Trippin' at the GNC

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Sept. 9 1999 3:30 AM

Trippin' at the GNC

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

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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:

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SaintJohnswort

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.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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.

Melatonin

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