A Quick Primer on Dietary Supplements

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Howdy ho, all! Happy Wednesday – or if you’re coming in on another day, happy Whatever-day-it-is-for-you!

Today we’re talking about dietary supplements. We’re going to cover the basic forms a supplement can take (which, regrettably, never include the words, “Wonder Twin Powers, activate!”) and some of the basic choices that may be beneficial to your everyday life and training.

Before we go any further, here’s my standard disclaimer: I am not a doctor; I am a fitness professional. The information I’m providing here is for general knowledge only and should not be considered the advice of a physician. Seriously. If you have any concerns, please talk to your doctor. If you choose to take any dietary supplement, from this list or any other, you are doing so at your own risk, assuming full liability for your actions.

What types of dietary supplements are there?

Vitamins

These are probably the most commonly known supplements. Typically a vitamin supplement will contain one or more of vitamins A, B complex, C, D, E, and K. You can find supplements for individual vitamins as well as the very common multivitamin supplements. You normally see other supplements types mixed in as well to provide a more well-rounded option, limiting the number of pills you need to swallow each day.

A vitamin is an organic compound, meaning it exists in nature and doesn’t have to be created in a lab. For example, a common source of Vitamin C is citrus fruit and you can get a lot of B Vitamins from meat/proteins. Vitamins are pretty unique; all living organisms need them, typically found in their diets, but what is considered a vitamin chances based on the organism itself. An organic compound is called a vitamin when it cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities by the organism itself, and thus must be obtained as part of the diet. Jumping back for a moment, Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a vitamin for humans but not for most other animals.

Typically, a balanced diet will get your vitamin intake in check, and most people don’t need supplements. If you are worried that you’re not eating healthy (and lets be honest, a lot of people aren’t), then I recommend a daily multivitamin geared towards your gender/age group (men’s general, women’s over 50, etc.).

If you are experiencing a vitamin deficiency, there are a lot of different symptoms you could see. Below are the deficiency diseases associated to each vitamin group.

Vitamin Deficiency Disease
A Night blindness, Hyperkeratosis, and Keratomalacia
B1 Beriberi, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
B2 Ariboflavinosis, Glossitis, Angular stomatitis
B3 Pellagra
B5 Paresthesia
B6 Anemia peripheral neuropathy
B7 Dermatitis, enteritis
B9 Megaloblastic anemia; Deficiency during pregnancy is associated with birth defects, such as neural tube defects
B12 Megaloblastic anemia
C Scurvy
D Rickets and Osteomalacia
E Deficiency is very rare; sterility in males and abortions in females, mild hemolytic anemia in newborn infants
K Bleeding diathesis

PLEASE DO NOT TRY TO DIAGNOSE YOURSELF!

If you think you have an issue, make an appointment with your doctor immediately and go ask. I’m purposely not linking those diseases to WebMD so it’s harder for you to diagnose yourself with cancer and panic. Chill out. You’re probably fine.

Dietary Elements

You may know these more commonly as “minerals” and you’ll usually see them paired with vitamins in supplements or in cereal commercials. These are the chemical elements required by living organisms, other than the four base elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen present in common organic molecules. The term “dietary mineral” is archaic, as the substances it refers are chemical elements rather than actual minerals. Chemical elements in order of abundance in the human body include the seven major dietary elements calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. Important “trace” or minor dietary elements, necessary for mammalian life, include iron, cobalt, copper, zinc, manganese, molybdenum, iodine, bromine, and selenium (see below for detailed discussion).

Like vitamins, dietary elements are typically provided for in full by your diet, and supplementation isn’t generally necessary. But also like vitamins, you may find that your lackluster diet is lacking in minerals as well. In that case, a general multivitamin that also contains mineral complexes (which will be indicated on the bottle/box/package) may be a good thing to add to your diet.

Like vitamins, dietary elements/minerals are necessary for proper functioning of the human body. When you have too little (or too much) your body starts going a little haywire and things fall apart.

Dietary Element Too Little Too Much
Calcium Hypocalcaemia (Convulsions, Arrhythmias, Tetany and numbness/parasthesias in hands, feet, around mouth/lips) Hypercalcaemia (kidney stones, bone pain, abdominal pain/nausea/vomiting, polyuria, Depression 30–40%, anxiety, cognitive dysfunction, insomnia, coma)
Phosphorus Hypophosphatemia (muscle dysfunction and weakness, mental changes from irritability to gross confusion/delirium/coma, rhabdomyolysi, hemolytic anemia) Hyperphosphatemia (ectopic calcification, secondary hyperparathyroidism, and renal osteodystrophy)
Potassium Hypokalemia (mild: few to no symptoms – severe: muscle weakness, myalgia, tremor, and muscle cramps, constipation, paralysis, rhabdomyolysis) Hyperkalemia (malaise, palpitations, muscle weakness, mild hyperventillation)
Sulfur
Sodium Hyponatremia (nausea and vomiting, headache, short-term memory loss, confusion, lethargy, fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability, muscle weakness, spasms or cramps, seizures, and decreased consciousness or coma) Hypernatremia (lethargy, weakness, irritability, neuromuscular excitability, edema, seizures, coma)
Chlorine Hypochloremia (rarely occurs by itself; hypoventillation, respiratory acidosis) Hyperchloremia (often without symptoms, but may be associated with excess fluid loss such as vomiting and diarrhea)
Magnesium Hypomagnesemia (weakness, muscle cramps, cardiac arrhythmia; increased irritability of the nervous system with tremors, athetosis, jerking, nystagmus and an extensor plantar reflex; may be confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, depression, epileptic fits, hypertension, tachycardia and tetany) Hypermagnesemia (Weakness, nausea and vomiting, Impaired breathing, Decreased respirations, Hypotension, Hypocalcemia, Arrhythmia and Asystole, Decreased or absent deep tendon reflexes, Bradycardia, dizziness, sleepyness)

The list of symptoms is included here to show how severely your body can react to not having enough of these available, and to illustrate that minor symptoms probably aren’t being caused by mineral deficiency or excess. You’re probably not sleepy from high sodium; you just need more sleep.

Again, if you suspect real issues, see your doctor.

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is the use of plants for medicinal purposes, and is a contrast to pharmaceuticals which use lab created drugs instead. Plants have been the basis for medical treatment throughout most of human history and traditional herbal medicine is still widely practiced around the world. Modern medicine calls herbalism an “alternative medicine” because it isn’t strictly based on evidence gathered using the scientific method. Herbalism is typically based on evidence gained during treatment, anecdotal results, and other herbalists.

A clear overlap with modern medicine, though, is the derivation of compounds from plants to be used in pharmaceutical drugs.
A merger of the two approaches is Phytotherapy (the study of the use of extracts of natural origin as medicines or health-promoting agents), which works to apply modern standards of effectiveness testing to herbs and medicines that are derived from natural sources.

The scope of herbal medicine is sometimes extended to include fungal and bee products, as well as minerals, shells and certain animal parts.

Some examples of herbal medicine would be using Stinging Nettle capsule to reduce inflammation or Ginger tea to ease nausea.

Amino acids and Proteins

Amino acids are organic compounds composed of amine (-NH2) and carboxylic acid (-COOH) functional groups, along with a side-chain specific to each amino acid. The key elements in all amino acids are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, though other elements are found in the side-chains of certain amino acids. There are three categories of Amino Acids:

  • Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, and must be supplied by food.
  • Non-essential amino acids are made by the body from essential amino acids or in the normal breakdown of proteins.
  • Conditional amino acids are usually not essential, except in times of illness, stress, or for someone challenged with a lifelong medical condition.

You can usually find Branched Chain Amino Acids in supplement form at many health food/supplement stores. Examples include Leucine (protein synthesis), Cysteine (immune support), and Lysine (calcium absorption).

Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are fatty acids that humans and other animals need to get by diet because the body requires them for good health but cannot synthesize them. The term “essential fatty acid” refers to fatty acids required for biological processes but does not include the fats that only act as fuel. EFA’s are a separate kind of fat from dietary fat, which provides caloric energy to the body.

The only two fatty acids known to be essential for humans are alpha-linolenic acid, typically referred to as “omega-3 fatty acid” in supplements, and linoleic acid, which is usually called “omega-6 fatty acid” in supplements. Fun fact: when EFA’s were first discovered they were called Vitamin F, but after more study were found to be fats and not vitamins. EFA’s play a role in tissue inflammation, mood/behavior regulation, cellular signaling, and even activating/deactivating DNA strands.

Some of the food sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are fish and shellfish, flaxseed (linseed), hemp seed, soya oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, leafy vegetables, and walnuts. Supplements tend to use one of those sources in concentrated versions to provide a boost if your diet is otherwise lacking these EFA’s. You may see fish oil capsules or even powdered versions of the seeds as food additives.

Athletic Supplements

While many of the other supplements on this list are used by the population at large, especially vitamin and essential element supplements, the Athletic category includes the dietary additives that are typically used by athletes in various sports like bodybuilding, CrossFit, and traditional competitive sports. These may be used to replace meals (e.g. protein bars/shakes), enhance weight gain, promote fat loss (e.g. caffeine, ephedra), or improve general performance (e.g. steroids).

The most common athletic supplements are multivitamins, protein drinks/bars, branched chain amino acids (BCAA), gluatmine, EFA’s, creatine, and testosterone boosters. You can find these in single forms – i.e. just BCAA’s as a single mix – or in “stacks” of different supplements that are supposed to enhance the affects of the individual parts overall. There are many, many examples of this kind of stacking, so much so that we could dedicate an entire website – not article, website – to discussing them.

Which dietary supplements could be helpful for me?

What supplements you do or do not take is ultimately decided by a few factors:

  1. What are your goals?
  2. What is your diet like?
  3. Do you have any allergies?
  4. Do you have any conditions that merit supplementation?

Goals

You can generally split your goals into Performance or Aesthetic categories. If you care most about performance, than you will focus on supplements which (legally and safely) help you perform at a higher level than if you weren’t taking supplements.If you want to focus mainly on Aesthetics, then your main goal is how you look.

Some examples of Performance Supplements are:

Branched Chain Amino Acids: Studies have shown that taking 10g in the morning and in the evening for one week prior to a damaging bout of exercise decreased muscle soreness by 30%, decreased markers of muscle damage by 22%, and improved muscle performance during recovery. A diet higher in Leucine, which is generally include in BCAA supplements, has been shown to help with fat loss and glucose control.

Author’s Note: I supplement my diet with BCAA’s daily, and have noticed an honest improvement in recovery after workouts. Your mileage may vary, but this one works for me.

Protein: This one is simple: drink or eat extra protein during the day, making it a significant source of dietary calories each day. The idea is that muscle can’t be built without it, so you should have it available to be used. It also tends to be more filling, helping keep appetite under control, and digests more slowly so their energy lasts longer than if you ate the same calories from carbs.

Glutamine: An amino acid that is involved in acute force production in muscle, but which is depleted during high intensity exercise. Taking a glutamine supplement is intended to speed recovery by restoring muscle levels to normal. May be a little prohibitive, because you need a high dose to see any effects. The intestinal cells absorb a lot of the supplement during digestion.

Creatine: This one is thought to increase muscle power and strength by increasing the amount of the chemical creatine present in skeletal muscles. Some studies have supported the claim that regular creatine use may lead to higher efficacy of strength training. This means that, in theory, taking creatine as a regular part of your diet will improve the effects of training from both a visual and performance standpoint.

Beta Alanine: Our last example is intended to help prevent fatigue during workouts by reducing acid build-up. Limited studies have shown that when used on a longer term cycle (4-10 weeks) the reported fatigue of the athletes studied was less than a group not taking the supplement. Some interaction is thought to occur with creatine, but there is no hard data supporting their additive effects.

Some examples of Aesthetic Supplements are:

Green Tea Extract: While Green Tea contains come caffeine, the part thought to do the “heavy lifting” is EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), a catechin found in teas that acts as an antioxidant. Ingesting at least 270 mg of EGCG per day was shown to increase overall metabolism by about 80 calories per day and improve fat loss when compared to a placebo group. An interesting effect was seen in reducing subcutaneous and visceral fat in the abdomen, as well, but that sounds like spot reduction and I’m wary of this particular claim.

Raspberry Ketones: In theory these promote fat breakdown by mimicking capsaicin (the hot part in chile peppers). Studies are a little slim, but so far the reported effects of about 100 mg per day are increased norepinephrine-induced fat breakdown, enhanced thermogenesis, and inhibited absorption of dietary fat.

Caffeine: Caffeine is a central nervous stimulant and is largely responsible for making you feel alert and making intense exercise feel easier. Caffeine will also mildly elevate fat burning and metabolic rate. So yeah, coffee is okay before a workout.

Author’s Note: Studies have also shown that having a single cup of coffee each day for two weeks creates an addictive dependence on caffeine. Take this into account, and try to limit your caffeine intake to 2 times per week if at all possible.

Author’s Admission: I am not good at following the above note, but I’m working on it.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): Human studies have shown positive effects of taking CLA supplements. In one study, women who supplemented with CLA (4.2g per day) for 16 weeks had 4% lower total fat mass and 7% lower fat in the lower body compared to placebo. In a separate study, women who supplemented with CLA (6.4g per day) for 16 weeks showed greater weight loss and fat loss compared to the placebo group. Here’s the rub: the actual mechanism isn’t well understood, so your mileage may vary.

Diet

If your diet is healthy, meaning you are eating most of your diet based on garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch, and no sugar, then you probably have little to no need for supplements that enhance your diet.

If your diet isn’t too great, then you might consider the following:

Daily Multivitamin: Different vitamins come from different places. If you’re not eating a lot of animal protein, consider Vitamin B Complex and Vitamin D supplements. If you’re not a fruit person, supplementing Vitamins, A, C & E might be a good idea. Vitamin K is found in leafy green veggies as well as eggs/liver, so if you don’t eat much of those, consider a Vitamin K booster. If you looked at that list and said, “wow I eat like crap” then grab yourself a daily multivitamin and call it good.

Daily Multimineral: If you’re not getting a lot of animal proteins, you may want to include a mineral supplement in your diet. Vegans and vegetarians, for example, may see low mineral content in their food and should consider supplementing.

EFA Supplement: Something like Fish Oil can help supplement your essential fatty acids if you have a diet which precludes them.

Allergies

Always check the ingredients of any supplement and compare them to what you know could kill you. If you don’t know, don’t take it until you talk to a doctor.

Someone who is sensitive to milk may not be able to digest whey or other dairy proteins very well. Make sure that you are not allergic to milk proteins before using any product derived from milk/dairy sources.

Some protein and fat supplements come from nuts or fish, so if you have an allergy to either of those, that may remove those supplements from your options.

Remember that it is very possible to ingest too much of a given vitamin or mineral, so don’t take more than the daily dose on your multi-whatever. Taking 10,000% of your daily Vitamin C needs is just as bad as not getting any. Moderation is the key.

Lastly, always consider that your body is unique. If you take a supplement and have ANY kind of bad reaction, don’t take it again until you talk to a qualified medical doctor who can test you for allergies and point you in the right direction.

Conditions

If you have any medical conditions that may preclude you from taking supplements, or if you’re not sure DON’T TAKE ANYTHING without talking to a doctor. You’ll notice that this has been a theme in this section: if you really aren’t sure or think something in your body may not like something you’re about to eat, don’t freaking eat it.

Be cautious. Don’t be dumb. Stay healthy.