Supplements are synonymous with the fitness industry, and everybody always asks, "What should I take?". After a decade of going down every avenue in the health and fitness world, I have learned a simple truth. 95% percent of the game is eating whole foods, getting adequate sleep, managing stress, engaging in functional exercise, moving frequently throughout the day, and fostering positive relationships. Know what all these things have in common? They can't be sold to you. You have to make them happen yourself... through intention and daily practice. With that introduction, here are the supplements that I use.
Because I'm a health nut...
There has never been a study to show a benefit of taking a multi-vitamin except in the case of severely malnourished populations. Yet, almost every wellness practitioner admits they take one "just in case". I am no less of a hypocrite. I do believe in quality though, so I take this one.
2) Fish Oil
Solid research exists showing benefit for virtually every system in our body. Quality is important for two reasons. You want high levels of the active omega-3 compounds (EPA/DHA). Also, fish oil can go rancid, so you want to buy from a fast-moving supplier where shelf time is minimal. Refrigerate as soon as you get it home. Here's the one I use.
3) Vitamin D
Again, solid research exists showing several benefits. Sun exposure is the best way to get vitamin D, but most of us don't have that option due to climate and lifestyle. Most multi-vitamins don't provide an optimal dose. You want between 2,000 and 5,000 IU daily.
We now know that our health is tied to having healthy populations of friendly bacteria in our gut. It's such a new and complex subject that there simply isn't sufficient research, but I believe there is enough evidence to warrant hedging your bet by taking a probiotic. I like this one because it has a delayed digestion mechanism to help the bacteria get past the acidic environment of the stomach and into the gut. Of course, putting good bacteria into your gut only matters if you're also feeding them. Hello, veggies.
Over 300 enzymatic reactions require this mineral, and upwards of 80% of Americans are deficient. Veggies are the main source of this mineral. I learned from using a food tracker that it was often a struggle to get enough magnesium from my diet. There are different chemical forms of magnesium as a supplement. Magnesium oxide is the most common form but has poor absorption, so stay away from that one. This is the one I use.
Iodine is critical for our thyroid gland which regulates metabolism and other important hormones. The only good food sources are sea vegetables and fish. Most brands of table salt are fortified with iodine which is sufficient for most people. I use sea salt which is usually not iodized. Therefore, I take a kelp supplement to make sure I'm getting an adequate amount.
I think of turmeric as my "what the hell" supplement. There is no solid proof of its efficacy, but there are many purported benefits with anti-inflammatory topping the list. It's inexpensive, and I don't see any downside. Make sure you get one that contains pepper extract as that improves absorption.
And because I'm a meathead...
I've blogged about creatine before. It's safe and has been proven to help increase strength gains and muscular growth. Creatine monohydrate is the most studied form, and it's also the cheapest.
Zinc is important for testosterone production. Did I mention I'm a meathead? Zinc also improves immunity. As with magnesium, there are several different forms. Zinc picolinate is reported to have better absorption.
BCAA refers to the three branch chain amino acids - leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Because I train in the morning in a fasted state, I take it pre-workout to help prevent muscle breakdown. Dosage is 5 to 10 grams. If you're not a skinny dude (or gal) working out in a fasted state, don't bother. You're likely getting plenty from your diet.
Conspicuously absent from this list is whey protein powder. Like most people, whey was probably the first supplement I ever bought back when I was a newbie. Whey is the part of cow milk that used to get thrown out or fed to the hogs before it became a goldmine for the supplement industry. It would be impossible to consume pure whey without gagging so they have to add a ton of artificial sweetener and flavoring to it. It comes from cows that are pumped to the gills with steroids and antibiotics. And... it's totally unnecessary for most people. If you're eating two servings (palm sized pieces) of meat per day, you're getting plenty of protein.
Now, if you think that's a long list of supplements for someone who just said they are only 5% of the game... you're right. Health and fitness is my passion, so I give myself permission to go all in. If your interest and goals are more moderate just take fish oil and vitamin D. Those two supplements represent the biggest bang for your buck.
One of the ways certain health products get marketed is by claiming that they make your body more alkaline (as opposed to acidic). Here's the deal. Your body maintains a tightly controlled pH level within the range of 7.35 and 7.45... always. If it didn't, you'd be dead. Nothing you ingest is going to make you more alkaline, so any product claiming to do so is being disingenuous.
There is something to keep in mind, however. Most of the food you eat will either be more acidic or more alkaline than your body's pH level. This isn't an immediate problem. Your body has buffering systems that counteract the pH level of the foods we eat to maintain the body's overall level. In order to neutralize acidic foods the body's phosphate buffer system uses calcium from the bones, which can weaken them over time if your diet is overly acidic. The calcium is then excreted through the urinary system which can lead to an increased risk of developing kidney stones.
Meat, dairy, sugar, and grains are acidic foods. Fruits and vegetables are alkaline. Your long-term health is best served by a diet that balances the foods from these two groups.
Our approach to nutrition is typically rooted in the question, "What am I missing?". What is the magical ingredient? This mentality drives the constant search for superfoods. The term is alluring. We all want to be superheroes... so give us the superfoods. I remember back when I got serious about fitness. I'd see the lists - salmon, blueberries, kale - and try to jam as many of them into my diet as possible.
By and large, the issue for most people is not one of deficiency... it is one of excess. After a decade of experience trying every diet under the sun, it's clear to me that there are no superfoods. All foods are super if they are whole and unprocessed. Why? Because a whole food diet is the most sustainable way to achieve energy balance... and energy balance is the most important aspect of nutrition. Simply put, when we eat whole foods we tend not to overeat.
Eating whole foods isn't sexy, and there isn't any way for the corporations to make money on it, so you will continue to get marketed all kinds of crap. Don't buy it. Just buy whole foods and make time to cook. That's the recipe to be a superhero.
Is it possible that the same stuff that made you forget where you parked your car as a youth may actually help reverse mental decline as you age? That's what they found in a recent study performed on mice. Elderly mice given a small dose of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, saw their maze test scores improve dramatically. Groovy! Meanwhile, the young mice test scores plummeted as they sat around eating Doritos and freaking out about government conspiracy theories.
Marijuana contains compounds that mimic our brain's own marijuana-like molecules, referred to as endogenous cannabinoids. Our cannabinoid system is homeostatic which means both too much or too little have negative effects. Since endogenous cannabinoid production declines with age, it makes sense that the older mice received a mental boost from the exogenous source. It also makes sense that the young mice were negatively impacted by the dosage since they already had an optimal amount.
It's hard to extrapolate human guidelines from a mouse study, but retirement may have just gotten a little more interesting.
I just realized I owe a piece on krill oil that I promised from a previous post about fish oil. Here's the deal. Krill are tiny shrimp-like crustacean creatures that whales feed off of. Krill oil contains a lower amount of the omega-3 compounds EPA and DHA than fish oil, however, it has several advantages.
Omega-3 in krill oil is attached to a phospholipid while the omega-3 in fish oil is attached to a triglyceride. Since our cell walls are constructed of phospholipids the omega-3 in krill oil is more easily absorbed and put to use. Meanwhile, the triglyceride in fish oil has to be broken down before the omega-3 becomes available. This happens in the gut, and so a large portion of the omega-3 is eliminated in the intestine.
Another advantage that krill oil has is that it is naturally high in a potent antioxidant called astaxanthin. This makes the oil much more resistant to oxidation and going rancid, a problem inherent with fish oil. Plus, you get the benefit of this powerful antioxidant to fight your own free radicals. Finally, krill are at the bottom of the food chain, so they are much lower in environmental toxins than fish.
Chances are you take a fish oil supplement. Along with vitamin D, it's generally considered a supplement with solid evidence of health benefits. Ever gotten a bottle where one of the capsules had leaked? I have. Rrrrrripe. Unless you have the stomach of a turkey vulture, you won't be able to swallow them... and for good reason. Rancid fish oil is bad for you. Omega-3 fatty acids are delicate and oxidize quickly. Ingesting rancid fish oil unleashes a nasty dose of free radicals on your system for which your body has to use up its precious antioxidants to neutralize.
Here's the thing. Fish oil can go bad at any point from the factory, to sitting on a store shelf, to being in your house waiting for you to take them. Because the oil is inside a capsule, you can't really know. However, you can minimize your risk by taking the following precautions.
That should keep you in the clear. Another option is krill oil, which I'll be discussing in a future post.
A few days ago I attended a meetup for a new wellness group. The description read, "Discuss, educate and share healthy living, practical and sustainable ideas and options for living long, living healthy". Cool. I'm always up for those topics. When I got there the organizer approached me and said, "Meetup.com has a rule that meetups can't be used to sell products, so I don't want you to get the wrong idea...". She and her husband then proceeded to try and sell me all these supplements. Protein powders, meal replacement bars, energy drinks - a bunch of bullshit. No wellness topics were covered that night.
I did my best to be gracious and downshift into chit chat while I planned a quick exit. When I got home I treated myself to a nice, warm shower to wash off the yucky experience. I wondered how many people trying to improve their health fall victim to the promises of supplements. It's a billion dollar industry, so obviously quite a few.
When I was new to fitness I was susceptible to the claims of flashy supplements. Since then I have learned that there is only one path to long term health, and it is paved by a foundation of diet, exercise, sleep, and lifestyle. None of these things can be bottled. Now, if I could get a bottle of actual snake oil... that might be cool stuff!
It's funny. There are so many training modalities nowadays, but back when I first got into exercise the main entry point was bodybuilding. You pretty much looked to see what the bodybuilders were doing and emulated them. Then Crossfit came along and, much like the woman hurling her sledgehammer in that iconic 1984 Apple commercial, smashed the monolithic fitness world into a million fragments.
But one thing I've kept from those bodybuilding days is creatine. It is the most effective performance enhancing supplement other than caffeine. It is well-researched, safe, and legal. Creatine provides the following benefits.
Pretty solid list, huh? The benefits come from creatine's ability to aid in ATP production. ATP is the energy currency used for muscular contractions. As a bonus, it appears to also have neurological benefits that reduce your chances of developing Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Make sure you get it in the form of creatine monohydrate. Research shows that to be the most effective type. It's odorless and tasteless. Take 5 grams daily, preferably following your workout. Done.
There's a funny thing that happens when you start eating healthy that can actually make you deficient in a mineral that is vital for metabolic function. As the organic broccoli, grass-fed steak, and avocados pile up in the grocery cart there's a good chance you'll opt for sea salt or (my favorite) Himalayan pink salt to season those wonderful foods. I'm with ya. Unfortunately, this bypasses the means whereby most of us get a key mineral - iodine. Most brands of table salt are fortified with iodine, but sea salt often is not.
We don't need a lot of iodine, but a certain amount is absolutely crucial for proper thyroid function. The thyroid gland is responsible for hormonal modulation of metabolic rate and protein synthesis (muscle building). Iodine is abundant in seaweed and coastal vegetation, but it is not so prevalent inland. Fortunately for us Himalayan pink salt lovers there is a simple solution. I take a sea kelp supplement. They're cheap, easy to swallow, and contain just a tad more than the recommended daily allowance of iodine. Problem solved.
I used to partake in one of those flavored intra-workout drinks (Xtend), but when I gave artificial sweeteners the boot it had to go. I started getting my BCAA's by capsule and just drinking water during workouts. That worked. A little while later I was experimenting with the ketogenic diet. That diet requires a higher salt intake, so I started adding a couple twists of Trader Joe's Himalayan Pink Salt Crystals to my water bottle.
I'm not on the keto diet anymore, but I kept the Himalayan pink salt practice. It softens the water slightly, and the electrolytes help keep the engine running smoothly during tough workouts. Purportedly there are 84 trace minerals in Himalayan pink salt including sulphate, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Give it a shot, and add it to your arsenal.