A plethora of herbal supplements promise reduced stress and increased energy. The effectiveness of the supplements – which have not been evaluated by the FDA – is unknown.
Supplements, such as SuperYou from Moon Juice and Big Chill from HUM, have been marketed in recent years by several vitamin brands. Although each supplement has a different makeup, most of them are based on a series of active agents that companies claim can manage stress, support hormonal balance, reduce fatigue, and boost energy. Several Yale experts weighed in on – and were largely skeptical of – the effectiveness of common supplements.
“I think most of the claims are unfounded,” said Yun-Chi Cheng, professor of pharmacology at Yale and chairman of the Consortium for the Globalization of Chinese Medicine.
Although the companies list the traditional use and destination of each active ingredient in the supplement, the companies do not provide any evidence to support the advertised functions.
Ashwagandha, one of the most common active agents in supplements, is cited as a drug that helps manage anxiety and lower cortisol levels. According to Cheng, there is no evidence to support the claim that ashwagandha has anti-inflammatory properties, which are responsible for reducing anxiety. Cheng said there is also little substantial research to suggest that ashwagandha lowers cortisol levels. The drug has, however, been recommended by the Indian government as an effective drug for the prevention of COVID-19, according to Cheng.
Another drug used in supplements is rhodiola extract, a plant also known as arctic root or golden root. The grass is harvested from the Altai Mountains in Siberia. SuperYou claims that it is “used in Chinese medicine to replenish energy and improve mental function”.
Rhodiola is traditionally used in China for cure altitude sickness, but Cheng said there is very little evidence showing that it can boost energy. While there are studies that suggest rhodiola can effectively reduce physical and mental fatigue, Cheng said the studies were found to be heavily influenced by bias.
In addition to providing little evidence to support their claims about the effectiveness of the drugs, vitamin manufacturers also do not report side effects that the active agents can cause. Some of the compounds, however, can have side effects that companies do not tell consumers about.
Another drug found in supplements, for example, is shatavari, a root found in northeast India. SuperYou claims that the extract helps balance hormones and improve libido. It does not list any side effects.
Shatavari is famous in India for boosting female fertility, explained Cheng. While increased fertility is not seen as a disadvantage for all consumers, he said it was certainly an important possible side effect that is overlooked in the drug’s marketing.
“Shatavari is very similar in structure to steroids, such as cholesterol,” said Jenny Martinez, former organic chemistry tutor at Yale and current teacher at New York University.
Steroids work by reducing the activity of the immune system. Although vitamin brands don’t mention it, a possible side effect of shatavari is a weakened immune system, according to Martinez.
Another concern is the combination of the different active agents in each supplement, according to Cheng. He said that even though each active ingredient was proven to work independently as suggested, it doesn’t mean that a mixture of drugs will have the desired combined effects.
The makeup of supplements can also change each time the compounds are harvested. Even a slightly changed composition could affect the effectiveness of supplements and cause inconsistent results, according to Cheng.
According to Martinez, the lack of evaluation and testing of supplements causes ambiguity around the potential benefits and dangers of the drugs. There is no explicit evidence that shows any negative or positive effects of supplements. Therefore, Martinez is wary of drug safety.
“I think there is a process for a reason, and I personally wouldn’t trust anything that didn’t go through the whole process and get the final seal of approval,” Martinez said. “It makes me uncomfortable as a consumer and a scientist that there is no real evidence to back up these claims.”
Kelly Smart, postdoctoral associate in pharmacology at Yale, agrees there could be dangers in taking these supplements. However, she is unwilling to write them off altogether, believing that they may also have benefits.
Neither the benefits nor the risks are final, according to Smart.
“I am not ruling out traditional or herbal medicine and I am not saying that we should avoid all substances that are not marketed by a large pharmaceutical company,” said Smart. “But because the risks are real, I think there is some skepticism in order.”
Regardless of their lack of scientific backing and possible safety concerns, the supplements have received mostly positive reviews from customers. SuperYou has 1,168 reviews with an average rating of 4.8 out of five stars.
Moon Juice’s SuperYou product costs $ 49.
Kaitlin flores | [email protected]