Years ago, I got carried away with all the hoopla surrounding the benefits of over-the-counter vitamins, minerals and dietary supplements.

I was already taking some of them. Then, a new nutritionist I consulted began recommending I take even more. Before I knew it, I was swallowing about a dozen pills a day, most of which could only be found on the shelves of the pharmacy connected with his clinic.

Additional internet research helped me understand the developing consensus in the medical community: we are much better off getting the vitamins and minerals we need from food, not pills. Very little scientific evidence exists to support the claims of pill hucksters like Dr. Oz.

So, typically for me, I veered to the other side of the road. No pills, no way. No more daily aspirin, no more multivitamins, no CoQ10, no fish oil, etc.

Exceptions to my no-pill rule

I still believe—as far as these supplements are concerned—that less is more. But since my Parkinson's diagnosis over five years ago, I've made three exceptions.

  • 5-HTTP: For me—nobody else seems to share my experience here—this serotonin-booster has helped stave off the three major non-motor symptoms of Parkinson's: depression, insomnia and constipation.
  • Curcumin: About three years ago, I began to notice all the studies reporting the broad, well-documented potential of curcumin, the active ingredient in the Indian curry spice turmeric. Almost daily, my "Google Alerts" bring me the newest findings for the botanical's efficacy in treating Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, several cancers and much more. Many pharmaceutical companies have jumped on the ever-growing curcumin bandwagon with different versions of the supplement. I recently reported on the latest findings and a ConsumerLab report on the best buys among the many available curcumin products.
  • Ashwagandha: The third and last exception is ashwaganda, a plant whose root and berry are used to make medicine. I'd never heard of it until I watched an interview with Dr. Ray Tanzi, a Harvard neurologist and arguably the nation's top Alzheimer's expert. The interviewer asked Tanzi if he does anything to reduce his own Alzheimer's risk. Tanzi mentioned several things—being a vegetarian and remaining socially and intellectually active. Then he said he doesn't take any herbal supplements...with one exception—ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha is sometimes referred to as "Indian ginseng" because it is thought to have similar anti-amyloid qualities such as modulating the immune system and supporting the body's response to stress. (Amyloid is a protein that forms plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. It is also typically present in Parkinsonians with cognitive impairment.) Ashwagandha is also used to boost energy levels and retard the effects of aging.

Finding the right brand of supplement

After hearing this endorsement from a top Alzheimer's researcher, I decided to give ashwagandha a try. But which brand? In the interview, Dr. Tanzi said "unfortunately most of the ashwagandha you'll find online does not work." He added, "The best one comes from Douglas Labs, but you need to get it through a doctor."

Online, I found a Douglas Labs ashwagandha that did not require a doctor's prescription, and I've been using it for nearly a year.

ConsumerLab report on ashwagandha products

Last December, ConsumerLab produced a report on ashwagandha supplements. It tested the products to determine whether they provided an adequate daily dosage, were labelled accurately, and did not exceed toxic limits for heavy metals.

Confirming Dr. Tanzi's warning about the ashwagandha found online, ConsumerLab's report indicated: "The results of our tests of ashwagandha were disappointing. Just 2 out of 8 products selected for testing could be approved."

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They were:

  • Pure Encapsulations Ashwagandha (providing 12.5mg withanolides at 1 capsule per day), and
  • Solaray Ashwagandha (providing 7-14mg withanolides at 1 to 2 capsules per day).

By virtue of a different testing process, Consumer Lab also approved Plnt by V Ashwagandha (Vitamin Shoppe).

The Douglas Lab product I had used was not among those tested by ConsumerLab. After reading the report, I ordered the Pure Encapsulations product. The first morning I took it, I experienced a noticeable increase in my energy level.

Of course, my reaction might have been the placebo effect.