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Healthy or Hype: The science behind four popular supplements

Updated: Nov 28, 2018


With all of the new trends popping up within the health and wellness sphere recently, it’s hard to distinguish between what is worth the hype and what is a popular fad--lacking scientific evidence. One scroll through Instagram and you will see people touting the supposed benefits of everything from collagen-containing gummy bears to weight loss and detox teas. To say it can be overwhelming is an understatement! Which is why I have chosen to share the evidence (or lack thereof) behind a few of the more popular health trends circulating social media.


Apple Cider Vinegar


Apple Cider Vinegar, aka ACV is perhaps one of the most underutilized food-based supplements. It is derived from fermented apples, therefore carries many of the same benefits as other fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kombucha. ACV has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal effects (1, 2) and has been utilized as a digestive aid in the integrative medicine realm for years. It has also been found to have a favorable effect on blood sugar levels and may be a useful supplement in the management of type 2 diabetes (3).


While its role in digestive health has not been well studied, it has been used as a treatment for acid reflux. It may seem counterintuitive to introduce more acid into what is often presumed to be a problem of acid over-production. However, acid reflux may also be the result of too little stomach acid. It is theorized that the stomach’s acidity is what controls the lower esophageal sphincter, a valve that sits between the esophagus and the stomach. If the stomach is not producing an adequate amount of acid, the muscles around the LES relax, thereby resulting in reflux symptoms. This is definitely an over-simplification of things but is worth considering when it comes to the treatment of acid reflux.


Be sure and purchase organic ACV containing the “mother” (this will be written clearly on the bottle) along with clearly visible sediments, which contain the "gut-friendly" bacteria. ACV is pretty bitter and can potentially be harsh on your teeth. It IS an acid after all! We recommend diluting 1-2 tablespoons in a minimum of 8oz of water or taking it as a “shot” in a couple of ounces of water and lemon juice.


Activated Charcoal


Activated charcoal has been popping up in everything from fancy “health” drinks to personal hygiene products such as deodorant and toothpaste. It is a fine black powder manufactured from organic materials burned at high temperatures and is used in the medical field to treat drug overdoses and poisonings due to its ability to bind toxic substances. This is the same quality that makes it potentially useful as “detox drink” and in various oral care products. Despite the proposed health benefits of activated charcoal, the science backing its use as a natural detox aid is lacking.


There are a few very small studies that support its use in reducing gas and bloating in those who suffer from intestinal discomfort. The charcoal is presumed to bind to gas within the lumen of the intestine. Unfortunately, most of the studies examining the role of charcoal in alleviating digestive discomfort are from the 1980s and are based on small sample sizes (4). The European Food Safety Authority did come out with a scientific opinion supporting the relationship between the consumption of activated charcoal and reduction in intestinal gas accumulation (5) and, when taken in small amounts (ie. 1gm mixed with a large glass of water) in between meals on an “as needed” basis, it does not pose a health risk. That being said, I would caution against taking it regularly without first consulting a health care provider as there is some concern about interfering with the absorption of certain nutrients and medications.


Activated charcoal has also been gaining popularity as a teeth whitener and overall dental hygiene product. While it theoretically can absorb oral toxins and bind to plaque and other tooth-staining compounds, it has not been approved by the American Dental Association as a dental product and a 2017 review showed insufficient evidence to support its safety and efficacy (6). It can also be abrasive and may damage enamel when used incorrectly. I definitely recommend consulting with your dentist before incorporating charcoal-containing products into your oral care routine.


Collagen Peptides


Collagen is a structural protein found in the skin and connective tissues of the body and is all the rage in the health and nutrition world right now. It is comprised of a mixture of essential amino acids such as proline and glycine and is responsible for giving hair its strength and skin its elasticity. The supposed benefits of ingesting collagen in the form of collagen peptides (smaller, more easily absorbed fragments of the full-length collagen molecule) include everything from skin/hair/nail strengthening to improved digestive function and joint health. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the collagen that you consume gets converted into collagen in your body.


Robust science supporting the supposed benefits of collagen peptides for skin, hair, and nail health is spotty at best, and the evidence for collagen supplementation in joint health is somewhat mixed. There are some studies that support the notion that it reduces joint pain (7, 8, 9) and can stimulate activity of the chondrocytes (collagen producing cells) within joints (10), so I do support and trial of regular use in patients with joint pain.


The research looking at collagen’s role in gut health is also lacking, but studies in animal models using L-glutamine, one of the amino acids in collagen, have had promising results (11, 12).


With all of this being said, both Jaci and myself use collagen peptides on a regular basis. Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting their benefit in skin, hair, and nail health, we do have to say that our hair is growing faster and our nails are the strongest that they’ve ever been since incorporating them into our daily supplement routine. Now whether this is due to consuming an easily absorbed form of protein or the collagen peptides specifically is something that we can’t answer, but we have no plans to stop using them any time soon. Be sure and read my previous post on collagen peptides to learn more!


Tumeric


Tumeric is a spice that has really made a name for itself over the past year or two. While it has long been known in the Western world for adding that distinctive flavor and color to Indian dishes, its role as a nutritional supplement and disease fighter has only recently been recognized in the conventional medicine world. The compounds in turmeric itself are called curcuminoids- the most important of which is curcumin. It is the curcumin itself that has the medicinal benefits that we associate with turmeric.


Perhaps tumeric’s most notable quality is its ability to reduce inflammation. In fact, The Arthritis Foundation cites several studies that support its use in patients with joint pain and swelling. In one particular study it was found to be more effective than the popular NSAID, Diclofenac. The typical dose for arthritis-related pain is 400-600mg three times daily. In our personal experience, turmeric doesn’t work for everyone, but we do have some patients which note a reduction in their symptoms while taking it.


The curcumin component of turmeric is also a powerful anti-oxidant, meaning it protects against oxidative damage (13). Oxidative cellular damage is known to be one of the main mechanisms behind aging and many chronic diseases, including cancer. Curcumin also boosts the body’s own anti-oxidant ability. There are some promising studies that examine curcumin’s role cancer prevention and treatment, but there is still a long way to go in terms of research before it can be confidently recommended in these situations (14).


Tumeric’s ability to function as both an anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant is what lays the foundation for its medicinal uses. Arthritis, cardiovascular disease, digestive disease, certain forms of dementia, and many skin conditions are, by nature, inflammatory diseases. Therefore, it makes sense that turmeric may help alleviate signs and symptoms of these conditions- and perhaps help to prevent the development of them in the first place. Again, MUCH more research is needed, but turmeric is a relatively safe supplement and is worth a try if you suffer from any of these issues.


A word of caution- do not take turmeric if you are on any blood thinners before consulting with your medical provider. It can also cause stomach upset when taken in large amounts, so stick with the recommended dosage of 400-600mg 3 times a day (up to 3gm daily). It is also important to note that turmeric only contains about 3% curcumin (15). In contrast, most studies look at amounts and in the realm of 1gm a day of curcumin. As you can imagine, you would have to eat a nauseating amount of turmeric spice in your food to reach these levels! Rather than make yourself sick, purchase a supplement with actual curcumin extract. Additionally, it is beneficial to consume it with black pepper (look for “bioperine” on the label) which increases its absorption by 2000% (16).


Hopefully this post will allow you to make a more educated decision on whether or not any of these trending supplements are worth incorporating into your health and wellness routine. As always, please consult with a licensed practitioner prior to using any of the supplements that we discuss in our posts. And don’t hesitate to contact us either via email or on social media if you have any further questions!


Continue to Follow Your Gut,


Erin

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