For Your Health: Herbs for Your Heart

Nutrition supplements, vitamins, minerals, and more

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Magnesium stops muscle cramping and allows more efficient energy use.

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A substance that can help prevent heart disease—America’s number one killer—is available right on the shelf of your local health-food store. It may also fight fatigue, ease symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), treat asthma, and help control diabetes. This natural mineral is abundant; it’s found in shellfish, soybeans, barley, nuts, and a variety of other sources.

The substance is magnesium, which might be called “life’s lubricant.” It relaxes and expands blood vessels, stops muscle cramping, prevents inflammation, and allows energy to be used more efficiently. It does this by blocking the influx of calcium into cells. But magnesium also works with calcium to maintain both bone density and nerve and muscle impulses. Together magnesium and calcium compete and cooperate, one flowing into a cell while the other flows out. This balance of both minerals is supremely important to the functioning of cells, ­allowing them to excrete what they do not need and ­absorb nutrients they do need.

Most Americans don’t eat enough whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, so our magnesium intake is low. A recent Gallup survey revealed that 72 percent of adult Americans fall short of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of between 300 and 400 mg for magnesium; 55 percent of adults consume 75 percent or less of the RDA; 30 percent get less than half.

Heart health

Magnesium is key to maintaining a healthy heart. Having discovered low magnesium levels in the blood and heart muscles of heart attack victims, many researchers now believe that this same deficiency can be linked to hardening of the arteries and hypertension. They even consider magnesium deficiency a contributing factor in atherosclerosis, the accumulation of fats within arterial walls.

Magnesium contributes to healthy heart functioning in other ways, too. For example, when we lack magnesium, calcium deposits can accumulate in our soft tissues, increasing the risk of a spasm in the muscular tissue surrounding the coronary arteries—the source of all blood and oxygen for the heart.

Scientific studies show that magnesium supplements help lower blood pressure and may help minimize damage from heart attacks. Many cardiologists now prescribe magnesium as a matter of course.

Fatigue fighter

Magnesium may also help combat fatigue. Bodies deficient in magnesium must borrow from the already low supply in our muscles. But as our muscles lose magnesium, calcium charges in to replace it, and our muscles grow tensed and cramped. This situation can result in debilitating problems, especially the exacerbation of symptoms ­associated with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), an ­immune disorder characterized by lethargy. Many doctors are now using magnesium, often in an injected form, to treat CFS patients.

Women’s weapon

Women, especially, may reap benefits from magnesium supplements. Various studies have shown that the mineral helps alleviate some of the symptoms ­associated with PMS, including hormone-triggered migraine headaches. Magnesium can also prevent fractures and increase bone density; like calcium, it is an important part of women’s armor in the ­battle against osteoporosis.

Asthma relief

Fifteen million Americans suffer from asthma and rely on potent drugs that may cause unwanted side ­effects. For them, magnesium may make breathing a little easier.

Clinical studies have shown that magnesium can diminish the “bursting” of inflammatory white blood cells that often begins a cascade of reactions—including wheezing—in asthma patients. Other research has demonstrated that magnesium can help improve lung function and reduce asthma-related hospitalizations.

One way magnesium helps people with breathing problems is by relaxing the bronchial muscles, preventing overreaction to allergic stimuli and calming the allergic ­response. In a sense, magnesium’s effect is not that different from bronchodilators and steroids, but instead of causing side effects such as dry mouth and nervousness, magnesium leaves the patient in a calm state of well-being.

Hope for diabetics

Raising magnesium intake may also help those suffering from diabetes. A common—but sometimes unnoticed—problem in diabetic patients, magnesium deficiency can damage the heart and affect glucose control. The body needs magnesium to create insulin naturally, and studies have shown that insulin resistance in diabetics is connected with magnesium depletion. Research indicates that ­raising the magnesium levels in diabetic patients improves cardiovascular functioning and glucose management. ­Although magnesium cannot cure diabetes, it can enhance insulin function and thereby help prevent some of the serious complications associated with the disease, such as blood vessel damage. 8


Adapted from The Nutraceutical Revolution (Riverhead Books, 1998) by Richard Firshein, D.O. The book contains an extensive reference list for the sources of studies referred to in this excerpt.

PMs got you down? Maybe you need more calcium

Sarah Kelch

We’ve always been told to drink our milk and eat our broccoli. Both are excellent sources of calcium, which is essential for ­building and maintaining strong bones and teeth. It’s also a good weapon for women’s battle against osteoporosis. Now, a nationwide study shows that calcium may even ease the ­annoying and often painful symptoms that afflict nearly 40 ­percent of American women prior to menstruation.

That study, released in the Journal of American Obstetrics and Gynecology (August 1998), says the mineral can reduce some of the most common symptoms of premenstrual syndrome by nearly 50 percent. About 450 women, ages eighteen to forty-five, participated in the nationwide study that examined the effects of calcium in treating seventeen PMS symptoms, ­including moodiness, water retention, headaches, and lower back pain. About half of the women were told to take two Tums E-X tablets, twice daily, for a total of 1,200 mg of elemental calcium. They did this for three menstrual cycles. The other half took a placebo. Women ­taking the calcium supplements ­reported a 48 percent reduction in overall symptoms and a 54 percent reduction in physical pain over the placebo group.

“Studies have shown that women with PMS have lower calcium levels,” says Dr. Susan Thys-Jacobs, an endocrinologist at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York and the study’s lead researcher. In addition, patients lacking calcium have symptoms similar to those of women with PMS, she says.

How does calcium help PMS?

Ellen Freeman, director of a PMS research program in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, says brain functions that control mood and feeling may contribute to PMS. Michael Thomas, a reproductive endocrinologist and co- director of reproductive medical research at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, explains this further by singling out the substance serotonin, which is one of several neurotransmitters affecting mood. Thomas says that serotonin levels decline in PMS patients during the second half of the menstrual cycle. When this happens, a complex web of other factors can trigger PMS symptoms. Calcium may enhance the receptor action to keep the serotonin functioning as it should, Thomas explains.

Increasing magnesium intake

Most women consume less than half of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of calcium. The Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences recommends 1,000 mg daily. For women over fifty, that recommendation jumps to 1,500 mg a day.

Although food sources are best, supplements are essential for women who have difficulty reaching their daily calcium requirement with food intake alone. Health-food stores offer a cornucopia of calcium choices—heart-shaped chewable tablets; tablets combined with magnesium, zinc, or boron; and even chewable calcium malted-milk balls.

After drinking your milk, eating your greens, and taking those supplements, don’t forget to go outside and play in the sunshine. When touched by sunlight, our skin produces Vitamin D, which helps our bodies absorb the ­calcium in our diets.

Calcium may curb weight gain

Score another point for calcium and its role in women’s health. Known for its bone-building properties that may prevent osteoporosis, calcium may also help curb weight gain.

A two-year study by Purdue University researchers, made public in March, found that a higher intake of calcium reduced overall body fat and slowed weight gain in fifty-four women, ages eighteen to thirty-one. Women who consumed less than 1,900 calories and at least 780 mg of calcium a day either lost body fat or had no increase in fat over the two-year period. Women with the same caloric intake who consumed less than 780 mg of calcium a day gained body fat over the two years. Researchers found that women with a daily caloric intake over 1,900 calories had no weight-control benefit from calcium; the calories negated any positive benefits.

Women receiving their calcium intake from animal sources such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, had more weight-loss benefits than those women receiving calcium from nondairy sources.

Viatmin Robbers

Anti-nutrients negate the good in foods 

Optimum nutrition is not only about what you eat. What you do not eat is equally important.

Gone are the days when healthy eating meant simply getting the right balance of nutrients from your food. Now an equally important part of the equation is avoiding harmful chemicals and protecting against those you cannot avoid. The twentieth century has fundamentally changed the chemical environment of every species. Today, we need to consider what “optimum nutrition” is in light of what our bodies need for “anti-nutrient” protection, as well as what they need to stay healthy.

Anti-nutrients defined

Even refined foods that are free from artificial additives are not neutral. Any food you eat that requires more nutrients for the body to make use of it than the food itself provides is effectively anti-nutrient. Living on these foods gradually robs the body of vital nutrients, and today, two-thirds of the calories in the average Western-world diet come from these foods.

Artificial chemicals are also considered anti-nutrients. Take tartrazine (FD&C Yellow No. 5), for example, a ­common food-coloring agent. It has long been known to cause allergic reactions and hyperactivity in sensitive children by robbing them of zinc. A deficiency of zinc is associated with increased risk of behavioral and immune system problems. Pesticides pose a problem, too. Unless you eat only organic, most foods contain traces of pesticides. The fruit and vegetables consumed by the average person in a year has had the equivalent of up to one gallon of pesticides sprayed on them.

Water facts

Water’s health benefits are also unclear. Natural water is not simply H2O, but provides significant quantities of minerals: Typical bottled spring water, for ­instance, provides about 100 mg of calcium per quart. Drinking several bottles of natural spring water a day can help ­people meet their calcium requirements. However, not all bottled water is spring water, and artificially ­carbonated water actually depletes minerals from the body.

Cooking consequences

Cooking is another way nutrients are destroyed in food. More than half the nutrients you eat could be lost before they reach your plate because of how the food has been stored and cooked. The three main enemies of vitamins and minerals are heating, water, and oxidation.

Vitamin C is very prone to oxidation. The longer your food has been stored, and the more surface area that has been exposed to air and light, the less vitamin C there is ­likely to be. Orange juice suffers a 33 percent loss of vitamin C in twenty-two weeks, which is a conceivable time lag between orange grove and breakfast glass. The antioxidant vitamins A and E are also prone to damage.

While storing foods in cool, dark places tends to prevent oxidation, it can still occur in the fridge. Spinach stored in an open container loses 10 percent of its vitamin C content every day. On the whole, though, frozen foods keep their nutrient content well.

Frying food in oil produces free radicals, highly reactive chemicals that destroy essential fats in food and can damage cells, increasing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and premature aging. Frying also destroys the very nutrients that protect us from free radicals, vitamins A and E. The damaging effects of frying depend on the oil, the ­temperature, and the length of frying time. Ironically, the good polyunsaturated oils oxidize most rapidly, becoming undesirable “trans” fats. So frying with olive oil (monounsaturated fat) is safer.

Grilling, steaming, boiling, or baking, however, are better cooking methods than any form of frying. Microwaving water-based foods such as vegetables generates heat by vibrating the water particles in the food, and vitamin and mineral losses are minimal. Keep in mind, though, that any form of overcooking increasingly reduces the ­nutrient content of food.

Beware of plastic wrap

It’s not just what’s in your food that matters. What your food is in is also important. The mid-1990s scare concerning substances used to soften plastics raised the question of how significant quantities of such hormone-disrupting chemicals were finding their way into the food chain.

Fresh produce is usually wrapped in soft plastic, and many drinks come in cartons that have an inner plastic lining. While the list of hormone-disrupting chemicals is growing, there is no definitive list of what we should avoid. For now, the best advice is to minimize the use of food packaged in soft plastic, especially wet or fatty food. Hard plastic is less likely to be a problem, so store cheese, for example, in a plastic container rather than wrapping it in plastic film.

Drugs upset nutrient absorption

Many common medicines are also anti-nutrients. Salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin and other painkillers, is a gastrointestinal irritant that increases the permeability of the stomach wall. This, in turn, can upset absorption of nutrients and allow undigested foods to pass into the bloodstream. An alternative is acetaminophen—but, while it won’t irritate the stomach like aspirin, it’s bad news for the liver. If you take six acetaminophen a day and lack the nutrients that help the liver detoxify, your ability to deal with other toxins, such as alcohol, may be compromised.

Many common drugs have direct or indirect effects on your nutritional status. Antibiotics, for example, wipe out the healthy intestinal bacteria that manufacture a significant amount of B vitamins. They also pave the way for unfriendly bacteria to multiply and increase the risk of ­infection. Infections, in turn, stress the immune system and can lead to nutrient deficiency.

Adapted from The Optimum Nutrition Bible, (The Crossing Press, 1999) by Patrick Holford, founder of The Institute for Optimum Nutrition.

how much vitamin c is enough?

Recommended Dietary Allowance for Vitamin C:

Children (1 to 10 years): 45 mg
Youths and Adults (11 years and older): 60 mg*
Pregnant women: 70 mg
Breastfeeding women: 95 mg 

* Many health-care practitioners recommend an average dose of at least 500 to 1,000 mg of vitamin C per day, although some recommend much higher dosages.

Eating a combination of at least five fruits and vegetables a day will generally meet the Recommended Dietary Allowance of vitamin C, which is 60 mg a day. But researchers looking at vitamin C’s potent antioxidant properties believe we should take more.

Findings of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April suggest that an RDA of between 100 and 200 mg of vitamin C may be a more optimum intake. Recommendations for the daily intake of vitamin C were last reviewed in 1988 and are currently under revision by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. Since then, much more biochemical, molecular, epidemiological, and clinical data has become available to serve as a basis for a new recommended amount. The researchers also suggest that new vitamin C guidelines caution people against taking doses of 1 gram or more.

“Whenever possible, vitamin C intake should come from fruits and vegetables, and physicians should encourage their ­patients to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily,” the authors wrote. “Vitamin C doses of 1 gram or more could have adverse consequences in some people and physicians should counsel patients to avoid these doses.”

Oranges, broccoli, strawberries, turnip greens, tomatoes, green peppers, and kale are rich sources of vitamin C.

Health tidbits

Carotenes may lower cancer risk 

Don’t focus on fat—eat more fruits and vegetables. That’s the latest recommendation from officials at the American Institute for Cancer Research. They believe that the emphasis on fat reduction has contributed to more obesity; people are choosing low-fat products without regard for their caloric content, they say, which is often high. Their comments were made in a report submitted to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, who will issue a report on revising the guidelines before the end of the year.

Focus on fruits, not fats 

Red yeast rice for better heart health 

Men with diets high in alpha- and beta-carotene (found in carrots and pumpkins) may have a lower risk of lung cancer, a study of 4,545 men suggests. Diets high in alpha-carotenes were associated with a 67 percent lower lung-cancer risk among nonsmokers and a 30 percent lower risk among smokers. Nonsmokers with beta-carotene-rich diets had a 62 percent lower lung cancer risk; The same diet slightly reduced risk in nonsmokers.

Drinking one cup of black tea per day may lower heart attack risk by 44 percent, say researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Tea contains large amounts of flavonoids, which make blood cells less prone to clotting. Adding milk, sugar, or lemon to tea does not effect the flavonoids. Other good flavonoid sources are fruits and vegetables.

Tea may lower heart attack risk 

A dish of fermented red yeast rice may sound less than appetizing, but red yeast rice has long been used in Chinese medicine to promote cardiovascular health and as a food pigment in Chinese cuisine. In the United States, a red yeast rice product sold under the name Cholestin has been gaining popularity as a cholesterol-lowering supplement.

A recent Tufts University School of Medicine study, made public in March, shows that Cholestin is effective for elderly patients battling high cholesterol. The results note a 21 percent drop in low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, among 233 elderly study patients who used Cholestin for two months while following a healthy American Heart ­Association diet.

Cholestin is a supplement with a much-publicized legal history. The Food and Drug Administration fought against Cholestin’s status as a nutritional supplement, saying it was too similar to the pharmaceutical drug Mevacor. The active ingredient— lovastatin—was similar in both products. But a federal court ruling in February upheld the right of Pharmanex, Cholestin’s manufacturer, to market and sell it as a supplement.

Vitamin E reduces health risks 


Recent studies have shown that vitamin E can help reduce the risk of stroke and coronary artery disease. People taking vitamin E were found to be 47 percent less likely to have an ischemic stroke, the most common type. Researchers also found that high doses of vitamin E “turned off” an inflammatory substance that contributes to heart ­disease. You should take a vitamin E supplement to gain the health benefits—food sources are not effective against stroke and heart disease.

The news items in this section have been garnered from press releases and various news and research sources.

“Nutrition supplement: vitamins, minerals, and more” is written by Sarah Kelch, with excerpts from alternative health publications. Design by Bren Frisch. “Nutrition supplement” is intended as an educational service, not a source of medical advice or a guide for self-medication. Please consult a qualified health-care professional for treatment of any serious health problems.