Nutritional supplements often contain unfamiliar ingredients with strange-sounding names. Other nutrients are simply referred to by their initials.
To take the mystery out of vitamins and herbs, here’s an explanation of some of the nutrients and other terms you may encounter in your search for better health.
Açai – A berry-like superfruit found in Amazonia. Açai contains powerful antioxidants. It’s often used in weight-loss formulas.
Adaptogen – An herb that helps the body deal with stress.
ALA – Alpha Lipoic Acid. A natural antioxidant. ALA is unusual because, unlike other antioxidants, it’s soluble in both fat and water.
Alpha-Ketoglutaric acid – A natural compound produced in your body, but sometimes taken as a nutritional supplement. Studies suggest it may enhance athletic performance.
Antioxidant – A substance that neutralizes free radicals by “donating” an electron to the rogue molecule. This keeps the free radical from “stealing” an electron from – and damaging – a cell wall, your DNA or other important cellular structures. Free radical damage is a major cause of the signs of aging.
Antler Velvet – Made from the velvet – outer covering – of growing deer or caribou antlers. Some studies suggest antler velvet may enhance testosterone production in men.
Ashwaganda – Sometimes called “Indian ginseng,” ashwaganda is an adaptogen. Studies have found this nutritional supplement promotes energy and lower stress levels.
Barberry – A berry fruit native to Europe and part of Asia. Barberry is a source of berberine. This compound is often used to support the immune system, as well as to support healthy cardiovascular and nervous system function.
Beta sitosterol – A compound found in fruits and other plants. It promotes healthy cholesterol levels and is popular as a heart-health supplement.
Bilberry – A dark-colored berry with high antioxidant content. Bilberries are a commonly used nutritional supplement for vision health.
Bioflaonoids – Common plant chemicals that act as antioxidants and appear to enhance the activity of some other nutrients, including vitamin C.
Biotin – A form of B vitamin. You need B vitamins to fight stress and maintain calm.
Birch leaf – This traditional remedy is often used for urinary tract problems. Substances in birch leaves discourage adhesion of bacteria to the bladder.
Black cohosh – A flower related to the buttercup, and an herb used traditionally by Native Americans to ease “female problems.” Backed by a number of studies, it’s often used in women’s health supplements.
Boerhavia diffusa – A widespread flowering shrub with antibacterial properties. Boerhavia also promotes flushing of the kidneys and may support healthy blood sugar levels.
Boswella serrata – Also called Indian frankincense. A traditional Indian pain remedy. Studies show Boswella promotes effective relief from a variety of causes of pain.
Bromelain – A natural enzyme found in pineapples. Studies suggest bromelain is an effective heart-health supplement that promotes clear arteries.
Buchu leaf – Buchu is a traditional African herb with many uses. It’s sometimes used in urinary health supplements for it’s antiseptic and diuretic tendencies.
Butcher’s broom – A shrub found in Asia and Europe. This traditional alternative health supplement promotes relief from painful hemorrhoids.
Capsaicin – An extract of hot peppers. Capsaicin promotes lower levels of substance P, a chemical that causes the sensation of pain.
Cascara sagrada – “Sacred bark.” Native Americans used this herb as a laxative long before Europeans arrived in the New World. It contains several substances that promote clearing of the bowels.
Celandine – Greater celandine. This flower is often used to settle digestive issues. Also used in some natural health products to as a detoxifier.
Chasteberry – A flowering herb from the Mediterranean. Chasteberry appears to support women’s comfort during the change of life. It’s found in some women’s health supplements.
Choline – A close relative of the B vitamins. Your body uses choline to make acetylcholine. Acetylcholine serves as a calming agent in parts of your nervous system.
Chondroitin – A substance that makes up part of the structure of cartilage. Often used in nutritional supplements for pain relief.
Chromium picolinate – Used as a health supplement to promote good blood sugar control. Studies suggest chromium picolinate also supports weight loss.
CLA – Conjugated linoleic acid. A natural substance that helps your body “switch off” fat cells in the belly, promoting a slimmer waist.
Cnidium Monnieri – A traditional Chinese herb – She Chuang Zi – used to boost libido and improve erections. Recent animals studies
CoQ10 – Coenzyme Q10. A powerful antioxidant is also key to producing energy at the cellular level. CoQ10 is also used as a heart-health supplement, to boost energy and to fight the effects of aging.
Collagen – A protein found in all connective tissue, including skin, tendons and ligaments. Some forms of collagen are used in pain relief supplements.
Cordyceps – Cordyceps sinensis, a mushroom used as a traditional Chinese heart-health supplement. Modern studies suggest Cordyceps promotes healthy circulation and cholesterol levels.
Curcumin – The active ingredient in the spice turmeric. Cucumin is used in nutritional supplements aimed at easing pain.
Damiana – A flowering shrub of Central and South America. In traditional cultures, it was used as a calming agent and aphrodisiac. In modern animal studies, damiana increases sexual activity.
Detox – Short for detoxification. The process of removing toxins (poisons) from the body.
DIM – Diindolemethane, an ingredient used in supplements for men. Some studies have found that DIM may discourage estrogen production.
DMAE – Dimethylaminoethanol, a natural alcohol used to promote alertness and attention.
Dong Quai – An herb traditionally used in china for “female problems.” Studies suggest dong quay is effective support for women’s discomfort at the end of their fertile years.
Eggshell membrane – Recent research shows the membrane lining eggshells contains substances that promote lower levels of pain.
Eleuthero – Often called “Siberian ginseng,” though it isn’t a true ginseng. Hundreds of Russian studies have found this adaptogen promotes greater energy and endurance.
Epimedium – Shortened form of Epimedium brevicornum. Also known as “horny goat weed.” One of several traditional Chinese supplements for men used to enhance sexual performance.
Eucommia – A bark used in traditional Chinese medicine to improve blood pressure and male potency. Animal studies indicate it enhances circulation by relaxing blood vessels.
Eurycoma longifolia jack – Also known as long jack or tongkat ali. A small tree used in Southeast Asia to boost sexual desire and performance. Because animal studies show it can boost desire and performance – and may boost testosterone levels – long jack is sometimes used in supplements for men – especially sexual potency supplements.
Feverfew – And old European remedy for fevers and pain. Modern studies show this daisy-like flower may be effective for some types of pain.
FOS – Short for fructooligosaccharides. FOS is a form of indigestible fiber that serves as food for probiotic bacteria.
Foti or Fo-Ti – Also known in China as He Shou Wu – literally, “dark-haired Mr. Wu.” Foti is a traditional Chinese herb for thinning, graying hair.
Free Radical – A molecule with an unpaired electron that can “steal” the missing electron from a cellular structure. Free radical damage can lead to cell death.
GABA – Gamma-aminobutyric acid is the main “calming” neurotransmitter in humans. It also plays a role in promoting muscle tone.
Garcinia cambogia – An exotic fruit from the Far East used as an appetite suppressant.
Gentian – A purple or blue flower native to northern climes. Gentian root contains several compounds (including beta sitosterol) that promote overall heart health.
Ginkgo biloba – One of the oldest nutritional supplements. Ginkgo has been used for countless centuries to boost memory and cognition.
Goldenseal – A wildflower used by Native American herbalists. Goldenseal is a source of berberine, an antibacterial substance that promotes urinary health.
Gotu kola – A mild adaptogen often used as a calming agent. Gotu kola has been widely used across Asia for thousands of years.
Green Lipped Mussel – A shellfish found off the coast of New Zealand. GLM extracts contain an Omega-3 fatty acid far more powerful than fish oil. Several studies show GLM extracts effectively promote lower levels of pain.
Guggul – An extract of the myrrh tree, guggul has been part of India’s traditional herbology for 3,000 years. A number of studies show guggul supports healthy cholesterol levels.
Gymnema sylvestre – An Indian fruit that dulls the sensation of sweet, making sugary foods unpalatable.
Hawthorne Berry – A berry high in antioxidants. Hawthorne is backed by hundreds of studies showing it’s an effective heart-health supplement.
HLA – Hyaluronic acid. A key component of the fluid in your joints. Studies show that HLA can be effective against joint pain.
Hoodia – A southern African plant used by the desert-dwelling San people. Substances in Hoodia appear to block appetite.
Hops – Best known as a flavoring in beer, this herb has a long history. Studies show it promotes healthy sleep. It’s especially effective in sleep aid supplements when combined with valerian root.
Indole 3 carbinol – A natural substance found in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, etc.). Studies suggest I3C may discourage estrogen production.
Inositol – A vitamin-like compound found in may plants. Inositol appears to promote calm, and has been used to help clear excess cholesterol from the liver.
Inositol nicotinate – A combination of inositol and vitamin B3. Used as a nutritional supplement to support healthy circulation and cholesterol levels.
Isoflavones – Natural plant substances that have effects similar to the “female” hormone estrogen. Isoflavones – especially soy isoflavones – are sometimes included in women’s health supplements.
Jujube – A fruit used in traditional Chinese and Korean herbology to relieve stress and as a sleep aid.
Juniper berry – Extracts of this common berry are mildly anti-bacterial and stimulate kidney function, increasing urine flow. Juniper is a traditional remedy for urinary health.
Kutki – A Himalayan root traditionally used as a nutritional supplement to promote liver health.
Lemon Balm – A common herb often used in traditional cultures for its calming, relaxing properties.
Lion’s Mane – The common name of a North American mushroom, Hericium erinaceus. A number of studies have found Lion’s Mane supports clear, sharp memory.
Lycium – A Himalayan plant whose fruit is used as an herb to enhance sexual performance and fertility. Chinese herbalists also use the leaves for various ailments.
Maca root – Maca is a plant native to the Andes Mountains, where it’s a traditional aphrodisiac and male potency enhancer. These uses are backed by some modern studies.
Macuna Pruriens – Also called velvet bean. A traditional Indian herb sometimes used in sexual potency supplements. Velvet beans contain L-DOPA, which your body can convert to a substance known to boost sexual desire.
Melatonin – A natural hormone that controls your “body clock” and sleep cycles. Because melatonin levels drop with age, it’s often used as a sleep aid.
Methionine – An amino acid that supports liver health.
Milk Thistle – A thistle that produces silymarin. This extract is often used in natural health products to support liver function.
MSM – Methylsulfonylmethane. A sulfur compound found naturally in your body. Studies show it promotes lower levels of joint pain.
Mullein – Native to Europe and Asia, greater mullein is a traditional herb for relieving bowel complaints. It is especially prized for hemorrhoids, because of it’s soothing properties.
Nattokinase – An enzyme created by the fermentation of soybeans by bacteria found on rice straw. Studies have found this enzyme is a powerful clot buster, promoting healthy circulation.
Panax ginseng – An adaptogenic herb used in traditional Chinese medicine to relieve stress, improve stamina and enhance sexual performance.
Policosanol – A waxy substance made mainly from sugar cane. A number of Caribbean studies have found policosanol promotes healthy cholesterol levels.
Probiotic – Literally “for life.” Probiotics are bacteria that promote health when they take up residence in your gut. They aid in digestion, immune health and other functions.
Pygeum bark – A traditional African remedy for prostate problems. Because of its effectiveness, it’s often used in prostate supplements.
Quebracho – An extract from the bark of a South American tree. Native warriors drank quebracho for stamina and to enhance sexual prowess. Today, it’s used as a sexual potency supplement.
Quercetin – A plant chemical that acts as a powerful antioxidant. Test tube studies show quercetin acts specifically on cells of the retina. It’s a rare, but potent, ingredient in vision health supplements.
Red Root – Also called New Jersey tea. A tough shrub used for relief of breathing problems and hemorrhoids.
Red yeast rice – A form of yeast grown on rice, it’s a traditional Chinese remedy and food. Substances found in red yeast rice appear to block cholesterol synthesis.
Resveratrol – A potent antioxidant found in red wine, grape skins and peanuts. Resveratrol appears to have remarkable anti-aging properties.
Retinol-A – A form of vitamin A used in anti-aging skin creams. Retinol-A is known to promote an appearance of fewer lines and creases.
Rutin – A plant antioxidant related to quercetin. Rutin inhibits the activity of an enzyme called aldose reductase. This enzyme can contribute to cloudy vision.
Rye Pollen Extract – Secale cereal L. An extract made form the pollen of rye grass and used as a prostate supplement.
Saw palmetto – An herb used in prostate supplements. Saw palmetto’s effectiveness is backed by scores of scientific studies.
Schisandra – A berry from the Far East used as a nutritional supplement by several cultures. Animal studies suggest it’s an adaptogen and can enhance stamina.
Senna – A tropical flowering plant used in traditional medicine to relieve constipation. Today, senna extracts are used in nutritional supplements and commercial products.
Stinging nettle – A traditional prostate supplement proven effective in modern studies.
Teasel root – A traditional Chinese herb used to enhance circulation and strengthen bones. It’s used in sexual potency supplements to promote healthy circulation.
Theobromine – A mild natural stimulant found in chocolate. Theobromine also promotes greater circulation by opening up blood vessels.
Tinospora cordifollia – A vine used in traditional Indian medicine. As a modern health supplement, it is sometimes used to promote liver health.
Tribulus terrestris – Also known as puncture vine, this hardy weed has been used as a supplement for men to boost sexual stamina. Animals given puncture vine extracts exhibit increased sexual activity and increased testosterone levels.
Tryptophan – An essential amino acid. Tryptophan is used as a mood stabilizer and in sleep aid supplements.
Uva Ursi – Also called bearberry. A traditional Native American remedy for urinary tract problems. The actions of the tannins in uva ursi make it useful for urinary health.
Valerian – A European herb traditionally used as a sleep aid. Many studies have found valerian safe and effective.
Vinpocetine – An extract of the periwinkle flower. Used as a memory, hearing and vision health supplement for its ability to promote healthy circulation in the brain, ears and eyes.
Willow bark – One of the oldest recorded pain remedies, white willow bark is still found in effective pain relief supplements today.
Xanthoparmelia scabrosa – A little known lichen used in traditional Chinese medicine as a sexual potency supplement.
Yerba mate – A South American tree used by the Guarani tribe to relieve fatigue. This alternative health supplement contains xanthines – natural substances that fight fatigue.