Trippin’ at the GNC

Can those over-the-counter nutritional supplements really put you in a better mood?

Throw out your dealer’s telephone number–why take risks when your supermarket is selling drugs? OK, not real drugs, but nutritional supplements, which are winning over our drug-abuse dollar. Corner stores now stock Saint Johnswort, Snapples come spiked with ginseng, and juice bars sprinkle ginkgo on smoothies. Supplements are an $8.9 billion annual business now, bigger than the domestic box office of movies. Largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, these over-the-counter compounds are legal for 12-year-olds to buy. But can they get you wasted? Over the summer I ran up a tab at my local General Nutrition Center–a chain with booming sales growth largely because it rounds up the usual supplements. After sampling GNC’s wares, I checked my findings against the wisdom of Ray Sahelian, M.D., a Los Angeles doctor who swears by supplements, has tried them all, and has authored several books on the matter. Here’s what I learned:


For: Mild to serious depression.

Howit works: It’s a flower. Studies suggest it (like everything halfway fun these days) plays with neurotransmitter levels, boosting serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Myfindings: The bottle recommended one to three 300-milligram pills per day. I took three. On the afternoon of the third day (it takes a while for the drug to rev up), I felt a sudden rush of well-being. I was reading a good book and eating a great sandwich, and admittedly this in itself may account for my good cheer. But it felt more profound–what should have been just a sandwich was a sandwich, what should have been just a book was a book. Does that make sense? It did at the time.

By Day 4 the manic rushes were kicking in. At unpredictable moments I’d become hypersocial, expansive, and breathtakingly productive. It was not unlike a cocaine high (er, I’m told). That is, a surprise cocaine high that strikes at random. I’d be in a meeting with my boss and suddenly I was Robin Williams circa 1980. These Wort flashes were sort of delightful the first few times, but I grew to fear them–I couldn’t predict when the Wort would attack. And along with the manic highs came troughs of fragility and moodiness.

Hoping to push the envelope, I eventually doubled my dosage. Result: a jaw-clenching headache of unfathomable depth, coupled with horrid, abyss-gazing doubt and need. I quit the next day.

The docsays: Sahelian’s a big fan of the Wort. He thinks it works almost as well as Prozac, without the side effects or high price. “Doesn’t it add a little magic to the world? It’s great to take when traveling–the things you see become more special.” I’d guess he means something like my sandwich moment. Sahelian says that since I wasn’t depressed to start with, taking the maximum dosage of Wort pushed me into mania. He starts patients off with one pill a day, and only goes to three for extreme depression. Oops. Although I’m not depressed, I may try a one-per-day regimen in the future–maybe I could be even happier.

Cost: $7.99 for 60 pills–a two-month supply for me, a 20-day supply for Sylvia Plath.


For: Insomnia and jet lag. It’s “nature’s sleeping pill.”

Howit works: Melatonin is a natural hormone (produced by the pineal gland) that seems to regulate your internal clock.

Myfindings: I get insomnia, so I was excited about melatonin. The bottle suggested one 3-milligram tablet before bedtime. I obeyed, but nothing happened: I was still sleepless. Instead, I felt sluggish the entire next day. Results were no better on subsequent nights. A few nights in, I had a vivid nightmare. I was at a picnic where people played a game–a game in which they attempted to flay each other using hand-held metal hooks, stripping skin away from their ribs and spines. I quit the next day.

Thedoc says: 3 milligrams a night is waaaaay too much. He recommends a half-milligram to 1 milligram, one hour before bed, no more than once a week. Vivid dreams are common (“dreams like you’ve never dreamed before,” says the doc, and I concur), but so is restful sleep.

Cost: $3.69 for 60 tablets of 3 milligrams each.

Kava Kava

For: Anxiety.

Howit works: Who knows? It’s a plant from the pepper family, and its roots may affect your limbic system.

Myfindings: I bought kava in liquid extract form, to be taken with an eyedropper. The label said 3 milliliters three times daily. I took 9 milliliters all at once. No dice. Then I took 12 milliliters all at once. Less dice, if that’s possible. Finally, I took 15 milliliters all at once–five times the suggested dosage. Beyond a teensy sense of detachment and some mild balance problems, I still felt nothing.

Thedoc says: Sahelian (author of Kava: The Anti-Anxiety Herb) tells me that with kava the brand makes a huge difference. Indeed, on the Lycaeum ” Trip Reports” page, one “psychonaut” recommends “Waka-grade Kava from Fiji.” Mine came from Nature’s Way Products in Springville, Utah. Sahelian says: “If you’re not anxious, you won’t notice much. But those who like it really like it. It’s great if you’re nervous going on a plane or to the dentist, or before a party. Some use it as an alternative to the evening martini.” A mischievous friend swears that if you slug back a whole bottle you’ll act like Dopey dwarf for a few hours, but I cannot confirm at this time.

Cost: $9.75 for 59 milliliters of extract.


For: Depression. And arthritis.

Howit works: Again with the dopamine. Like melatonin, SAMe is found in the body.

Myfindings: I don’t have arthritis. I also don’t have depression, but that never stopped me before. The bottle said one to four 100-milligram pills per day. I took four every day. I felt nothing.

Thedoc says: Despite the slobber of media excitement dripped all over SAMe in the last few months, Sahelian prefers Saint Johnswort. The Wort is much less expensive and he thinks it works better. When I sounded disappointed about SAMe, he offered this tip: “If you want to feel something, try taking three or four pills in the morning on an empty stomach.” I tried the next morning. More nothing.

Cost: Yow! $24.99 for 30 100-milligram tablets. At four a day, that’s 25 beans for little more than a week’s worth.

Ginseng, Ginkgo Biloba, and Echinacea

For: Ginseng’s for “vitality,” ginkgo’s for “mental alertness,” and Echinacea’s for stopping colds.

Howthey work, allegedly: Ginseng improves adrenal gland function, ginkgo helps circulation, and Echinacea boosts white blood cells. They’re all herbs.

Myfindings: I bought Siberian ginseng gum and chewed a bunch but felt no particular vitality. So, Pros: none. Cons: acrid aftertaste, acrid duringtaste, zero vitality increase, and I had to find somewhere to spit it out. If you want to try ginseng, Siberian is supposedly the best (as opposed to Asian or American). I also took ginkgo. I also felt nothing. As for Echinacea, I’ve used it successfully a few times, though not in a controlled study. The key is to take it just as you’re getting a cold–it appears to head it off. Friends have reported similar success.

Thedoc says: Sahelian seemed less enthusiastic about these. He says effectiveness varies dramatically between brands, and that ginkgo shows more impact on older people, improving focus and alertness.

Cost: $1.29 for a pack of ginseng gum, $15 for a few months supply of ginkgo, and $19 for a big bottle of Echinacea.


The Wort can be fun, and it might save you a bundle on your Prozac bill. I’m willing to give melatonin another shot, too–at reduced dosage. But basically this stuff is all weak sauce. If you’re looking for drugs to improve your “mood” or “mental alertness,” don’t throw out your dealer’s number just yet: The drugs that come closest to achieving these worthy goals remain highly illegal or must be prescribed by a doctor. The success of GNC and the nutritional supplement industry illustrates how eager our culture is to embrace mood-altering drugs–as long as they don’t actually work.