I have a word for you: S-adenosylmethionine.
A mouthful, I know. But maybe you’ve heard of it by its nickname: SAM-e.
SAM-e is present in every cell of the human body. Its basic role is to make many other compounds work more efficiently in the body, and it seems that when the body does not generate enough SAM-e, problems can occur. You probably haven’t heard much about SAM-e from your doctor, but it’s being studied for some of the most common health conditions we experience, such as depression, pain, and liver problems. So why has the health establishment been so quiet about it? Because it’s not a prescription drug, it’s a supplement. That’s right, an over-the-counter supplement (at least in this country).
Here are some of the conditions that SAM-e has been shown to help:
Depression. Depressed individuals tend to have low levels of SAM-e. Researchers from Italy first documented the potential antidepressant effects of SAM-e in the 1970s, and it has been a prescription drug in that country since 1979. Recently, a Harvard study found that SAM-e helps depressed people who don’t respond to prescription drugs. They think SAM-e might actually be helping to create new healthy neurotransmitters in the brain.
Pain. Ten years ago, a study of pain medications found that SAM-e was as effective as over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) at reducing arthritis pain, and it appears to be safer. Americans consume a lot of over-the-counter pain relievers, but these drugs can carry serious risks: Acetaminophen can cause acute liver failure, especially when combined with alcohol, and NSAIDs in general may cause kidney dysfunction, increase the risk of cardiovascular issues, and also negatively impact sexual function.
Alzheimer’s. Many studies have explored SAM-e’s role in brain health, and specifically in maintaining the health of neurons (those excitable cells that transmit information within the brain). Researchers have also suggested that SAM-e could be a potent neuroprotective dietary supplement for Alzheimer’s patients. Most recently a study found that SAM-e might actually reduce Alzheimer’s symptoms, paving the way for more study on how SAM-e might help fight cognitive decline.
Sexual health. Depression and prescription drug use are some of the most common causes of sexual dysfunction. The thing about SAM-e is that it does NOT negatively impact sexual function…at all.
Now, don’t get me wrong, SAM-e needs more long-term study to determine its efficacy and safety. It’s no panacea. There have been concerns that as a supplement SAM-e may increase blood levels of “homocysteine,” which could theoretically increase the risk of future cardiovascular and kidney problems, but recent studies have not supported this concern.
Still, just this year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report saying that more than 70 people die every day from unintentional prescription drug abuse. It’s one of the biggest (and least talked about) issues in medicine. So if you’re taking meds for pain or depression, talk to your doctor about SAM-e. The dosages used in the depression studies were 400 to 1,600 milligrams per day, but benefits have been observed at half that amount. And as I always say, when you’re talking about medications of any kind:
And talk to your doctor or pharmacist
Before you spend any dough!
The biggest side effect with this pill may be a hole in your wallet (one bottle can cost $40 or more), so make sure you compare prices and talk to your doctor or pharmacist about low-dose options. Finally, don’t forget that exercise and weight loss are cheap and also very effective in reducing symptoms of depression and pain—and they can improve your sex life, to boot!
Dr. Moyad is the Jenkins/Pokempner director of complementary and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center and the consulting director for the Eisenhower Wellness Institute. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI, with his wife, Mia, and their dog, Chauncey.