What Supplements Should You Be Taking?
This is a very loaded question. I first want to poke a hole at the premise of that question by asking, should you be taking supplements at all? Maybe. But, maybe not.
Remember, supplements are supplemental. If you do not already have a solid foundation of healthy diet, lots of diverse movement, regular and deliberate exercise, as well as proper recovery, supplementation is not going to be your savior. Those pillars of health are what comprise the majority of your well being.
Every time someone comes to me and claims that the only way that they're going to get their desired results is through use of supplements I push back pretty firmly. I ask them, "how effective is your training regimen?", "how clean is your diet and how aligned is it with your goals?", "are you sleeping well?", "are you stressed?", "how do you know?". If you can't prove to me that you've already accounted for those factors to the best of your ability it might not be time to talk about supplementation. If supplementation will only make a marginal improvement on your health and performance, why would we focus on that when there is likely a lot of progress to be made from focusing on your lifestyle? This is where you truly stand to revolutionize your health. Start there!
But for the sake of this post, let's assume that you already have your healthy lifestyle in order. You move your body often, you get plenty of time outdoors, you eat healthy, natural foods, and you sleep well while avoiding too much stress. Okay, now we can talk about how supplementation might improve your health one step further.
First off, I want to steer people away from thinking that supplementation is a panacea of health. Certain supplements will work great for some and do nothing for others. For some, supplementation might be completely unnecessary and for some supplementation might be the only thing in that person's control to improve their health. At the same time there is an endless list of supplements available and individualization is key. For those reasons I did not want to provide an exhaustive list of all supplements and their various purported benefits (that would probably take an entire life-time anyhow).
However, there are a few supplements that I regularly suggest to clients. These are supplements I recommend to *most* people *most* of the time as a strength and conditioning professional, a nutrition coach, and someone who has been in the health and wellness industry for a while now. There are many more supplements I may recommend for specific cases with people that I work with. However, this is a general list of supplements I think most of us can benefit from.
MultiVitamin and Multimineral
Micronutrients serve as co-factors and co-enzymes for many metabolic and physiological processes. Many North Americans are deficient in several micronutritients. Due to factors of factory farming, soil mineral depletion and poor habit choices, many of us are not getting adequate vitamins and minerals. A good multivitamin can mitigate some of those issues by providing an added supply of those micronutrients to your diet. They are no substitute for micronutrients supplied by food but can be beneficial when diet is lacking.
Healthy food alternative: Varied diet of nutrient rich foods.
Fish oil is widely studied and understood to be very beneficial to most who use it. It has been positively linked with everything from improved joint fucntion, lower body fat percentage, increased muscle mass, better blood lipid profile, and even improved cognition. One of the reasons it is so beneficial is that it increases the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids in our diet and improves the Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio. When buying fish oil you will want to buy a brand where it is comprised of at least 60% of EPA and DHA. A simple calculation would be if you're taking 1000 mg of fish oil, at least 600 mg of that should be EPA and DHA
Healthy food alternative: Fatty fish such as salmon (wild-caught preferred), anchovy, and sardine.
Vitamin D is one of the most important micronutrients our body needs. In fact, Vitamin D is actually a group of prohormones, a precursor to a hormone that is necessary for regular endocrine function. Vitamin D is usually synthesized in the body with enough direct, natural sunlight. But most of us simply aren't getting that sunlight on a regular basis and are vitamin D deficient. This is when vitamin D supplementation may be beneficial. If you can, however, get 15-20 minutes of direct sunlight from the hours of 10am-3pm instead. That is usually all we need to produce adequate Vitamin D.
Natural alternative: Regular, direct sunlight. 15-20 minutes of direct sun exposure from the hours of 10am-3pm.
Vitamin D rich foods: egg yolk, fatty fish such as salmon (wild-caught preferred), sardines, and mackerel.
Magnesium plays a key role in more than 350 enzymatic reactions in the body. It is an incredibly important mineral to our health. However, more than half of Americans are deficient in magnesium. Our magnesium intake is diminished by things like soil depletion, prescription drug use, and even food preparation. But we need magnesium. It helps in the transmission of nerve impulses, muscle activity, heart function, and much more. It is also helps the body relax by calming the central nervous system and allowing muscles to relax. In an ideal world we would be able to get all the necessary magnesium from food but most of unfortunately will not. This is where a good magnesium supplement can be useful.
Magnesium Rich Foods: whole grains, almonds, hazel nuts, peanuts, green leafy vegetables, soy beans, avocados, bananas, apricot, apples, cashews, lima beans, molasses, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, salmon, halibut, navy beans, and black beans.
Probiotics & Prebiotics
Our understanding of the gut has changed dramatically in the past few decades. We now understand that there exists its own ecosystem inside our stomach. Within that ecosystem are about 100 trillion bacteria, both good and bad, that play a major role in how we digest and absorb food and nutrients. We also know how tightly linked our gut health is to our mood. The stomach has more than 100 million neurons and has recently been dubbed "the second brain". When our gut ecosystems are full of flourishing "good bacteria" we absorb food better and our second brain is healthier. Probiotics help to provide more of the good bacteria and prebiotics supply food to support that bacteria. The use of probiotics and prebiotics may be a great supplement to your diet, especially if you have gut-related health issues. However, I would not suggest chronic use. Another way to improve the health of your gut bacteria is to eat raw and fermented foods.
Healthy food alternatives: Raw and fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and Kombucha.
Adequate protein is necessary for optimal health. Protein is the major constituent of most of the cells in our body. Higher protein diets have also been linked to greater muscle mass and lower body fat percentage. And having a positive protein balance will make it so that you can recover from your workouts faster and perform better. But many of us are not getting enough quality protein during our day. This is where a good protein powder can be beneficial. I like to steer people towards a good plant based protein, such as pea or hemp protein, or to a high quality whey protein supplement.
Healthy food alternatives: lean red meat (grass-fed preferred), eggs, poultry, fish, dairy products, nuts, seeds, beans, and other legumes.
Non-essential Workout Supplements
The following are a list of workout supplements that are supported by research and I am willing to recommend to my coaching clients.
Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid that serves to buffer hydrogen ions and acidity during high lactate activity (excess hydrogen ions give you the "burning" sensation in your muscles during exercise). By supplementing with Beta-Alanine before your workout you may be able to handle greater volume and intensity during your training. For instance, if you are doing max effort squats and using a load where you might typically be able to reach 10 reps on your 3rd set, with beta-alanine you might be able to get to 12 reps. Beta-alanine is also known for its "flushing" effect, in which you feel a tingling sensation in your body.
Creatine is one of the most well-researched supplements in sport and performance. It's association with increased mass and strength is very strong. With that, people who are wishing to put on a lot of mass may benefit from creatine supplementation. Creatine supplementation will also help with workout performance during maximal strength and power activities. Creatine supplementation may cause some to feel bloated as it is also associated with greater intracellular water uptake.
BCAAs or EAAs
Especially for those who are looking to lose body fat but want to maintain muscle mass, supplementation with BCAAs, branch chain amino acids, or EAAs, essential amino acids, (essential amino acids include BCAAs), is very beneficial. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and protein is what makes up our muscle cells. What makes these amino acids "essential", is that they are not readily produced in our body. We need to get them through our nutrition. Supplementing with BCAAs or EAAs is valuable to those who are trying to lose weight and maintain muscle because they still have the amino acids that are most necessary to preserve muscle while in a caloric deficit.
Caffeine has a wonderful training effect. It can improve central nervous system performance giving us more energy and focus during our workouts. Our reactivity as well as power output increases thanks to this increased CNS activity. Caffeine has even been associated with a higher pain tolerance, allowing people to push harder during difficult training. In fact, the primary active ingredient in most pre-workout supplements with names such as C4 Ripped or NoXplode is simply a ton of caffeine. So save your self the expensive pre-workout supplements and brew yourself a strong cup of coffee instead!
Okay, so you're ready to supplement your diet.
Once we do get into the conversation of supplements we first have to acknowledge some unfortunate truths. One of those truths is that supplements are very expensive. Ask yourself, and then answer honestly, if it is truly worth it to you to spend some of your monthly budget on supplementation. If you're buying high quality, effective supplements, then my simple list of every day supplements will run you at least an extra $100 per month.
Another sad fact is that the supplement industry is not currently regulated by the FDA. That's right, this 36 billion dollar industry is not regulated by any governing body that verifies for content and quality. What this means is that supplement sellers don't have to be forthcoming with what is in their products. So essentially, that "nutritional label" on the side of your favorite pre-workout supplement might accurately tell you what is inside the supplement you're taking or it might not. That's a problem. This shows us how difficult it can be to find good supplements that actually do what they claim to do.
For this reason I would suggest finding your supplements from a reputable third-party testing company. My favorite third-party Testing Company is LabDoor.com. They will test for label accuracy, product purity, nutritional value, ingredient safety, and product efficacy. This company launched in 2013 and has a commitment to consumers as an unbiased and honest assessment of the most popular supplements on the market. If you think you are ready to start supplementing your diet I would highly suggest using Labdoor.com to find the highest quality products.
One final note...
If you are going to supplement your diet, be honest with yourself as to whether or not this is the most important aspect of your health to focus on. If you are not moving regularly and in diverse ways, exercising purposefully, eating a healthy and balanced diet, as well as getting quality sleep then you should start there. Supplementation can be very beneficial but not nearly as beneficial as focusing on these primary pillars of health. It may be harder for us change our habits around diet and exercise but it will be far more fruitful in the end.