re exposed to sunlight. But between indoor work, clothing and sunscreen, many people don’t get enough vitamin D — and it’s difficult to get from dietary sources.
Older adults, people with chronic illnesses and darker-skinned people are at particular risk, according to Harvard Medical School.
“Many people are deficient in vitamin D and would, therefore, benefit from a supplement,” said Young.
The best sources for vitamin D are oily fish and dairy products that are fortified with the nutrient, so supplements are a good option for many adults. The form known as vitamin D3 is usually recommended. For best results, take your vitamin D supplement with a meal that contains some fat.
Evening primrose oil
Sometimes referred to as the “Swiss Army knife of herbs,” evening primrose oil has anti-inflammatory properties and has been known to help with conditions such as atopic dermatitis and diabetic neuropathy, according to Healthline.
A 2018 study revealed that the supplement is effective in reducing the severity of hot flashes and improving the quality of life for women going through menopause — it may also help with the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
And among people with multiple sclerosis, evening primrose oil “had a significant effect on several important aspects of life quality such as the increase of cognitive function, vitality and overall life satisfaction,” according to a report from 2018.
Red yeast rice
Red yeast rice, as the name implies, contains a type of yeast that grows on rice plants. The powdered yeast-rice mixture has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for millenia.
A large body of evidence finds that the combo contains a powerful statin, monacolin K, the same ingredient that’s in the prescription cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin (Altoprev).
Red yeast rice can lower blood cholesterol levels and total blood cholesterol levels, and while the supplement is generally considered safe, it can have the same side effects as statin drugs (stomach discomfort, heartburn, gas and headache), according to the Mayo Clinic.
Proceed with caution
Regardless of what supplement you might use, remember that vitamins and herbal remedies can have a powerful bodily effect and might interact with conventional medicines, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Follow label instructions carefully and use the prescribed dosage only.
Also, find out if there are individuals who should not take the supplement: Many are not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, for example, or for young children.
“A pregnant woman would benefit from a prenatal multivitamin as it may be hard for her to get all the needed nutrients (especially iron) from food,” Young said. “If your diet is lacking in a particular nutrient like calcium, that may benefit you as well.”
“It is also important to discuss with your MD if you are on any medications so that you can check for interactions,” Young added.
If side effects including nausea, dizziness, headache or upset stomach occur, reduce the dosage or stop taking the herbal supplement altogether.
And because they’re not FDA-regulated or tested, only buy supplements from reputable brands.