Today’s topic of discussion is one that gets a lot of traction in the fitness space.
Maybe because of the outlandish claims made by supplement companies or maybe because people are constantly looking for the “magic pill” that’s going to guarantee their results.
Regardless, there are actually only a few supplements (likely fewer than you may think) that have “proven” benefits.
A common trend we tend to see in the space is people will automatically jump to adding a multitude of supplements to their routine without addressing their overall nutrition, exercise, and wellness routine first. Which can be a very expensive way to mask a bunch of symptoms that could be mitigated by focusing on nutrition, macro and micronutrient intake, sleep quality and quantity, managing stress, etc.
If you’ve been following us for a while you know our approach when it comes to what could be considered most important and least important as it relates to factors that generate results. Supplements are at the top of the hierarchy of nutrition and the LEAST important factor with factors such as dietary adherence, calorie intake, macro and micronutrient intake, etc. coming before supplements and being the foundational pieces of the puzzle when seeking specific results.
It’s even in the name! Supplements are intended to supplement an already balanced diet and wellness routine. If you don’t have everything below supplements on the hierarchy of nutrition in check first, you likely won’t see many benefits from taking supplements.
Interestingly enough, the supplement industry isn’t even regulated by the FDA. Meaning, the FDA isn’t responsible for taking action against any supplements that are misbranded or companies that promote certain health benefits/results that the supplement likely won’t generate. It’s not until people start to have “bad” outcomes while taking certain supplements that the FDA will step in.
That said, we highly encourage our clients and you to do your due diligence and research not only the reputability of the supplement you’re taking but also the brand. Labdoor.com is a great resource for this and includes information like if supplements/the brand is third-party tested, safe sport approved, etc.
Additionally, we recommend consulting your primary care physician prior to purchasing and taking any supplements you read about on the internet.
However, there are some highly researched supplements out there whose benefits are backed by a substantial amount of evidence. For those of you that are curious, we’ve laid out 4 of our favorites below that may be worth your while if you’re already eating enough calories, micronutrients, and enough macronutrients in specific quantities.
Lastly, before we dive in, remember, food will be a superior source of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients vs. supplementation.
Electrolytes are minerals (think: sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chloride) that our bodies use to transport nutrients into or outside of our cells. In fact, electrolytes are responsible for shuttling water circulating in your bloodstream into your cells. They are either positively charged or negatively charged and can be found in our blood, tissues, and urine.
Sodium oftentimes gets a bad rap, but sodium supplementation is actually very beneficial for athletes working out in hot and humid environments and/or losing fluid and salt via sweat. The majority of the research we have on sodium intake is based on patients with cardiovascular disease and hypertension. However, many of these studies have shown little to no improvements in hypertension or cardiovascular disease even with moderating sodium intake.
That said, generally speaking, what's more important than limiting your sodium intake is being mindful of where you're getting your sodium from. Meaning that most hyper-palatable foods come with high salt content to help prolong shelf-life. Therefore, reducing the amount of sodium you're getting from hyper-palatable foods and/or increasing your sodium intake by salting your food, through supplementation, and eating lots of fruits and veggies is encouraged over just simply limiting sodium intake altogether.
There are a plethora of reasons why you might consider electrolyte supplementation. For example, if you’re deficient in electrolytes, you may be guzzling water down all day, however, you could end up peeing a lot of water straight out since it has nowhere else to go (aka why electrolytes are important)! Some other signs of electrolyte deficiencies include brain fog, dizziness, feeling under recovered or experiencing prolonged soreness, you're not sweating or peeing despite drinking water, you're SUPER thirsty even though you're drinking plenty of water, or you're excessively peeing, but are still very thirsty.
You may be asking, how much sodium/electrolytes should you be consuming per day? Your sodium intake and how much sodium you need is going to be dependent on your activity levels, the climate you live in, as well as how much you sweat during exercise. We're seeing a lot of research to support that 3000mg-5000mg of sodium/day is a good sweet spot for most people, but, again, this number will depend heavily on your activity level and training environment. The current RDA recommendation for potassium is around 2000mg/day.
As far as specific supplements go, we personally LOVE, LMNT electrolytes since you get the most bang for your buck in terms of electrolytes per serving. However, LiquidIV and Nuun Tablets are other decent options, as well. You can also increase your electrolyte intake by salting your food - adding pink Himalayan or regular sea salt to your dishes as an easy and delicious way to increase your electrolyte intake AND by eating plenty of fruits and veggies - these puppies are packed with vitamins, water, and, you guessed it, minerals aka electrolytes.
Up next, we have a personal favorite of everyone on our Clar-e-ty Coaching staff…caffeine! Some caffeine fun facts before we start, caffeine is the world's most widely consumed psychoactive drug, caffeine can be found in 60 different beans, leaves, and fruits, AND 90% of adults around the world consume caffeine in some capacity daily.
Caffeine has more recently been getting a bad rap in the fitness space, but caffeine, when dosed appropriately, actually has numerous performance and health-related benefits.
But before we get into that, let’s discuss what caffeine even is and why it’s so effective. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases alertness, cognition, energy, and performance. It's found primarily in coffee, teas, and energy drinks/capsules. Caffeine is highly effective because it blocks adenosine to it's receptor in our bodies. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that relaxes your brain and makes you feel sleepy. When this receptor is blocked, adrenaline and cortisol production can occur, thus, making you feel alert, wired, and energized.
Now, caffeine has been getting a bad rap lately due to the fact that when adenosine is blocked, cortisol production can occur, as mentioned above. Cortisol in of itself is NOT a bad thing! If fact, cortisol is the hormone responsible for waking you up in the morning and getting you moving, it increases our blood sugar, reduces inflammation, and aids in our nutrient metabolism, all to help our body prepare for high-stress situations. Cortisol is also responsible for energy mobilization. Meaning, when cortisol increases, your sympathetic nervous system starts firing, and your body starts producing adrenaline, thus creating the optimal environment for fat or glycogen (stored energy) to be utilized.
Because of this, caffeine is one of the most utilized supplements by athletes to enhance performance. Based on studies, there is a positive correlation between caffeine consumption around 60 mins prior to exercise (across all modalities) and increased performance due to the increased alertness, cognitive function, and other benefits of caffeine consumption. However, caffeine isn't for everyone and how we break down caffeine varies from person to person.
For most adults, the FDA recommends NO more than 400mg of caffeine/day or about 3-5mg/kg of body weight. More than the recommended amount can result in decreased serotonin which will affect sleep especially if consumed close to bedtime. Cutting off caffeine consumption 4-8 hours before bed is HIGHLY encouraged since it takes 4-8 hours for the effects of caffeine to wear off.
Now, some of you might be thinking... "I drink coffee before bed all the time and it has no effect on me." However, this just means you've likely built up a tolerance and do experience broken and restless sleep. Caffeine tolerance is VERY common in heavy caffeine drinkers. Over time, our bodies produce more receptors meaning, it will require more and more caffeine to bind to those receptors to elicit the same effect. With that said, caffeine still in fact has an effect on you despite what you may think.
The bottom line with caffeine is that caffeine consumption, even daily, is NOT inherently bad. There are many benefits to caffeine consumption IF consumed in the proper doses.
If you're consuming more than the recommended amount of caffeine daily, look to limit caffeine consumption little by little. You might also change up where you're getting your caffeine from to cut back on overall caffeine intake. OR if you want to work on your caffeine tolerance, a multiple-day caffeine fast could be highly effective.
BUT important to note...since caffeine is a supplement, it's not a magic fix. Can it increase your performance in the gym? YES! But only if other variables within your nutrition are controlled.
Next on our recommended supplement list is protein powder. Arguably one of the most beneficial supplements out there for most people to consider investing in. As a society, we tend to undereat protein by a landslide. However, adequate protein intake is SUPER important no matter your goals and, especially, as we age. This is because protein is used for more than building and maintaining muscle mass. Everything in your body is made of protein – your hair, skin, nails, organs, ligaments, cartilage, etc. – are all made of protein. Additionally, your immune system, live function, digestion, and more are controlled by proteins. Moreover, you don’t just need protein for building muscle… you need it to survive and thrive!
Protein powder is usually one of the only supplements we recommend to clients due to a variety of factors. One is the fact that it’s a very convenient and highly effective way to up your protein intake without you having to eat more portions or add additional protein-dense sources to your day. In conjunction with other protein-rich foods, supplementing with protein powder is also a great way to increase feedings with a sufficient amount of protein for those battling with low hunger and/or those already under-consuming protein.
Second, it’s a very easy way to start the post-workout recovery process if you know it’s going to be 3+ hours before you’re able to get in a full-on meal. Additionally, sipping on a protein and carb shake post-workout is easier for most people to consume than trying to stomach a full-on meal.
However, protein powder can be consumed whenever and there’s no real magic to drinking a protein shake post-workout if you’re already eating enough protein in general and if drinking a protein shake at a different point throughout the course of the day works better for you. One to two scoops per day is usually plenty for most people!
As far as the type of protein powder is concerned, this is 100% based on personal preference. If you can stomach a whey protein, we generally recommend whey protein over plant-based alternatives because it contains high concentrations of leucine which is the “most” important amino acid for maximizing muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Now, this isn’t to say you can’t stimulate MPS using plant protein, BUT plant protein typically lacks the amount of leucine needed to stimulate MPS. However, you can increase your amount of plant protein to normalize the amount of leucine you have coming in from your protein sources BUT note this means you will simply have to either eat more plant-based protein options and ensure your plant-based protein powder has the proper dosages of leucine per serving.
Lastly, we have another favorite supplement of ours, creatine monohydrate! Creatine monohydrate is one of the most widely researched and studied supplements on the market. Its benefits have been proven time and time again in randomized controlled trials.
Although a lot of benefits from taking creatine monohydrate are sports performance-related, research suggests that just about everyone can benefit from taking creatine. The only caveat here is women who are pregnant and postpartum just because research in this area is lacking.
Before we dive into the benefits of taking creatine, let’s chat about what the heck creatine even is. Creatine is actually found and stored in our muscles and our bodies naturally create creatine on their own. However, our bodies don’t have the ability to maximize our creatine stores on their own without supplementation (this is especially true for vegans and vegetarians or those who aren’t consuming animal products).
Creatine is so beneficial in terms of sports performance due to its effects on our phosphocreatine system. This system is responsible for all out, short bursts of energy that may be required for max effort lifting attempts, sprints, high-intensity interval training, etc. That said, we only have so much creatine stored in our muscles at one time for short bursts of energy. From a performance standpoint, we want our creatine stores maxed out or at capacity so that we don’t run out as quickly as we would otherwise. This is where supplementation comes into play! Creatine has also been shown to help with post-workout recovery.
We see a multitude of benefits from supplementing with creatine monohydrate other than its performance-related benefits. Creatine supplementation, specifically, in older populations can decrease muscle mass lost as we age.
One common complaint with creatine supplementation is sometimes people will feel like they’re retaining more water than normal which is actually true! Creatine works by pulling in water to muscle stores which is something that you want when you’re performing in the gym! Some things you can do to mitigate excess unwanted water retention (to a degree) is to spread out your dosage into two servings per day and just ensure you’re drinking enough water to begin with as well as ensure you're consuming a sufficient amount of electrolytes.
In selecting your creatine supplement make sure it’s a creatine monohydrate you’re taking. Creatine monohydrate, not a proprietary blend or “special blend,” is the most widely researched and supported form of creatine. Anything else is probably making more extravagate claims that likely aren’t beneficial.
As far as dosage goes, 3-5g per day is a good general recommendation for most people. You don’t have to load creatine when starting to take it or when taking a break from it. You can load creatine when you first start taking it if you want, BUT if you just take it every day for 30 days, at the end of 30 days, you’ll get the same benefit from “loading” given your creatine stores will be maxed out. Additionally, you can take it at any time of the day as long as you’re taking it daily.
The name of the game here is to take it on rest days and training days, take a monohydrate, and dose appropriately.
All right, folks! There you have it.
Honestly, that is about the extent of our recommended supplement list because they’re all highly researched and supported by evidence.
Some other supplements that MAY be beneficial to certain populations include magnesium glycinate, omega-3s, and carb powders. If you have specific questions in regard to these supplements, shoot us a message.
At the end of the day remember, please make sure you’re doing your due diligence with the supplements you’re taking. Make sure they are third-party tested, make sure their benefits are actually backed by some evidence, and, if there’s one thing you take away from this blog we hope it’s this, please please please refine and work on your nutrition before adding in a ton of supplements that make extravagant claims.
They’re likely not doing you any good and your money could probably be better spent elsewhere :)
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