I am a supplement guy. I absolutely love them. I have more pills, concoctions and potions lined up on my bathroom counter than Harry Potter. Rarely do I take any of these ridiculous ‘sports’ products with gimmicky names such as ‘Grenade’ or ‘NO Explode’. The worst culprit for these in my opinion are pre workout supplements, which are generally full of nasty ingredients and an insane dose of caffeine.
To be clear, when I am discussing supplements I am predominantly talking about vitamins, minerals and herbs. I think they play a vital role in the quest for optimal living. It is true, you can’t out supplement a bad diet, or lifestyle. I’ve never heard of someone who is severely stressed bring down their cortisol levels with supplements alone and instead need to implement lifestyle changes.
However, we do live in the modern world where food quality is diminishing (containing less and less micronutrients) and our bodies are faced with an ever growing list of stressors (environmental toxins, stress, travel etc.). For those of you who do recognise the importance of supplementation, do you actively think about what form/brand you buy from or do you just pick out the supermarket supplements? Do you know if the vitamin C you just bought from Boots was a dose high enough to actually show any effect? Do you know if it can be absorbed by the body or are you just flushing it down the toilet (along with your money)? Today I am going to show you why there is a big big difference in quality and efficacy of supplements.
If you had two supplements side by side that were identical in terms of doses etc. you could still be left with two very different products. The quality of ‘ingredients’ a manufacturer chooses is very important. You want to be choosing a brand that only uses pharmaceutical grade ingredients and carries out its own quality control testing, as well as independent parties. Even a brand like Solgar, which you might think is a premium brand, failed third party purity testing for arsenic in their products!
Another thing to consider is do you have any allergies? Much like the cocaine producers of Columbia, some naughty supplement manufacturers ‘cut’ their products with ingredients such as lactose and gluten. Thorne Research have produced a great illustration of how the same ingredient list from two different manufacturers can wildly vary:
Are you taking the right type?
This is the area that probably requires the most research from yourself and examine.com is a good place to start. Most vitamins and minerals have numerous forms they come in. Let’s take ‘magnesium’ for example.
I am sure you have heard about the importance of magnesium (if you don’t read this article). So you know you want to take this wonder mineral ‘magnesium’ but did you know that it comes in multiple forms? One of the most common forms of magnesium is magnesium oxide because it is extremely cheap to produce – but it is actually one of the least bioavailable forms of magnesium. By taking magnesium oxide, found in most high street brands (i.e. Holland and Barretts use this!) you are essentially p***ing money down the drain as it cannot be absorbed by the body.
Chelated forms of magnesium (which is where the magnesium is bound to other compounds to increase absorption) offer the best bioavailability, such as magnesium glycinate. The downside is that these are usually the most expensive option. When faced with the option between the two I think you have to remind yourself that even though the supermarket supplements might be cheaper, they are actually more expensive as you can’t absorb it! These companies usually try and hide what form it comes in by simply just listing magnesium on the label.
When you come to choose your supplement, it is also worth thinking about what you are trying to achieve. I love supplementing with magnesium L-threonate, the relatively new kid on the block and unsurprisingly carries the most hefty price tag. This is my personal favourite form of magnesium as it does a great job crossing the blood-brain barrier, which most forms cannot achieve. The reason this is useful is because it has been shown to improve learning abilities, working memory and both short and long term memory. So, decide what you are looking for and choose the most appropriate form.
I’ve shown you how all this is true for magnesium, but it also applies to everything else. Jake wrote about this in his article ‘Festival recovery: why I used vitamin B12’ and I touched on the importance of choosing the right form of B vitamins for those undermethylators out there in ‘my fascinating DNA results: part II’.
This is why there can be such a huge variance in prices. Typically, the more expensive brands have gone to great lengths to produce a product the body can actually use rather than just trying to get something on the shelf like the cheaper brands.
Look for capsules, not tablets
A big difference I always see between the more expensive brands versus the cheaper brands is whether they come as a capsule or a tablet. Tablets are often cheaper and filled with fillers and binders, whereas capsules can be broken down in the stomach much faster. This is important because if the stomach doesn’t successfully break the supplement down, it will just head to the intestines in a state where it can not be as easily absorbed. Tablets due to how they are pressed rarely break down in the stomach, making life hard on your intestines.
As a general rule of thumb, If the supplement can be in a capsule form, opt for that.
Does the vitamin/nutrient need pairing?
With a Malbec? With a Merlot? Not quite! ‘Good things come in pairs’ and that can often be the case for supplements. One of my favourite ways to illustrate that is with Vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 works best in tandem with K2, which 90% of manufacturers leave out. When Vitamin D3 and K2 are taken as a combination, it has be shown that it slows the progression of arterial calcification (buildup of calcium). In the same study it also showed that supplementing Vitamin D3 without K2 can be dangerous if you supplement with calcium. A Vitamin D3 product I love is Designs for Health as it has been paired with K2.
Once you have figured out if it is optimal for the supplement to be paired, you then need to link back to the first paragraph and see if the paired vitamin/mineral is in its best form. In this case a version of vitamin K2 is ‘MK-7’, which the Designs for Health product comes in.
Other tasty little pairings to look out for are fish oils and Vitamin E to avoid oxidation, curcumin and piperine (black pepper) to increase absorption and any carnitine product that has a blend so you cover the full spectrum.
The dosage makes the poison
Have you heard of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) that is normally shown on the ingredient list? You’ll noticed the high street brands typically achieve the %RDA with their products, so you assume that this is a good thing. Why wouldn’t you? However, as soon as you jump over to the premium brands you move to multiples of a 1,000 of RDA! Are they trying to kill us you ask? No! The premium brands have based their dosages on research and are not just trying to do the absolute bare minimum the high street guys appear to do.
To give an example, the mean RDA for Vitamin C is about 105mg a day. If, like me, when you feel a scratch in your throat you probably jump for the Vitamin C. However, a dose of 105mg is not going to do anything to prevent the onset of sickness. Examine.com suggest a dose up to 2,000mg and I’ve seen others suggest anywhere up to 6,000mg!
When you come to choose your supplements, work backwards from what you are trying to achieve. Research the most optimal dose for your ailment and then look for brands that produce these higher dosed supplements.
Hopefully I have demonstrated that not all supplements and brands are created equally. If you don’t want to waste your money buying supplements that will just end up in the urinal/toilet then choose to pay that bit more for companies that have their own research laboratories and carry out rigorous testing. A few of my favourite companies are:
- Designs For Health
- Thorne Research
- Life Extension
Happy pill popping!