Sunday, December 5, 2010

Supplements that WORK

There are several ways you can go about picking supplements to use.  Scientific research (either reading it yourself or reading the opinion of someone else who reads a lot of studies) is great, but there are a few problems.  Most studies use young, fit people as test subjects, and your results may not resemble theirs.  Most studies are also fairly short term, and the benefits of a supplement might wear off after a few weeks or months.  So if you plan to use a supplement for a long time you might be misled by the research.

Another common sense method is to take a supplement for some fixed period of time (say, 30 or 60 days) and see if it helps you.  You could use actual performance measures - how you do in training - or something more subjective, like how you feel.  The subjective measures are tricky because there's always the placebo effect to consider, but I'll be honest - if you use a bunch of different things and are always trying something new I think you can get past placebo effects.

A problem with the "I feel better" test is that many supplements have effects that you can't feel.  Take fish oil for one example.  If you have serious inflammation problems (joint pain, for example) fish oil may give you tangible benefits - you might feel better taking it.  But if you have a little insulin resistance and some subclinical inflammation - the type you can't feel but might be contributing to the development of plaque in your arteries - then the fish oil might be improving your health without you noticing it.  Imagine someone taking some supplement to improve bone health.  How do you know if it's working?  If in twenty or forty years you don't break a hip.  I can't think of any simple at home test to see if you're losing a minute fraction of bone density.

There are a handful of supplements that I am convinced work because I immediately feel their effects.  That doesn't mean that other supplements don't work - just that I'm positive these do work.  It's a short list:

  • Caffeine.  Stimulant.  People's responses do vary, but if you're not a caffeine user, drink 3 cups of coffee before doing something and see how you feel.  Lots of evidence makes it seem that you get used to caffeine, so eventually you're less stimulated by it and need the stuff just to get out of bed.  Best use for caffeine is occasional use when maximum effort is needed - maybe once every week or do take in 200 mg before a super intense training session, sparring session, or promotion.  If you use it every day the benefits will quickly taper off.
  • Ephedrine.  Stimulant and weight loss effects.  Banned by FDA (for totally crap reasons, but that's probably an argument for another day).  Oh, how I miss my sweet, sweet ephedrine...  Maybe I liked this stuff too much.
  • Magnesium citrate.  Either calms you down or stimulates you - weird, huh?  Depends on the person.  It might help you sleep, but it will definitely loosen your bowels.  DO NOT experiment with a large dose at first unless you want to spend the next day in the bathroom.  This may seem out of place in a martial arts blog, but having regular bowel movement is important to health and constipation does not improve your fighting skill.  I'm not a big fan of overdoing fiber - I think some is okay but large amounts may damage your colon - so an easy alternative is magnesium.  
  • Quercetin.  For allergies/ asthma.  I definitely feel better on quercetin than I did without it.  Not a cure, but an improvement.
  • Extra protein.  This one's a little more marginal, but a couple of times I've had some serious soreness (DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness), then pigged out on meat (try your local churrascaria), and wasn't sore the next day.  I know my usual healing time pretty well, and it was cut short by an overload of  protein and calories.  I've never tried overloading on protein day after day for a long time, and I don't think that's a good idea (your body will get better and better at burning protein for energy, and I don't think that's what you want), but occasional bursts may help your recovery.
Where's creatine, beta alanine, multivitamins, calcium, fish oil, and carnitine on this list?  Like I said, they might work - maybe even probably work - for most people, but I don't personally get any short term measurable benefit out of them.  With creatine that's unusual - most people see very short term weight gain and endurance improvements with the stuff, and I'm sure I'll experiment with it again in the future.  The two times I tried to use it I got nothing (many supplements work for only portions of the population - there are usually a minority of people who don't respond because of some biological peculiarity they have).

Please post to comments if you've had short term tangible results from any common over the counter supplements or if you've tried one of these without effect.  Thanks!

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