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.
My interest in minimalist shoes recently reached a tipping point, so I invested in a pair. Vibram is the most popular brand. They look like actual feet - a little too creepy for my taste. After some research I decided to go with TadeEvo. It's a company in Poland, and they make only one shoe. Now THAT'S focus! I liked their shoe because of the hyper-flexibility that mimics being barefoot.
If you recall, when Vibram first came out about seven years ago all these runners hopped on the bandwagon and promptly came down with foot injuries. So I took it slow - only wearing them on walks for the first couple of weeks. Gradually I started using them during weight training workouts. After about a month I gave them a whirl in high intensity workouts.
I like the shoes a lot. One thing I've noticed is that my knees feel a lot better. The theory is that going barefoot strengthens the kinetic feedback loop which brings about a more natural gait. These shoes have taught me that we are not meant to run on concrete. I can really feel the pounding that my feet take running on hard surfaces, so I do my sprint workouts on a grass field, and it's a lot of fun. Running on grass in these shoes makes me feel like a kid again.
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.
I'm about two weeks into one of my latest experiments... floor sitting. I got the idea from a book about the Blue Zones - four areas in the world that have an unusually high number of centenarians (100+ year olds). One of the people chronicled was a woman in Okinawa, Japan. She had no chairs in her house.
So I removed the legs from my desk and set it on top of stacked books about 12 inches off the floor to make it the right height for sitting cross-legged style. My son came home and asked what had happened. I said, "We got robbed". He asked why they hadn't taken the computer. "They wanted to improve my posture", I replied. He gave me a pained, teenager expression to intimate that he didn't appreciate my nerdy humor.
The first effect was obvious. I did a lot more ass-to-grass squatting. But as often happens when you try something new, there were secondary effects that I never could have guessed. Sitting on the floor, I found myself constantly shifting around and stretching. The current advice for dealing with an 8-hour desk job is to get up and stretch every 30 minutes, but that's hard for most people to put into practice. The other secondary effect is that I spend less time in front of the computer because it simply isn't that comfortable, so it forces me to be more intentional about that activity which translates into less time-wasting.
Have you ever done something or reacted a certain way, and then said, "Why the fuck did I do that?". I'll tell you why - because your brain was designed 70,000 years ago to reward you for actions that increased your chances for survival or reproduction. It goes something like this. Every time you do something your brain asks itself, "Did what this fool just do increase our chances for survival or making children?". If the answer is yes, your brain releases some dopamine (the feel-good drug) as a reward.
This is why we pursue food, sex, and social status as if they were drugs. But the world has changed on us. We're chasing a dopamine high for things that don't necessarily improve our chances of survival. Back when getting enough food was a challenge it was beneficial to be chemically rewarded for eating, but now that it is overly abundant this mechanism leads to over-eating and chronic disease.
In tribal days, social status was important for finding a mate, but now even after finding a mate we're still stuck in the endless loop of trying to impress others on Instabrag and Facebook. The caveman in us is still running the race for survival when in reality we've already crossed the finish line.
Our brain was designed for our survival... not for our happiness. However, we were given a tool - consciousness. We can be aware of our nature and therefore seek to master these things that no longer serve us. Be master of your dopamine.
I don't fly a lot - a couple times a year - but when I do I like to peruse the bookstore at the airport. Traveling tends to put me in a different frame of mind, so it's a good way to throw a changeup into my reading list. A couple weeks ago this habit resulted in picking up a copy of You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero. There was a time when I read self-help books 24/7, but it's been a while, and I felt like I needed a kick in the pants.
With the title and bright yellow cover I have to admit I felt a little self-conscious reading it, but I liked the author's voice. The part I found most interesting was when she discussed the power of our subconscious mind. She put it like this.
"Our conscious mind thinks it's in control, but it isn't. Our subconscious mind doesn't think about anything... but it IS in control".
She goes on to say that our subconscious mind develops its belief system in the first five years of our lives. Usually this belief system is dominated by our parents' fears and insecurities and whatever emotional trauma we experience. Then, for the rest of our lives we're walking around with this 5-year-old part of our brain setting the tone for everything we do and how we react. Scary, right?
The good news is that if we're mindful of this dynamic, we can slowly start to unpack our subconscious belief system. Understanding the emotions that are driving our behavior is the first step in changing it.
Birthday number 48 passed quietly while I was traveling with my daughter on the left coast recently. They say the Pacific Ocean has no memory. That may be true... but I do. It's been a good life. The experiences are what I cherish most. As the California sun bid us a fond farewell that evening, I thought of all the wonderful lessons learned along this bumpy road.
One of my guiding principles is that because our bodies are so amazingly brilliant, we should be more than happy to give them the basic things they need - whole foods, sleep, movement, sunlight, nature, relaxation. In return for this, our bodies engage in miraculous biological processes that keep us not only alive but thriving.
Did you know that we have natural killer (NK) cells patrolling our bodies? They are the first responders to threats like viruses and cancer formation. The rest of our immune system takes several days to ramp up, so NK cells are vital for keeping us healthy.
The lifecycle of an NK cell is really cool. They aren't born knowing how to fight cancer cells. They begin their lives in the bone marrow which serves as their Jedi training academy. Each day they learn how to identify and kill different types of cancer and viruses. Once their training is complete, each NK cell must pass a final test. They must demonstrate that they can tell the difference between a cancer cell and a healthy cell. This is called "licensing". Without a license to kill the NK cell cannot become a Jedi. Once an NK cell is licensed it is released from the bone marrow to serve and protect. How cool is that?
I remember one summer day back in 5th grade. My mother was taking my sister and me to the lake. We stopped at a gas station, and I immediately noticed a girl from school everyone used to pick on. "Ooh, Ugly Becky!", I shouted. My mother turned around and gave me a look like, "What the fuck just came out of your mouth?". So you know what she did? She walked over to Becky's father who worked at the gas station, and asked if Becky would like to spend the day at the lake with us. Becky was totally down with that, so into our car she jumped.
That was my mother - ferocious, kind, and just. I wasn't able to appreciate the lesson she gave me that day. Like a punk, my only thought was that she had ruined my fun. But now her act of kindness reverberates in me with the subtlety of a 1000 sticks of dynamite. We all hold such awesome power to impact each other. And make no mistake, a small act can alter the trajectory of another person's life.
When I lived in Brooklyn I would go out for runs on Saturday afternoons. I really enjoyed these runs along the East River down by the Williamsburg Bridge, but on the way back home I would pass an outdoor beer garden where hipsters would be spilling out onto the sidewalk, steins in hand. The fun, laid-back vibe was palpable. I would think, "Man, that looks like a good time!". But then I would think, "Well, if I was doing that... I couldn't be doing this". It was the beginning of a question I had to answer for myself.
About a year later I had asked a woman out who I knew wasn't into the nightlife scene, so we took a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. She was interesting and had a very active lifestyle that didn't include booze. As the sun fell, I had no game plan other than going to a bar. I realized I had nothing to offer her. That was a hard moment, but it motivated me. There's a saying, "We don't attract what we want. We attract what we are". I knew it was finally time to become the person I wanted to be.
Change happens in an instant... once we're ready. It's building up to being ready that can take time. We often try to numb ourselves from disappointment, but pain is a catalyst for growth, so don't dodge it. Let it hit you square in the face.