Dec 14, 2019
I am often asked what supplements I take, why I take them and if we really need supplements anyway. After all, if you, like me, follow a healthy lifestyle, I'll wager you probably eat plenty of plants, prioritize sleep, hydrate with filtered water (or, dare I say at the risk of revealing my tinfoil hat, structured water) and expose yourself to the sun as much as possible.
So why even consider supplementation?
Let's begin with this: our modern, post-industrial, polluted, toxin-laden lifestyle demands more nutrients than food can provide.
That’s right. The chronic stressors of modern life—ranging from heavy metal and synthetic chemical exposure to sensory overload—have been proven to increase your body’s need for vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to shuttle toxins through detox pathways and prevent the formation of DNA-damaging free radical. This means that even if you are eating clean, relatively nutrient-dense food, you are likely not getting the full array of nutrients from food that prior generations enjoyed. There are five factors that contribute to poor nutrient availability in most modern food.
Due to modern farming techniques and fertilizers, most soil is depleted of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants found in conventionally grown crops (4). You may think that eating organic is the ultimate solution. While some research suggests that organically grown food contains more nutrients than non-organic food, other research has concluded that there is no significant difference in nutritional content between the two (5, 6).
In addition, for most of human history (and prehistory), our ancestors ate now-nearly-extinct, dense-cell-rich carbohydrates in the form of foods like wild tubers, which provided essential prebiotics so that probiotic bacteria could flourish (in contrast to the refined acellular grains and white rice that comprise modern carbohydrates) (7).In addition, the modern high intake of refined carbohydrates and processed foods creates significant blood sugar swings and glycemic variability that our ancestors did not encounter to as great an extent.
A glance at a coffee shop display case or hotel breakfast bar that features bagels, muffins and sugary cereals explains why many people need a snack a couple hours after breakfast to make it through the inevitable mid-morning blood sugar crash. Blood sugar imbalances lead to chronic inflammation and may be responsible for up to 80% of modern diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease (8). This is a rollercoaster you definitely want to hop off.
Similarly, the meat, eggs and dairy products commonly found in grocery stores deliver fewer anti-inflammatory nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, than those from wild or pastured animals (9). Most Western diet munchers also consume an imbalanced ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, further exacerbating chronic inflammation (10, 11).
Your ability to absorb nutrients from food decreases as you age (19). While growing children should absolutely be taking a multivitamin to support healthy tissue and bone formation, supplementation becomes equally important for older generations.
Many medications used to treat age-related diseases, such as acid reflux and hypertension, also interfere with proper nutrient absorption, further increasing the need to take supplements (16, 17). Then there are precious fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D. While the recommendations for sufficient vitamin D levels are controversial, it is safe to say that many Americans, especially aging Americans who spend more and more time indoors, do not get enough vitamin D (18).
Even if we do our best to get sun exposure - whether it’s a morning walk or going outside for lunch - it is rare to get as much sunlight and vitamin D as our outdoor-dwelling ancestors did. Poor Food Handling Practices Modern harvesting, shipping, processing and storage techniques degrade the nutrient content of food (12). Plants grown with modern fertilizer can contain only 25% of the micronutrients of plants grown using more traditional farming methods, and nutrient content declines as they are shipped and sit on store shelves.
It makes sense that a fresh-picked apple is more nutritious than the apples you buy at the supermarket in winter, which were likely treated with 1-methylcyclopropene and could be up to 10 months old (according to an FDA spokesperson) (13, 14). And the preservatives used to maintain freshness could impede the bioavailability of the food’s nutrients and even increase your body’s need for more nutrients to process these synthetic additives (15).
Pesticides, Herbicides & Pollutants Pesticides, herbicides and chemicals found in the modern food supply are combined with low-quality water, environmental contaminants from elements like degraded plastic and airborne pollutants like carbon monoxide, lead and mercury. These synergistic factors vastly increase your need for extra vitamins, minerals and nutrients to combat the formation of free radicals and the attack on your metabolism and immune system.
Are you an athlete or frequent exerciser? The amount of extra oxygen and energy used by active individuals requires far more than the nutritional RDA of the average population. Indeed, consuming only the stated RDA can actually limit your athletic performance. So if you engage in Crossfit WODs, Ironman triathlons, obstacle races or heavy weight-lifting, your nutritional requirements mean you need to take supplements. In addition to these five factors, there are scientifically demonstrated longevity benefits of caloric restriction (a concept you will discover more about in Chapter 25).
Given these benefits, it seems silly to argue that you could ignore calories and simply eat more food to obtain nutrients. This is another crucial area where supplements come in - they are a helpful boost for those of us wanting to consume enough nutrients to function well but also wanting to live longer using strategies such as intermittent fasting, alternate-day fasting and caloric restriction.
The assumption that previous generations didn’t take supplements is also not true. Ancient supplements include root, stem and leaf teas, medicinal powders ground by mortar and pestle and highly concentrated oil extracts (20, 21, 22). Just because these dietary supplements didn’t look like capsules and ridiculously-oversized tubs of powders doesn’t mean they weren’t supplements.
In addition, our ancestors certainly consumed dirt, which we now know contains a wide range of beneficial probiotics (23, 24). Perhaps even more compelling is the fact that animals, ranging from insects to chimps, self-medicate and supplement by consuming specific compounds (25). For example, when some caterpillars get infected by parasitic flies, they’ll eat poisonous plants to kill the invasive larvae.
Ants fight off microbes and bacteria by adding spruce resin to their nests. Several animal species consume mud to counteract stomach upset, and animals of all kinds use plant medicine as their own rough approximation of “supplements”. Ultimately, supplementation with vitamins, minerals and even nootropics and psychedelics is a natural, time-honored way to enhance the body and brain. In our modern era, while many would argue that your brain should work fine on its own, operating with flawless precision in the presence of clean food, pure water, sunshine and fresh air, I beg to differ and have benefited highly from a bit of ancestral wisdom combined with better living through science.
So that's it! I trust this guide gave you ideas on how to enhance your health, performance, and recovery without needing to pop a dizzying array of pills.
I get lots of inquiries about other supplements like greens powders, l-carnitine, high-dose Vitamin B, beta-alanine, sleep supplements and so on. I highly recommend specifically tailoring your supplement protocol to meet your specific goals, and also to use the comments section below to ask me your other specific questions.
Ideally, you should choose supplements that address your own genetic results or blood biomarkers, and to learn more about personalizing nutrition and supplements to your genetics, listen to my recent podcast with Dr. Ben Lynch, author of "Dirty Genes", or read my article about customizing your diet to you.
So what do you think? Which supplements have you found to be personally useful? Do you still think supplements are a waste of time and money? Do you have questions about other supplements folks have recommended to you? Leave your questions, comments, and feedback in the comments section below!
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