I´m often asked questions about nutritional supplementation in regards to both general health and performance matters, and have experimented over the years with varying degrees of success. Here I will share some of my experiences and try to simplify what is often made out to be a complex field. As I often allude to, much of the complexity surrounding training and nutrition advice is intended as a smokescreen by individual companies to make money selling needless products.
Before I start, there isn’t much need to consider supplements for training and performance purposes if you haven’t got your house in order with regards to a proper diet, adequate sleep, and sensible exercise. There are NO shortcuts to good health and fitness through over the counter supplements. It is that simple. Eat crap, live a stressed out and sleep deprived life, and struggle down to the gym for an aerobic session or run 3 times a week will not allow ANY fancy supplement to improve your life other than burning a bigger hole in your wallet.
Ok, got that out of the way. I will not go into detail about the need to eat natural, whole, fresh, nutrient dense foods here. I will not go into detail about how important getting 8-9hrs of GOOD sleep every night is. Read this if you wonder why. I will not mention the dangers of eating processed, man-made “foodstuffs”, concentrated sources of fructose, gluten containing grains and refined vegetable oils. Kurt Harris will tell you so in both a legit and serious way. And I will not go into the importance of eating animals as your most important source of nutrient rich protein and fat. Read this if you want to geek out a bit.
So, assuming you have your ship steered in the right direction, give or take the usual bumps and grinds that come with living a modern life of course, then what about some optional extras that can lift your performance a notch or two, and help in your path to achieving certain goals?. Here are a few supplements I have kept using over the years, remembering that personal experimentation is just that: a personal endeavour. What makes one gal laugh might make the other cry. One shoe doesn’t fit all.
Winter depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is common here in the dark north of Scandinavia. Physiologically, it has been proposed that lack of light during the winter causes, among other things, a drop in serotonin levels, which is a neurotransmitter involved in various processes of “well being”. Sunlight triggers the brain to produce the hormone melatonin, which again, helps our cyclical rhythms stay in order and has been found to strengthen our immune system. All good things for our body and mind. Sufficient Vitamin D synthesis can occur with only a few minutes of exposure to light a few times per week. That cannot be hard for most non-closet dwellers. Wait before applying sunscreen, just don’t get burnt. Again, far too much false press about the need to cover up from the “harmful rays of the sun”.
Ah, great stuff. Forget the capsules that promise to be odourless and triple strength. Fresh garlic is a cheap and versatile wonder drug. New research has shown that it boosts natural supplies of hydrogen sulfide, which is an antioxidant that helps fend off cancers, and protects the heart. The Greek´s used it before competition centuries ago, and it is the key element in most of my dinners. In the Solomon Islands, garlic is used to fend off malaria, help heal cuts and abrasions, and prevent acne. Just don’t use it in drinks. Not nice.
3. Fish Oil
Amazingly, the introduction of processed foods and vegetable oils into modern diets has contributed to ruining our optimal omega 3/ omega 6 ratios. Prior to the agricultural revolution, our ratios were roughly 1:1, but now we see ratios in the average modern Western population of up to 1:10-15. The side effects of this imbalance have been linked to body inflammation, autoimmune disease, and higher incidences of cancer and heart conditions to name but a few. Naturally occurring omega 3 is found in wild fish and meats, whereas processed fats (remember, these are the ones we are told by “authorities” to consume, not animal fats) are high in omega 6 fats, which leads to all sorts of health problems. Try to eat grass fed meat, wild fish, some walnuts and quality extra virgin olive oil. Learn more about the importance of long-chain n-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) here. How much fish oil to supplement is dependent on a number of factors, but generally a higher dosage is required for people out of shape, coming off a poor diet or with inflammation and autoimmune disorders. Check out Robb Wolf´s fish oil calculator here to find out more. Look carefully at the EPA/DHA ratios when buying oil. I usually get mine from Holland & Barrett in the UK, although I recently found a good one here in Norway.
I take zinc supplements during periods of higher than normal training exertion, due to its beneficial effect on growth and recovery, immune boosting capabilities and its good for skin condition. Supplies can become depleted from prolonged and intense training and inadequate meat intake/high carbohydrate intake. Also I find it beneficial for sleeping, in which case I take a great product called ZMA, usually before bedtime. Coach Poliquin also notes the lower levels of testosterone and sperm count caused by zinc deficiency, which as we should all know, is not good news. Zinc is found in oysters, beef, lamb, dark chocolate, liver and some dairy products.
Studies have proven that magnesium deficiency can be related to insulin insensitivity and disrupted sleep. Both bad news for anyone, especially if you are training hard as well. A common supplement in the bodybuilding world due to its essential role in many metabolic processes including protein synthesis. You´ll find lots of magnesium in green vegetables like spinach and broccoli and white fish as well. Eat heaps of these foods, and be strong like Popeye. ZMA also comes in different qualities, usually the more expensive the brand the better, I get mine here.
Thanks to my mum. Spirulina is one of nature’s true super foods and is a great supplement to many dishes, as well as in shakes. It is super green, smells and tastes strange, probably because it is an algae but it contains all the essential amino acids as well as high concentrations of other nutrients and enzymes that are beneficial to the stomach, and general vibrancy of skin and hair. Super expensive in tablet form, cheaper in powdered form, but great in post workout shake with eggs and banana. I get mine from New Zealand in bulk from Healthpost.
Ahhh, the morning double espresso macchiato with heavy cream (50/50) freshly brewed by the La Pavoni. Sometimes I go to bed thinking of how nice it will be in the morning. Conflicting studies are everywhere as to the pros and cons of caffeine and the effect on training and general health. Some swear by it, others warn of danger!. There is no doubt it has ergogenic effects, and there is something to the fact that even elite athletes are seen sneaking in caffeine up to the allowed measures before and during intense competition. A lot of the studies I read are based on a huge intake of caffeine (400mg +), which I think is unwise. Who wants headaches, the shakes, bad stomach and nausea?. I find a coffee (about 100mg caffeine) pre-training is effective. It gets the buzz on and that alertness alone is worth it. Plus, there is the great taste and social side of coffee. Just don´t drink the cans of sugar with caffeine like Red Bull. Disaster.
Most people have the unfortunate task of taking antibiotics occasionally when all else has failed. Some even take them before all else has failed. Either way, they are bad news for the system killing useful flora and pathogenic bacteria and taking a form of probiotic when on a cure is very wise. As is eating probiotic rich foods like kefir, sauerkraut, yoghurt and some cheese. There are many and varied forms of probiotic, and much debate about their usage. I am a believer in the importance of gut bacteria and the need for the party inside to keep skipping to the grooviest beat imaginable. If you pump yourself full of toxins, the party will turn into a massive hangover. Not good.
Ok, barman speaking. Lime juice from fresh, juicy limes is THE essential ingredient in the bar. That is good enough reason for it to be included as an essential supplement: it makes cocktails go from decent to awesome. Plus it helped Captain Cook keep his men from dying form scurvy during his epic voyages across the Pacific in the 18th Century. Lime is the solution to most problems. It makes you and your cooking and drinks feel, taste and smell good. And the oils are great when you happen to have a bath. First make a jug of sugar-free Mojitos, squeeze some lime oil into the bath, get in and party on.
The humble spice that is hitting the headlines. My mum always told me to add cinnamon to cooking and sprinkle on salads, but I never listened, as I thought it was just to add to a Café Latte. No, no, no. Cinnamon helps maintain blood sugar levels, reduce triglycerides, prevents insulin resistance, contains dietary fiber, calcium and zinc, helps maintain your hair and nice skin and increases sex drive. Woohoo. We all know that too many bicep curls decreases sex drive because you become so awesome you forget about the opposite sex. Keep some cinnamon in your gym bag as a reminder. Now, adding cinnamon to everything is not so advisable, but keep a few sticks on the kitchen bench, and if you feel in the mood, knock up this great little cocktail I have trailed to immediate success:
Primal Apple Cake Cocktail
6cl Havana Club
Juice of 1-2 limes
1 spoon of runny honey
10 mint leaves
Half a Granny Smith apple chopped up
Half a cinnamon stick
Place all ingredients in shaker with cubed ice, shake hard, double strain into chilled cocktail glass. ENJOY.
That’s my top 10 for now. Just to add to your general wellness really, socially as well as physiologically. Supplement away, just get healthy on natural life first.