The 7 Best Supplements That Actually Make a Difference
Supplements. No other word inspires as much simultaneous confusion and controversy among fitness enthusiasts and biohackers. It seems that every other week, scores of supplements move back and forth through the various lists: “must-have,” “highly dangerous,” “banned for competition,” “completely ineffective.” Furthermore, opinions are highly divided on supplements; while many agree that they are an important part of improved health and fitness, still others argue that it's money quite literally down the drain, and question absorption and bioavailability.
For the last 14 years, I have experimented with literally hundreds of the best supplements, not just for physical fitness and performance, but also for cognitive enhancement, fat loss, better sleep… In all honesty, I've scared more than my fair share of curious onlookers with one look at my bathroom cabinet.
So, after extensive experimentation and research, I present to you the best supplements that I'm currently using and finding most effective. While your results may vary (and you should always speak to a health professional before trying any new supplement), these are the substances most likely to impact your health and performance for the better.
About 14 years ago, when I was playing high school football, there was a ton of speculation about creatine, it's safety, and it's efficacy. It had only burst into the public's attention following the 1992 Olympics, and nobody new how it would play out. Rumors ranged from scary endocrine screw-ups to extra water retention, and everything in between. Over a decade later, Creatine has nothing left to prove. Not only has it been clinically proven to increase muscle mass and performance (by converting into phosphocreatine, which allows the body to rapidly regenerate Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP – your muscles' energy source for rapid bursts of performance). No, it seems that the increased performance ability facilitates greater hypertrophy, which has a ton of additional benefits, not least of which is increased testosterone and insulin-like growth factor-1.
Not only is creatine great for your body – it's also great for your mind. In memory tests, creatine has effectively demonstrated significant improvements in cognitive performance, particularly in vegetarians.
Combine all of these benefits with the fact that creatine is safe, affordable, and completely legal according to almost all athletic regular bodies such as the NCAA, and you have a power-packed performance supplement with almost no downside.
You may have noticed in the link above on increased testosterone a certain mention of something called Beta Alanine. In short, Beta Alanine is the one drug I know if I forgot to take the night before, simply by the amount of soreness and pain in my major muscles. Here's why it's by far one of the best supplements I've ever taken:
Like creatine, β-Alanine (or Beta Alanine) is a naturally occurring acid in the body. Supplementation of your body's natural supply, however, has been shown to increase the concentration of something called carnosine in muscle tissue by up to 80%. Carnosine, in case you're wondering, is responsible for buffering the acidity produced by the breakdown of oxygen in your muscles. The net effect of this nearly doubled muscle carnosine is a significant decrease of fatigue and soreness – allowing you to perform more work with less exhaustion.
Beta Alanine also pairs beautifully with Creatine, leading to overall increased performance, testosterone, and faster recovery times. No other supplement makes me feel as physically superhuman.
If you haven't heard about magnesium supplementation recently, I'm not sure what rock you've been living under. It's been estimated that roughly 70% of Americans fail to meet the 300 (women) to 400 (men) milligram daily requirement. Magnesium is a hugely important part of our bodies, and is required in more than 300 chemical reactions that keep your body functioning properly. This massive number of functions is far too extensive to go into, but let's talk about some of the highlights of what Magnesium supplementation can offer:
Studies have shown that Magnesium is effective in treating many cases of insomnia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), migraines, heart disease, cholesterol imbalance, and even osteoporosis. People with issues in sleep quality or insomnia often see immediate results when implementing magnesium supplementation either orally or via epsom salt baths. Furthermore, because increased activity levels can easily lead to magnesium deficiency through sweat and urinary loss, magnesium supplementation is a necessity for many athletes who wish to maintain peak performance.
Magnesium is best absorbed in the body alongside Vitamin D3, and may be beneficial if consumed with calcium. A nice Cal/Mag/Zinc stack with a little D3 should do the trick.
Of course, becoming superhuman is about much more than physical performance; in fact, mental performance plays an even larger part. For this, we can talk until we're blue in the face about stimulants, nootropics, and other cognitive performance enhancers – both prescription and over-the-counter. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, Yerba Mate is one of the most effective I've ever tried, period. Unlike your boring old coffee, Yerba Mate contains two additional xanthines (a class of acids under which many stimulants fall) beyond just caffeine. Indeed, Mate, as it's called by those in-the-know, stacks a much lower dose of caffeine with it's friends, theobromine and theophylline.
Because each of these psycho-stimulating substances each have different biokinetic profiles, the effect of Mate is like nothing you've ever felt with coffee or even tea. When you mix the long list of benefits of each of these 3 substances (which include vasodilation, muscle relaxation, and improved blood flow) into this one naturally-occurring cocktail called Mate, the result is a calm, relaxed, but intense focus that lasts for hours on end. Forget about the jitters and crashes associated with coffee – which does very little to actually stimulate cognition – and pick up a cup of Yerba Mate instead.
Mate is also substantiated by clinical studies of it's efficacy for cognition, obesity, blood viscosity issues, and more. Just be forewarned; studies linking cancer and Mate have been inconclusive, and suspect that the traditional custom of drinking Mate extra-hot may explain an increase in risk of esophageal cancer. Maybe wait till it cools down a bit, and consume in moderation.
It might sound a bit elementary, but Vitamin C is a tried-and-true powerhouse for immunity and vitality. While studies do show that vitamin C is relatively ineffective for treatment of an ongoing cold, it is effective at reducing the duration of illness and preventing the likelihood of contracting it. More importantly, vitamin C deficiency is proven to cause reduced resistance against certain pathogens.
This means that in situations where our immune system is either compromised (lack of sleep, improper diet) or exposed to greater-than-usual risks (flying, conferences, or exposure to sick kids), supplementation with vitamin C can hugely help our immune system stand the challenge. When I've been traveling through airports and planes, sleep-depriving myself to combat jet lag, eating nutrient-diminished airline food and sharing breathing room with hundreds of other weary travelers for a full day, I use 1000mg of vitamin C the day before, the day of, and the day after travel to ensure that I won't arrive to my destination with a nasty cold. There's nothing superhuman about being a mucus-mongering heap of misery.
Yes, it's another pretty “obvious” one, but in my travels outside of the United States, I've been absolutely blown away by the lack of understanding around protein and protein supplementation. At least three or four times per day during my travels in India, a friendly local would walk up to me and ask me how I managed to maintain what they felt was a very muscular physique. My first question in a predominantly vegetarian country: how much protein are you eating?
Indeed, protein is the basic building block of muscle, and inadequate protein robs your body of the essential nutrient it needs to repair and rebuild after rigorous exercise. The general rule I abide by is to consume a minimum of 1 gram of protein per pound (or 2 grams per kilogram) of body weight. This may seem like a tremendous amount of protein to consume – particularly if you are planning to do it solely through meats and whole food sources. Oh, and don't give me the B.S. argument about “complete” proteins by combining, say, rice and beans, because it's hogwash and I'm not buying it.
For those with budgetary, environmental, or ethical concerns about consuming 100-200g of animal protein a day, there is protein supplementation. While whey protein is the most popular, bioavailable, and affordable form of protein, there are many varieties to choose from if you wish to avoid animal products or dairy, including hemp, pea, and egg protein. All of them are preferable to a protein deficiency.
It may not seem like a supplement, and yet it is the most important of them all. While magnesium boasts an impressive 300 dependent chemical reactions in the body, water is complicit in just about all of them. I'm not going to bore you with statistics you've heard 100 times, such as we're 80% water, and that you need to drink 8 glasses a day (not true). The fact of the matter is, most people need about 3 liters of water a day to function optimally. Inadequate hydration has a whole host of nasty effects, from lousy sleep to blotchy skin, exhaustion, overeating, obesity, kidney failure, digestion issues… why go on? You get the picture. More importantly, none of the supplements above are worth a damn if you're hypo-hydrated.
Fortunately for you, water is easily available, practically free in most places (avoid the bottled crap where possible), and extremely easy to self-dose. Your body will tell you if you're adequately, inadequately, or hyper-hydrated every time you visit the restroom. As with all supplements, pay attention to what your body is telling you, and give it what it needs.
So, there you have it. In my experience, these 7 supplements alone are enough to completely transform how you feel in the office, the gym – heck, maybe even in the bedroom. What other supplements are making a difference in your daily life? Have you experimented with the ones above? Leave a comment and let us know.