Have you ever opened a health and fitness magazine and been bombarded by adverts for supplements? Some are for general health and some are for fitness. They can all sound quite compelling! But which ones really work or really make a difference? We give you our view of the best supplements for everyday health and athletic performance.
Most of you will have learned in school about the association between vitamin D deficiency and rickets. Rickets arises from problems with bone structure because vitamin D is a key contributor to bone health. It is also involved in the regulation of calcium and phosphorus. In terms of health risks, vitamin D can reduce the risk of cavities, heart failure and respiratory infections. Of particular importance to UK citizens is that it has a critical role in the immune system. This article summarises the functions of vitamin D.
The normal source of vitamin D is sun exposure. However, during the UK winter you may not get enough sun exposure so you could become deficient. In fact, the UK government’s recommendations are as follows: “From October to March everyone over the age of five will need to rely on dietary sources of vitamin D. Since vitamin D is found only in a small number of foods, it might be difficult to get enough from foods that naturally contain vitamin D and/or fortified foods alone. So everyone should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 µg of vitamin D.”
If you really don’t want to supplement then you’ll have to get plenty of food that contains it. Sources include oily fish, eggs and – these days – most mushrooms.
As with all supplementation, you can have too much of a good thing. This article lists sensible dosage and side effects of excess intake. It also provides guidance on which medical conditions would require a GP consultation prior to supplementation.
You would most commonly take creatine as a sports supplement. It helps supply energy to cells throughout the body, mainly in the muscles and brain. It is well researched and proven to improve anaerobic endurance, strength output and recovery.
But did you know it also has some general health benefits? It can improve the debilitating symptoms of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and muscle atrophy. It may also have a number of additional benefits. For example, it may help improve blood sugar control, which could help combat diabetes.
You’ll find all sorts of fancy creatines on the market. But really you should just stick to creatine monohydrate. It’s the only one that is proven by extensive research. In terms of dosage, you’ll often see advice to ‘load’ for 5 days. That is not necessary. Just take 5-10g per day, ideally pre- and post-workout. On non-training days just split the dose, one am, one pm.
You’ll have a better uptake of creatine if you take it with whey or simple sugars such as fruit juices. Both will produce an insulin response to aid uptake.
Essential fatty acids
When we talk about something being essential in our diet, it’s because our body is unable to synthesise it. So, we need to get it from outside sources – generally our diet.
When we say “essential fatty acids” we mean omegas 3, 6 and 9. It is important that these are provided in the correct ratios for optimal health. For example, our previous article on mental health points out that brain health is improved with the correct ratios of omega 3 and 6.
In fact, omega 9s are not actually an essential fatty acid. They are the most abundant fat in most of our cells and our bodies are able to synthesise them. That’s why they are non-essential. But consuming omega 9s has been linked to metabolic health, which is why they are usually included in the essentials.
Omega 6 fatty acids are essential as we do need to obtain them through our diets. These fats are primarily used for energy production but have been shown to benefit the treatment of chronic diseases. That being said, it is general consensus that within our western diets we consume too many Omega 6s. That means we need to be more mindful of our omega 6 consumption. You’ll typically find omega 6s in soya beans, corn, sunflower oil, nuts and seeds, meat and poultry. But you’ll likely find that the main source in your diet is refined vegetable oils.
In general we consume too few omega 3s. So, we focus the rest of this section on omega 3s.
Like omega 6s, we cannot synthesise omega 3s. So, they are also essential. You can get omega 3s from oily fish mainly (EPA and DHA types) and from some plants (ALA type). The type derived from fish conveys more health benefits than the plant based types. This is one reason why the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 1-2 portions of oily fish per week.
Other benefits include:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced inflammation
- Reduced arthritic joint pain
- Improved liver function
- Improved mental health
Of particular relevance to the athlete, or those looking to improve their body composition, is this study. It concluded that including fatty fish in the diet resulted in greater weight loss over a 4 week period compared to those not taking fish oil.
The WHO recommends between 200mg and 500mg daily.
Essential amino acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 in bodily proteins. Of these, 9 are essential.
In general we get our amino acids from consuming protein sources. We need sufficient protein in our diets to meet all the body’s needs for protein such as repairing tissues, growing hair and nails, transporting hormones, building and maintaining muscle. If you don’t get enough protein then your body will break down your own muscle tissue to meet the demand.
For the athlete concerned with building strength, power or muscle, one amino acid is particularly relevant. Leucine directly stimulates muscle protein synthesis. It also has other benefits such as increasing endurance and regulation of blood sugar.
If you have a balanced diet that includes animal-derived proteins, and you consume sufficient protein, then it is likely you’ll be getting enough leucine to meet your muscle building requirements. If you feel you don’t eat enough protein or you are vegan then you may need to supplement. It’s often a challenge to get sufficient protein on a vegan diet because plants, in general, have a lower protein content. Moreover, those proteins also tend to have a lower leucine content. So, there’s a high chance that if you wing it as a vegan you may not be optimising your ability to build muscle. Supplementation with vegan Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) or Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) is then a wise move.
Another reason you might want to supplement with leucine or BCAAs is to minimise sarcopenia. Research has shown that muscle loss in old age is reduced with leucine supplementation.
Before we conclude this section on amino acids, let’s just give whey a mention. The popularity of whey protein shakes as a post-workout recovery drink is largely due to the leucine content. Whey has an excellent leucine content and is a fast digesting protein. It’s ideal for post-workout when your muscles are in need to repair and recovery. If you don’t like the idea of taking BCAAs or EAAs then whey is a good option.
Other supplements worth a mention
We could go on listing supplements that are useful to include in your nutrition plan, but we we wanted to keep it succinct. That said, some are definitely worth a mention.
People used to take this as an anti-catabolic but the evidence for this ambiguous. We recommend you take it for immune system support and gut health. We’ve written before about keeping the immune system healthy. In that post, glutamine is listed as a key component of a strong immune system.
This is a more common and popular substance. You probably don’t even consider it a supplement. Its main effect is as a stimulant. That’s why most of us can’t start our day or get through it without a strong cup of coffee! What you may find interesting, is that tea leaves contain more caffeine than coffee beans. So even if you drink English or black tea, you are consuming caffeine.
The stimulant effect is the most common use for caffeine. Most pre-workout formulas will contain a lot of caffeine or a derivative as the main stimulant. Another physical benefit is that it can increase metabolism, which is why it is popular substance in fat burners. Outside of this, caffeine has also been shown to improve mood and brain function.
Caffeine consumption is a bit like sugar consumption. It can lead to highs and lows during the day. If you’re on a caffeine low, only another caffeine shot will pick you up. So, in general, keeping your caffeine consumption down will help you stay on an even keel.
That said, there are instances where we’d recommend caffeine. First, for fat loss, caffeine is really good at pulling fat out of fat stores. That means it’s great as a pre-cardio supplement. Something like a double espresso would be a good dosage in this case. Second, because caffeine is a stimulant, it’s great for boosting performance, especially for competition. Again, a double-espresso sized dose would work well for this. Of course, if you don’t drink coffee or tea then caffeine tablets are available. The good thing about caffeine tablets is that you can be accurate about dosage.
This is one you may not have heard of unless you are a ‘gym junkie’. ZMA is an all-natural supplement made up of zinc, magnesium aspartate and vitamin B6. Individually, each of these have their own benefits. Zinc can improve metabolism, digestion and the immune system as well as hormone production. Magnesium can aid in improving the function of the metabolism as well as aiding sleep quality. You will find that most ZMA products suggest taking ZMA before bed on an empty stomach, although this is not essential.
Our recommendation for ZMA comes from its effects on 2 key hormones: testosterone and growth hormone. There was a study in 2000 that showed supplementation of ZMA over a 7-week period resulted in an increase of both. These are both great hormones if you’re looking to improve your body composition. Even if you’re a woman, optimising you testosterone production will ensure you maintain a healthy lean muscle mass as well as keeping your metabolism up.
For dosing, follow the recommended guidelines of the brand you buy.
What about multi-vitamins?
In terms of health, a multivitamin in probably the first supplement that you think of. Is this valid? Does a multi-vitamin convey the health benefits that you might imagine it does?
Numerous studies suggest that a multivit has no health benefits. In this article, researchers confirmed that multivitamin and mineral supplements did not work any better than placebos. So, it’s not clear that taking supplements to fill gaps in a less-than-perfect diet really translates into any kind of health boost. In fact, taking too many vitamin supplements may actually be damaging. This article mentions that high doses of vitamin E may lead to stroke caused by bleeding in the brain. It also informs us that taking high amounts of vitamin B6 for a year or longer has been associated with nerve damage.
This NHS article confirms that the most commonly used supplements did not have any significant effect on the risk of cardiovascular outcomes or death from any cause. Their conclusion is that a balanced and varied diet is a far better option for reducing the risk of health problems.
Obviously, we cannot argue with the science! The only exception might be when you know you have a poor diet devoid of nutrients. You might then choose to take a single multivitamin as a safety net.
There’s no real substitute for a healthy, balanced, calorie-controlled diet. Get plenty of lean protein, fruit, veggies, pulses and unrefined carbs.
But, perhaps your lifestyle makes it challenging to follow a healthy diet. Or maybe you deliberately cut certain food groups. Perhaps you need a bit of a boost in certain situations? In these cases, the strategic use of supplements can be a useful addition to your nutrition plan.