Supplements – Do You Really Need Them?

When I first started this whole health journey, my impression of supplements was that they were unnecessary and (in a sense) a form of cheating.

Knowing what I know now, I’m not really sure why I was so quick to form an opinion. Some supplements are just plain mandatory when it comes to the lifestyle of 21st century western society.

There are, however, those supplements that are just there for an increase in performance. I’ll outline those a little later.

The one glaring problem with the supplement industry is that it’s actually unregulated by the FDA. In the pharmaceutical industry, companies have to apply to have their new product approved to be released into the market. Unfortunately, supplements aren’t verified for the accuracy of the amounts they state on the label, they aren’t tested for purity and they aren’t deemed as safe to consume.

Since supplement companies have the luxury of basically saying whatever they want about their product, they make ridiculous claims. Supplements are not a magic solution.

To add to the madness, these companies go out of their way to fund biased studies that show their products as superior. It makes for information overload and confusion.

Muscle Building Supplements

Creatine

Creatine is one of those supplements you see in every pre-workout and post-workout drink. It’s probably one of the most heavily studied sports supplement on the market. So far, the relevant research doesn’t show creatine as anything that’s dangerous to a persons health. [1]


NERD BREAK (Skip this if you’re not into the scientific stuff):

The science of creatine is actually quite cool. Creatine is a non-essential amino acid. It’s purpose is to increase the cellular availability of ATP (the human body’s energy currency).

If you’ve taken high school biology, you might know that ATP transforms into ADP and back. ADP stands for adenosine DIphosphate. This molecule accepts a phosphate group from creatine phosphate (a creatine molecule that has attached to a phosphate group within the muscle cell) in order to be turned into ATP which stands for adenosine TRIphosphate.

When ATP is available, a cell can utilize it by breaking it apart for energy.

ATP ⇒ ADP + Phosphate + Energy

From there, the cycle repeats.


A couple of the big improvements that you would see from creatine are: increased explosiveness in heavy lifting and an increase in overall muscle size.

The increase in explosiveness is due to the mechanism I talked about in the “NERD BREAK” above. When creatine is available to bond with phosphate, there are more creatine phosphate molecules ready to donate that phosphate to ADP to make ATP. More ATP = More energy.

The studies showing an increase in performance are plentiful. Some even finding an average strength improvement of 8%. [2]

As for the increased muscle size, the increase in creatine phosphate makes your muscles absorb more water. [3] Some even believe that this increase in water retention can help a person to better achieve muscle micro-tears during a training session which allow muscles to grow.

If you’re looking for a nice boost in performance and appearance, give creatine HCl a try. This form of creatine is absorbed a lot better than others such as creatine monohydrate.

Protein

Protein is one of those essentials when it comes to your overall diet. Assuming you have enough protein in your diet already, you might not need to add a protein supplement.

Protein is what you muscle is made out of. That’s why your best form of dietary protein comes from the muscles of other animals (like steak or chicken breast).

Eating protein stimulates your muscles to grow. That’s why getting the timing right can be key. Most people take in a good protein shake after they workout.

Protein powder supplements come in many forms such as: egg white, whey isolate, whey concentrate, casein, beef protein and vegan sources like pea or brown rice protein. You’ll also see a lot of supplements that combine more than 1 of these protein sources.

If you want to grow but you’re struggling, first make sure that your training is intense enough. If that checks out, try adding more protein (and more calories) to your diet. If there aren’t any more meals to add protein to, you should consider a protein supplement.

My personal favorite type of protein is whey isolate. It digests really quickly and makes for a great post-workout drink.

BCAA’s

BCAA stands for Branched Chain Amino Acid. This family of amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which make up your muscle. The 3 BCAA’s are: leucine, iso-leucine and valine.

Some have suggested that taking BCAA’s helps to stimulate muscle repair and growth. That’s why you occasionally see people drinking a colorful drink during their workout.

The jury is still out on BCAA’s. Some reasearch shows that it actually helps to stimulate growth while other research shows the opposite. [4,5]


NERD BREAK:

One BCAA has been studied pretty extensively over the past few years. That amino acid is Leucine. Leucine has been shown to trigger a growth pathway known as mTOR.

mTOR stands for mechanistic target of rapamycin. Rapamycin is a compound that has been show to inhibit mTOR, leading to increased longevity. This mTOR pathway that it targets is what initiates a growth sequence in the target cells. In muscle, leucine has been shown to initiate this growth. [6]

mTOR is not all good. It can mean that the wrong cells are told to continue growing. That’s why stopping this pathway (ie. rapamycin, as it’s named after) leads to longevity. Obviously, you need some growth so cycling between growth and longevity practices is the key here.


The best way to take leucine is in powdered form with water, in or around your workout. 2-4 g of powdered L-Leucine should do the trick. The other BCAA’s don’t seem to be as important as the entire spectrum of essential amino acids (with the exception of leucine). A good quality whey protein supplement seems like a much better idea to go alongside leucine.

Beta-alanine

Beta-alanine is another one of those supplements that you find in a typical pre-workout powder mix. Just like creatine, the use of beta-alanine is vast across the bodybuilding community.

Beta-alanine is a supplement that helps to boost muscle endurance. People report being able to complete a few more reps than usual within their sets after supplementation with beta-alanine.


NERD BREAK:
Beta-alanine supplementation is really cool. The burning feeling that you get in your muscles is usually attributed to the buildup of lactic acid. However, this isn’t completely true.

The krebs cycle, which is the primary ATP generating cycle within the mitochondria, requires pyruvate to create ATP. This pyruvate arrives at the mitochondria as a by-product of the phosphate cycle which works to pump out ATP very quickly during high intensity anaerobic exercise.

So much pyruvate starts pooling up waiting to be used by the krebs cycle, but the krebs cycle can’t work fast enough to keep up. This creates the need for pyruvate to be turned into lactate (or lactic acid) and sent to the liver for later utilization. The transformation into lactate also provides hydrogen ions as a by-product.

The accumulation of H+ causes a drop in pH, which is where the burning sensation comes from. Supplementation with beta-alanine has been shown to increase the H+ buffer within a muscle. [7]


If you find it hard to push past that mental block you experience when you’re lifting weights, beta-alanine may help. It has so many other benefits as well. Short term, it doesn’t seem to carry any risks.

Fat-loss Supplements

Caffeine

Caffeine is probably the most common supplement out there. The media tends to paint a bad picture of caffeine. This may be surprising to you, but caffeine actually has many benefits.

Aside from just providing you with mental clarity and energy, it actually assists with fat-loss in a couple ways.

The first is by increasing your metabolic rate, improving your workout intensity and by mobilizing the fat within your fat cells. [8]

You’ll typically find it in all pre-workout powder mixes. However, you should be careful with the dosages. Some people are hyper-sensitive to caffeine, others have a normal sensitivity and then there are those that are unaffected by caffeine.

Try out different dosages and different timings to find out what works best for you. You’ll know that you’ve had too much if you begin to feel restless with a high heart rate or if you can’t sleep at your regular bed-time.

CLA

CLA (or Conjugated Linoleic Acid) is an omega-6 fatty acid that some suggest for increased fat-loss. However, the truth is still not clear. While some research suggests a positive effect, others don’t show a significant change.

Being an omega-6 fatty acid means that CLA can be inflammatory. In my opinion CLA is not a necessary addition. The evidence is not strong enough to justify its addition in supplement form.

Some nutrition scientists blame the obesity epidemic on the imbalance of dietary omega-6 to omega-3. The ratio between these two polunsaturated fatty acids should be around 2:1 or 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3. The standard American diet is approximated near 10-40:1!

That’s because the standard western diet is full of sources of omega-6, including CLA. Whether it’s red meats, eggs or milk. Adding more of it in the form of supplementary CLA is unnecessary.

Green Tea

Green tea contains compounds called catechins, which are polyphenols and have a wide range of benefits. Polyphenols are a class of compounds that help our bodies detoxify. They are capable of this because of their antioxidant properties. EGCG or Epigallocatechin gallate is one of those catechins. EGCG has been shown to be helpful with fat-loss.

Green tea has specifically been shown to increase the amount of fat burning that happens at rest (ie. increases the metabolism). The exact reason behind how this works is still unknown. However, in both animal and human experiments EGCG has been shown to increase fat burning, especially when taken with caffeine. [9]

There are some studies that don’t really show a big difference, but in my opinion that could have to do with absorption, supplementation quality and individuality. It’s important to make sure that the supplements you choose to buy are of the best quality and that you test out different doses to find out what works for you.

Black Pepper

This one is cool. You wouldn’t normally think of black pepper as anything special but it has some potent affects on fat-loss. Black pepper actually influences the way that your genes are expressed! It changes your genes to code for a reduced production of fat cells.

It’s also thermogenic (increases body temperature) which helps to increase blood-flow and therefore metabolism. Within black pepper is a compound known as piperine which is thought to be the secret behind all of black peppers’ magic.

Piperine supplements are very common. Taken for many purposes including blood flow. Black pepper extract, on the other hand, can be found in workout supplements. However, just using black pepper more on food is probably the best low-cost way to garner some of the benefits.

General Well-being

Omega-3 (Fish Oil)

Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. Omega-3’s are generally anti-inflammatory fats, meaning they reduce inflammation. 21st century life has us more inflamed than we should be. This comes from a variety of things like diet, lack of exercise, shallow breathing, etc.

Omega-3 helps to combat the inflammatory effects of omega-6 fatty acids. Above, in the CLA section, I mentioned how the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio is far too high in the standard American diet. That makes it all the more important to supplement with a good quality Omega-3 (fish oil) supplement.


NERD BREAK:
Omega-3 in the form of fish oil is composed of two fatty acids known as EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). DHA is a major building block of the brain. People that supplement with DHA, do so to improve memory, reduce Alzheimer risk and improve mood.

One other notable Omega-3 found in aquatic plants, nuts and seeds is ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid).  ALA relies on conversion into EPA or DHA but everyone has a varying capability to convert ALA. Some people don’t possess the genetic makeup or the correct enzymes to make this conversion occur.


Vitamin D

Most people are deficient in vitamin D. Why? We lack sun exposure, our diet doesn’t include enough healthy fat and our diet lacks vitamin D. Some sources suggest that around 70% of the US poppulation does not meet the EAR (estimated average intake). [10] The EAR tells you how high the intake should be for 50% of the population to generate a blood level of a predetermined healthy level.

Vitamin D deficiency has huge consequences. Things like low energy, weak immunity, reduced brain capability, faster aging and reduced athletic performance. Vitamin D is considered to be more of a hormone than a vitamin. It’s involved in the production of so many important hormones that you require to live a happy and healthy life.

Vitamin D is inexpensive and gives the quickest immediate impact on an individuals day-to-day routine. Assessing how much you need is requires that you look to your ancestral roots (did your family originate in a place with more sun exposure than where you live now), how much sun exposure do you get now and just generally how you feel.

Vitamin C

Antioxidants. You hear about them but do you really know what they are? Oxidants result from the dangers we live around like pollution, toxic foods, and other natural toxin exposures. Oxidative stress represents the level of oxidants present in your body. Your body already has a natural ability to handle certain amounts of oxidation.

High oxidative stress however, is what contributes to cancer and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer. Antioxidants come in and eliminate oxidants to help your body handle the oxidative load that it’s experiencing.

Vitamin C is known to improve immunity among so many other things. A discovery made by Linus Pauling which has been generally neglected by the medical community. With the current 21st century lifestyle that our society is living, vitamin C doesn’t hurt. In fact, it may actually provide an advantage.

Magnesium

Magnesium is extremely important for you as well. The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of people are deficient in magnesium (according to RDA). [11] That’s scary to think about considering what some of the symptoms of magnesium deficiency can be. Those symptoms include: asthma, depression, diabetes, troubles falling asleep, cramps, headaches and anxiety.

Magnesium is relatively cheap and comes in many forms such as magnesium citrate, magnesium malate, magnesium glycinate, magnesium oxide, magnesium L-threonate, etc. Variations of magnesium glycinate are the best form of magnesium for absorption whereas magnesium L-threonate is the best form that can pass into the brain.

What should you do?

If you read this and you’re not sure where to take it, here’s my recommendation:

  • Take all of the supplements under the “General Well-Being” section.
  • If you’re not paying attention to the amount of protein you’re eating (or if you only eat vegetarian proteins), consider a protein supplement.
  • If you’re interested in improving your training performance, take beta-alanine and creatine.
  • Feel free to take caffeine up to the point that you hit your maximum tolerance.
  • Add more black pepper and green tea to your diet. If you’ve tried everything dietary to lose fat and just need a small boost, consider taking black pepper and green tea extract in supplement form. They aren’t dangerous, below the point which your body can tolerate them from a digestive perspective.

References

[1] NCBI. “Creatine supplementation with specific view to exercise/sports performance: an update”. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3407788/

[2] NCBI. “Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance”. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14636102

[3] NCBI. “Creatine Supplementation Increases Total Body Water Without Altering Fluid Distribution”. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC155510/

[4] frontiers in Physiology. “Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans”. [Online]. Available: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2017.00390/full

[5] BMC. “Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?”. [Online] Available: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9

[6] NCBI. “The actions of exogenous leucine on mTOR signalling and amino acid transporters in human myotubes”. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3141572/

[7] NCBI. “Effects of Beta-Alanine on Muscle Carnosine and Exercise Performance:A Review of the Current Literature”. [Online]. Available:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257613/

[8] NCBI. “Caffeine: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of its thermogenic, metabolic, and cardiovascular effects in healthy volunteers”. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2333832

[9] NCBI. “The Effect of Green Tea Extract on Fat Oxidation at Rest and during Exercise: Evidence of Efficacy and Proposed Mechanisms”. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3649093/

[10] Vitamin D Council. “Are we currently amid a vitamin D deficiency pandemic?”. [Online]. Available: https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/are-we-currently-amid-a-vitamin-d-deficiency-pandemic/

[11] World Health Organization. “Calcium and Magnesium in Drinking-water”. [Online]. Available: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/43836/1/9789241563550_eng.pdf?ua=1

 

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