Have you tried this new drink with 156 different vitamins and minerals? Did you know that this new vitamin unicorn jelly bean will make you feel more awake and you’ll be able to do backflips in your sleep?
Every day new supplements are introduced to the market with one good marketing campaign after the other, and the shelf is stacked with yet another colorful bottle promised to make us more awesome. No wonder we get confused about supplements, overwhelmed, or simply decide to skip them altogether.
It is important to consider two questions:
- Should you be taking supplements in the first place?
- And if so, which ones are worth its place on your drug shelf?
Firstly, Your Diet Is Crucial
I cannot talk about supplements without covering a thing or two about food. Supplements are in the end just that, supplements.
A supplement by definition is something added to something else in order to complete or enhance it. What that means is that a supplement cannot fix a diet that looks like a mix between Starbucks, take-away food, and an occasional carrot.
Even if we do get our daily veggies, nailing the nutrition variation game by stacking up with clean meat, complex carbs, and a decent amount of healthy fat, the quality of the nutrients are not guaranteed. This is due to mass production, how the food is manufactured, transported, kept, the shelf life, and all the things added along the way to make it last longer than a couple of days.
All this is to make the point that supplements might indeed be worth your time. But which ones?
The Supplement Front
I could make an elaborate speech about what groups of people and lifestyles should be taking what supplements, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
My focus is the everyday athletes. Those of us who hit the gym floor 4-6 days a week, like to lift some heavy stuff, want to optimize health, focus, and overall, perform at our best.
We work hard and want the highest possible ROI for the effort, thank you very much.
There are certain groups that should take special notice on adding any supplement to their diet or why you might benefit from skipping it altogether.
I’d like to look beyond the traditional protein, casein, and caffeine supplements, which you’ve probably read too many articles about already. So, without further ado, here are my top supplements—you should look them up because like all nutrition advice, it’s what works for you and not what you’re told should work. We are all different and have unique responses to supplements.
Supplement Suggestion #1: Omega 3
If I was to favor one supplement over another, I would vote for Omega 3. Keep in mind there’s a massive difference in the quality of the supplements you get on the market. A low quality, cheap version and you might as well save what you considered spending.
Omega 3 fatty acids is an umbrella term for the following:
- EPA+DHA – marine sources such as algae
- ALA – Plant sources such as flax, chia, walnuts, canola
To optimize your health, performance, cognitive function, and get the most in return for your drug investment, your main focus should be EPA+DHA.
The body can convert ALA found in plants to EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate is low to the point even non-athletes will struggle to get an efficient amount, compared to if EPA and DHA were taken by themselves.
EPA+DHA counters inflammation, accelerates recovery from intense training, and also serves as a protection for you against injuries and illness. They’re crucial for optimal brain function and play an important role in mood stabilization.
EPA and DHA are also important in order to balance out the massive amount of Omega 6 fatty acids that we often find in our diets today. Omega 6 is found in nuts, seeds, and the oils extracted from them. Most snack food we eat today like chips, cookies, crackers, and sweets heavily rely on these oils (sunflower, soy, and corn oil) which means we tend to get way more than we need.
When the Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are balanced you then get the benefit of Omega 6 (such as lowering the risk of heart disease, as well as your LDL, while increasing HDL) without the additional inflammation that comes along as a bi-product, due to Omega 3’s role in reducing inflammation.
The roles of EPA and DHA are important to recognize that EPA is present structurally only in small quantities. It’s always being utilized and is under constant demand to be replaced. EPA seems to be the dominant functional fatty acid in many areas of your body’s health, especially with regard to reducing inflammation. EPA also protects our genes and cell cycles while keeping our stress responses regulated. An adequate supply of EPA during adult life can help prevent a range of chronic illnesses.
DHA has more of a structural role in your body. It’s seen as a physiologically-essential nutrient in the brain for normal functioning of neural tissue including cognitive performance, learning ability, memory, as well as your vision.
- Ideally, you would benefit from taking a supplement that has an EPA+DHA ratio of 3:1 or 3:2 which is what Charles Poliquin (a great coach who is always worth a look but who shockingly passed away too young) would recommend specifically for body composition.
- For general health, the American Heart Association recommends 1g of combined EPA+DHA.
- If you are physically active and spend a lot of time in the gym, you would benefit from stepping up the doses to between 1500-3000mg a day, leaning towards the higher doses during harder periods of training, or you’re if recovering from an injury.
- Take EPA+DHA with your vitamin D.
- Consider taking it post-workout.
Supplement Suggestion #2: Vitamin D
Whether you are an athlete, non-athlete, part-time athlete, or wannabe athlete, vitamin D is another supplement you would want to put on your list if you’re living in a big city or an area that sees that sun a lot less than you want.
Ideally, you would want to get your vitamin D from the sun. That’s how the body best absorbs it, and if you get a 30-minute walk in daylight a day, you should be fine. However, if your life is not based in San Francisco, Miami, or Bali and you cannot take a sunny holiday every other month, the second best thing will be to buy your vitamin D from the supplement shelf or click the appropriate button on Amazon.
Vitamin D plays an important role in the absorption of calcium and phosphate, which again are both crucial for building strong healthy bones and help to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis.
The absorption of calcium is dependent on vitamin D for it to happen in the first place.
A strong supply of vitamin D in your body also prevents muscle weakness and reduces your risk of injury. Low levels of vitamin D are strongly correlated with a higher risk of injury as well as being a performance limiting factor where strength and power can be significantly reduced.
When optimized, vitamin D is considered a performance-enhancing substance, and definitely something to keep in mind if you’re on the road to injury recovery. When vitamin D levels are highest during the summer months, you often see a peak performance in sports performance. A low-performance point is often seen in March, where we often find the lowest levels of vitamin D.
To get your vitamin D levels where they should be, keep the following in mind:
- Find the sun. Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy do have some vitamin D but have low amounts compared to the human need, which is why you would benefit from taking it as a supplement.
- When supplementing, choose vitamin D3 because it has a much higher percentage of absorption in your body than vitamin D2.
- For moderate supplementation choose a dose of 1000-2000 IU daily.
- During heavy training, you might want to step up the dose.
- You may benefit from taking your bodyweight into consideration when determining your vitamin D dose (calculate in the range of 20-80 IU/kg daily).
- Ideally, take your vitamin D with meals or with a source of fat.
Supplement Suggestion #3: B12
Vitamin B12 important for optimal brain and nerve function and in the creation of red blood cells and is essential for athletes because it plays role in energy metabolism. It can affect strength and power performance because it maintains the sheath that covers nerve fibers. If these nerve fibers are altered, and the transmission of nerve signals becomes interrupted, it can be the cause of reduced muscular function.
If you have a diet rich in animal products you might not need to supplement with additional B12. Vegans and vegetarians should especially keep an eye on their levels of B12 because it is found in animal products and is not present in plant foods.
How to use B12:
- 1000mcg (1mg) daily.
- The spray form seems to have a better absorption rate than the pill form.
Supplement Suggestion #4: Magnesium
Magnesium is often seen along the list of supplements that can help you calm down in the evening and make you sleep like a baby. However, there’s more to it than that, if that wasn’t reason enough to make sure you get your daily dose covered. Remember that magnesium is a macromineral, meaning you need more than 100mg daily.
Magnesium assists in the formation and strengthening of your bones and teeth. It also helps to level the amounts of calcium in the blood. Magnesium is important for optimal nerve and muscle function together with potassium, sodium, and calcium. It also assists in the making of protein for blood circulation and muscle contraction.
How to use magnesium:
- Not all magnesium supplements are as quality as others, so be sure to do some research on brand quality. Some have shown to cause gastrointestinal side effects like bloating or diarrhea due to low absorption rates.
- Magnesium citrate is in most cases your best go-to as it has shown to have the highest absorption rate in your body.
- Take 200-400mg daily.
- Take magnesium the evening, a few hours before going to bed is optimal.
Supplement Suggestion #5: Iron
Iron is critical for every athlete, and if you’re a woman reading this, even more so.
Iron is even more important if you do a lot of high impact work like running or gymnastics.
Iron transports oxygen to tissues and is important for metabolism. The cells in our body burn dietary calories to create energy through a process that requires iron. When iron is low this process gets compromised and general fatigue can occur. You also feel cold in general and just overall don’t feel very well.
The same as in the case with B12, you might not need extra supplementation if you get your daily intake from food—if you eat a lot of red meat or eat all parts of the animal, especially the liver.
How to take iron:
- 8mg per day for is recommended for men.
- 18mg per day is recommended for menstruating women (non-menstruating women should stick with 8mg).
- Because iron is a mineral it can be harmful if you take too much of it, which is why you should keep an eye on whether you get enough of it already in your diet.
- The daily tolerable upper intake level is 45 mg (when over 13 years old).
- You can improve your iron absorption from food by eating foods rich in vitamin C like tomatoes and beets.
- Avoid food with tannins, like green tea, when you take iron because it hinders the absorption of iron in your body.
Supplement Suggestion #6: Calcium
Calcium is considered a macromineral, due to the large amount required in the diet. A deficiency in calcium long-term is linked with osteoporosis, osteopenia, and rickets. Calcium in adequate doses is mainly found in dairy products including dairy-derived protein supplements such as whey and casein. If you follow a paleo, vegan, or dairy-free diet, calcium is definitely something you would want to consider adding as a supplement.
How to use calcium:
- 1000mg a day is recommended for adults between ages 19-50.
- If you train a lot, you might want to step up the dose.
- The maximum dose of calcium taken in supplement form should not exceed 500mg in one serving to avoid side effects such as abdominal cramping, bloating, and diarrhea.
- Companies such as SOLGAR and Doctor’s Best are trusted and popular sources both by fitness professionals and nutritionists.
Supplement Suggestion #7: Vitamin C
Vitamin C is mostly known to help reduce the symptoms of seasonal colds. It has shown to reduce the duration of a cold by 8-14% when it’s taken as a preventative measure or at the beginning of a cold. For an average, healthy population, it has not been shown to reduce the frequency of the common cold. However, research shows that an athlete supplementing with vitamin C can expect to cut the risk of getting a cold by 50%.
Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant and a pro-oxidant depending on what the body needs. The structure of vitamin C also allows it to interact with the pancreas and modulate cortisol. Overall, vitamin C protects you from oxidative stress, which is what you expose your body to by training.
How to take vitamin C:
- Again SOLGAR and Doctor’s Best are good go-to brands.
- The recommended daily intake is 100-200mg. Generally, to obtain this amount daily no supplementation is needed aside from your balanced diet.
- Higher doses up to 2000mg are used to support the immune system for athletes. I am not suggesting that you go all the way up to 2000mg because the training schedule for athletes, despite our solid efforts, is likely quite different to ours even if we hit the gym 5-6 times a week. But this is a trial and error thing you need to explore on your own. I would recommend 1000mg if you want to give it a go. It’s not a must, but you might find that it’s to your advantage to add it in.
- Optimize the absorption rate of iron through food when eaten along with vitamin C containing foods.
Lastly, Find What’s Best for You
The two most crucial supplements that pretty much everyone should grab are Omega 3 and vitamin D. From there it becomes more of a playing field depending on your goals, lifestyle, and general diet. These are suggestions that you might want to test to see if they can make a difference. It works for me.