Read an Excerpt
"Cure du Jour"
or Medical Breakthrough?
Medical "miracles" have been appearing on the market fast and furiously over the last 10 years. Melatonin, DHEA, St. John's wort, shark's fin cartilage, green algae-it is hard to keep count. And it's even harder to separate the medically tested preparations from the purely speculative ones.
The main reason that these new products are so hard for the consumer to judge is that federal laws governing their sale have recently changed, making it easier for new products to come on to the market (good), but also easier for these products to appear there without adequate experimental testing (not good.) Few, if any, of these new "miracle" products get onto drugstore and health-food store shelves without evidence that they are safe in moderate dosages. But whether they actually do any goodwhether they actually deliver what is promisedfrequently remains in question.
And now, along comes S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), a naturally occurring molecule that is part of all living cells. It is being marketed as an expensive over-the-counter supplement that promises to cure or at least significantly treat a great number of the most prevalent and devastating diseases affecting Americans today. It is being touted as a virtual panacea, much the way the tonics and "snake oils" of the past were touted to unsuspecting and desperate consumers.
So the question is: Does SAMe actually deliver what it promises? And are there a substantial number of well-designed and executed, double-blind experimental studies that prove that it does?
The answer to both questions is a resounding yes! at least for SAMe's most significant claims. And those include SAMe's efficacy in treating depression, osteoarthritis, cirrhosis of the liver, and fibromyalgia. (When it comes to Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, as we will see, the jury is still out, although preliminary data appears very promising indeed.)
How can one supplement have so many different beneficial effects?
SAMe's sheer variety of beneficial effects is certainly enough to make one suspicious it sounds an awful lot like "snake oil," doesn't it? But the reason that SAMe affects so many different aspects of human biology and pathology lies in the fact that SAMe operates on a fundamental biological process known as methylation a process that occurs over a billion times per second throughout the body. Put simply, when a substance influences a process this basic a process that is absolutely necessary for a number of critical life functions it is bound to influence a great many vital aspects of the body.
Let's put that in another context. We all know that water is necessary for most basic life functions. And we know that if we are deprived of adequate amounts of water, every one of our body systems will slow down and finally stop functioning, resulting in sickness and eventually death. So there is a sense in which it could be said that adding water to a dehydrated person's diet "cures" a huge number of ailments, ranging from inadequate blood cell production to reduced brain function. That may sound a little simplistic, but the point is that when you are dealing with basic biological substances and basic biological processes, the effects are obviously going to be far-reaching.
There is something else we should consider when thinking about SAMe's multiple effects. Virtually all drugs and supplements have multiple effects, but these effects are broken down into the "primary effect" and the "side effect." The primary effect is the intended effect the one for which you are taking the drug. A side effect is the unfortunate or unwelcome effect(s) that come along with the intended effect. For example, the primary or intended effect of taking an aspirin is reducing headache pain, while the frequent side effect is an upset stomach. Another example one that becomes quite relevant when we compare Prozac with SAMe as a treatment for depression is that one of the many possible side effects of Prozac is reduced libido and impotence in men. Certainly some patients have come to the conclusion that in the case of Prozac, the cure is worse than the disease or, put another way, they would say that as far as they are concerned, impotence is the primary effect of Prozac.
Consider the drug minoxidil. When it was originally developed as a treatment for high blood pressure, researchers discovered that a frequent side effect of this drug was increased hair growth. Today, minoxidil is marketed as a hair restorer for bald people with the frequent and sometimes dangerous "side effect" of lowering the user's blood pressure!
The point is simply that the various effects of a given drug or supplement are either good or bad depending on what the desired effect of that drug is. For this reason, when referring to side effects, I identify those that reasonable people do not want as "unwelcome" side effects. So the bottom line is that, yes, SAMe has a great number of effects and, happily, most of these effects are quite welcome. In fact, one of the great advantages of SAMe treatment versus, say, Prozac, is that it has virtually no unwelcome side effects.
What is methylation?
We will be looking at what SAMe is and what the methylation process consists of from a variety of perspectives as we investigate SAMe's effects on different ailments. But let's lay down the basics here.
SAMe is a molecule that is a part of all living cells. Our bodies manufacture it from an amino acid called methionine, which is found in most proteins.
Methylation is a molecular transaction in which one molecule donates a four-atom part of itself to a nearby molecule. When this happens, both the donor molecule and the recipient molecule change shape, making huge differences in the way the human body conducts business.