Supplementation is a word that is often tossed around in the fitness industry without much regard for its end-user audience. Simply put, supplementation as we know it comes in two forms: dietary and hormonal.
Their intended goal is to increase the amount of a macro or micronutrient in the former while increasing or replacing inactive hormones in the latter. The goal of this article is to clarify some misunderstandings of supplementation and provide my own recommendations.
The Basics of Supplements
Supplements, semantically, are "something added to complete a thing, supply a deficiency, reinforce, or extend a whole." Regarding the whole, we are referring to the human body. The human body is a conglomerate of cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems.
For discussion, we’ll focus on tissues. Tissues are made up of lipids, carbohydrates, and protein—all of which are referred to as macronutrients as they are made up of simpler sub-units. These tissues help us carry out highly sophisticated procedures during our workouts.
Macronutrients cannot complete work without micronutrients. In my previous article, I’ve discussed this in greater detail. The sources of nutrients as previously mentioned are either derived from food or hormones.
This is important to understand as supplements are manufactured from animals and plants, thusly we can utilize them to reinforce our own bodies once we obtain what we need in sufficient amounts.
The Role of Dietary Supplementation
Dietary supplements have their place to ensure we as humans obtain all the essential minerals, vitamins, and macros that we cannot obtain through food alone. The key is to understand our deficiencies, recommended daily intakes, and how we can apply them to training.
However, if you read a supplement instruction label often it says “take with food,” typically to increase absorption. The increased availability of these nutrients will sustain the body, muscle, and overall well-being. You cannot treat dietary supplements as a meal replacement nor take in unnecessary amounts (for example, excessive iron intake can cause end-organ failure) because your tissues will face great difficulty otherwise.
Do you have to take dietary supplements? In short, no, eat more balanced meals and focus on key deficiencies to cover your needs, ingesting a sufficient amount of nutrients through food. If you are competing as a bodybuilder, for example, you may want to be working with a coach to get the advice on taking in extra carbs, protein, and fat during a bulking phase before you consider anything else.
Which brings me to the long answer, yes. Most people do not receive adequate nutrients (such as vitamin D and Omega 3’s) due to poor diet plans. Adding an individual, “specific” dietary supplement in conjunction with normally paced meals have been regarded as effective for reaching recommended daily intakes, given a “food first” approach. Each person, based on routine bloodwork, has values which fall below the standard, whereas disease plays a role in prolonged or increasing deficiency.
Therefore, it's always recommended to read the labels of supplements and put them through scrutiny. Some may do more harm than good. LabDoor is a great resource to help filter out products, however, there is a limitation in the variety. They breakdown supplement use and efficacy amongst other criteria with the end-user in mind.
Dietary supplements which provide advertising or marketing hyperboles in their branding include, but are not limited to, protein supplements, pre-workout, energy, or stimulant based supplements.
These supplements tend to have names to the likeness of Major Mass Now, Hulk Gains, or 15-hour Energy Fast. In some respects energy supplements provide rationale due to the potency and concentration of key ingredients, however, they're meant to be taken (like anything) with a grain of salt.
When choosing a dietary supplement go through the following checklist:
- Amount per serving.
- Price per serving.
- Ingredients – Look for fillers or ingredients non-related to the deficiency or need such as a protein powder with caffeine. Companies often do this to seem “generous” with their offerings when scientifically there aren’t grounds for placing those two substances to be taken together.
- Combating ingredients – Look for minerals that compete for absorption rate—this is common in multivitamins and you’ll end up with expensive urine.
- Reputation and reviews – Also take this with a grain of salt because reviews on company websites can be biased so use review websites such as Consumer Reports or LabDoor which are non-profit.
- Allergies and sensitivity – Some supplements have milk, pig products for preservatives, or are made in factories that produce products you may be allergic to. Sensitivity to additives, such as caffeine, is important to check for.
- Banned or accepted – In some competitions, certain dietary supplements present positive urine tests and/or are banned for use.
Hormones regulate key functions within the body and in the case of lifting or athletics elicit responses in appetite, growth, reaction time, and body composition.Hormone supplementation isn’t new. Physicians can prescribe hormone therapy for those with deficiencies or those who need better regulation overall.
An example would be human growth hormone (HGH). As we age, we lose lean body mass, bone density, and strength (amongst other things). HGH supplementation improves these values by replacing this hormone directly. HGH may be derived from animals or humans.
Hormone supplementation has gained popularity in the fitness industry by way of its competitive audience. This may be within powerlifting, bodybuilding, or athletics. For this reason, they are banned within certain federations of a sport. To some, they provide an unfair advantage over those who do not.
However, unlike the potential for toxicity in dietary supplements, hormones can be abused. For instance, a growing concern is androgenic supplementation causing masculinization effects for those with abnormal levels of circulation androgens (referring to women).
The misunderstanding lies between anabolic steroids, which only shuttle more nutrients (nitrogen) in active tissues, versus androgens, which directly affect other hormones and can change the very fabric of a person’s demeanor, body composition, and organ function.
Anabolic steroids do not provide many benefits if not directed with a proper stimulus. What I mean by this is like dietary supplements therein lies a requirement for a “food first” approach along with significant stimulation of skeletal muscle (heart included; despite being called a cardiac muscle). If you’re not ingesting enough protein, the rate of nitrogen shuttling to skeletal muscle is severely dampened. Protein provides a rich source of both sulfur and nitrogen.
There is a limit to how much your body can tolerate before negative feedback occurs. Along with this, like taking any drugs or stimulants, your body can become “accustomed” to an external source of a hormone and either become desensitized to that amount or stop (or slow) production of its own hormones.
There are prescription or synthetic hormones, which are a form of supplementation we are still struggling to understand, that in conjunction with others can regulate a person’s body from the day they begin a prep (athletics) to their lifetime in the sport.
My Recommendations for Supplements
In my lifetime as a gym goer, athlete, and coach I’ve personally utilized the aide of protein, multivitamin, diuretic (drugs or herbs that makes you pee; e.g. dandelion root), and pre-workout supplementation.
For the last three years, I’ve never gone back to protein supplements or pre-workout supplements, nor do I foresee myself going back that route. At the age of 22, I was under the care of my current primary care physician who saw a drastic increase in my liver enzyme levels.
These levels can cause skeletal muscle damage or stress, hepatitis, and stress of the GI tract, but in my case, it was liver damage. In conjunction with supplementation two times a week of solely protein and pre-workout supplements, I also used alcohol to deal with issues at that time in my life. My physician scared me off alcohol, yet my levels did not decrease. I took time off from the gym. No change.
I underwent an inconclusive abdominal sonogram and a series of blood tests for rare gastrointestinal diseases. I was on deck for a liver biopsy which has a risk for internal hemorrhaging. My doctor told me to stop all the supplements I was taking.
After three months my blood work returned to normal and so my “food first” frenzy began. With that being said, however, creatine and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) still hold a special place in my heart for their effectiveness and safety.
Creatine naturally occurs in muscle tissue and is responsible for ATP (adenosine triphosphate) recycling. It accomplishes this through a process called hydrolyzation, thus more ATP is available for the muscle to use, and the longer you can work out.
It has helped me to reach my goal of drinking one gallon of water a day because it's needed during supplementation and is best absorbed with a source of carbohydrates, which makes me eat bit more. When I cycle off, I do feel lighter, however, it just may be that my muscles aren’t as full due to water being excreted at a faster rate.
CLA is like a firing furnace for where all your adipose tissue goes—but it’s not a magic pill. What it does is increase your body’s normal levels of lipolysis of visceral adipose tissue. As a polyunsaturated fatty acid, it helps to decrease the proportion of harmful fatty acids within the body. (Think olive oil as a good fatty acid and triglycerides and LDL as the bad guys.)
The catch, however, is that it’s only useful in active individuals. The reason for that is that it's most active when skeletal muscle is active and has its highest efficiency when the body needs assistance in converting fat to fuel. Compared to most supplements it’s one of the most sustainable and well-tolerated. It’s been tested in numerous mammals including humans. Best of all it gets me contest-ready.
Use Your Best Judgement
Supplementation is a gift of science. It reminds us to eat real food and reinforce a proper plan. It’s often abused and misunderstood. Even I can be charged for that crime, but it serves as a starting place for growth in the transformation of physiques, regulatory function of diseased patients, and overall well-being.
Like machines, supplements are tools to be utilized for a greater good and thus should be used to create the best version of yourself.