Supplement Review: Supplements That Suck, Supplements That Work, and Supplements That Are Underrated Part II
Yesterday in Part One of this series Sol Orwell and the guys over at Examine.com discussed a handful of supplements that they feel are about as useful as a poop flavored lollypop. Which is to say: not very useful.
As a strength coach and as someone who’s routinely discussing supplementation with younger athletes and general population clientele, especially to those who feel that they’re the magic bullet they’ll need to take their performance (and physique) to the next level, it was great to see some of the more well recognized ones thrown under the microscope for further inspection.
Besides, as I like to tell the vast majority of people: if your current nutrition and training routine isn’t eliciting the results you’re after, no supplement is going to become the “x” factor.
More often than not it’s just a matter of making better food choices and actually going to the gym to train rather than wasting time on the internet talking about it.
That said, not all supplements deserve the bad rap. In today’s post, Sol discusses some of the supplements he feels deserves their reputation, as well as those he feels should steal a bit more of the spotlight.
Enjoy! And please, share your thoughts below. Any supplements you feel deserve more recognition?
Supplements that Deserve their Reputation
Creatine is a molecule that seems to have a vitamin-like effect on the body. Relative creatine deficiency (especially common in vegetarians) may result in suboptimal cognition and strength levels. True creatine deficiency (only achievable via genetics) results in mental retardation.
Creatine is most commonly used for the purpose of increasing power output and the rate of building muscle, and it is definitely proven for these roles as it is currently the most well researched ergogenic aid (performance enhancer) in existence.
Creatine works for increasing power output during anaerobic exercise (powerlifting, bodybuilding, sprinting, etc.) and although it may have crossover to endurance based events it doesn’t seem as reliable. It has less evidence for increasing the rate of building muscle but this appears to also be true. Putting muscle cells in an energy surplus state tends to increase the rate of which they grow, and creatine is a very readily available source of energy.
Evidence is being gathered in creatine also have positive effects on cognition.
Beta-alanine (and a note on its “big brother”)
Firstly, beta-alanine needs to have a jab taken at it for two things: potency and instances when it is used.
- Yes, beta-alanine works; no, it is not magical. It might enhance endurance performance by around 2% or so, nothing astonishing although it can provide a needed benefit
- Yes, beta-alanine works for endurance; it doesn’t really do anything reliable for strength (it might, some weak evidence for building muscle like creatine) and seems to only reliably increase physical performance for exercise exceeding 60s (and under 240s; these numbers derived from the only meta-analysis on the topic)
However, given those two qualifying statements, beta-alanine does increase performance and secondary to that can increase training adaptations.
Beta-alanine is essentially a lactic acid buffer (hence its lack of efficacy for power output – lactic acid is not the reason you fail on a 5 rep max test) similar to its lesser known big brother, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). Both of these compounds are essentially the same, just reduce the influence of acidity on muscle failure and you can go longer until failure; they aren’t too potent as you cannot disturb pH in the body easily, but they do work.
The increased popularity of vitamin D in the last decade is actually quite remarkable, and its growth in popularity seems to even exceed that of fish oil when the latter first arrived on the scene. In regards to vitamin d, it is definitely beneficial in a few disease states for preventative purposes although it is not the panacea it is sometimes held up to be.
Vitamin d is stored in the body and when it is needed it is converted into a bioactive hormone known as 1,25-dihydroxycalciferol. Negative things are associated with a state that attempts to produce the hormone but has insufficient vitamin d to do so, and supplementing vitamin d alleviates this possible negative.
Thus, Vitamin d is critical for people in a deficient state. The combination of our indoor lives coupled with pollution means that most people outside of the tropics tend to be in a deficient state. Supplementing with 2000 UI while you get your vitamin d levels tested is a smart way to go.
So although the outcome is still beneficial, vitamin d supplementation is more about alleviating negatives rather than inducing positives.
Supplements that Deserve More Recognition
Referred to earlier as beta-alanine’s bigger brother, sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda) actually has a fair bit of evidence for performance enhancement. It shares a lot of similarities with beta-alanine, being an acidity buffer and improving performance that is hindered by lactic acid.
Recently, it has been shown to provide benefit to hypertrophy exercise in resistance trained males at the dose of 300mg/kg bodyweight.
The pros of sodium bicarbonate include its very good cost-efficacy in regards to the financial price (you can buy baking soda at a grocery store) and pretty good performance enhancement.
The main downside is too much taken at once will cause a snowstorm coming from your butt; the sodium bicarbonate doesn’t even change color when it does this, actually being quite hilarious the first time it occurs (to somebody else).
Note from TG: Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhaha.
Due to this, sodium bicarbonate is taken in multiple doses throughout the day and with soluble fiber containing meals to try and minimize this side-effect which appears to be related merely to taking too much at once.
Beetroot is merely a vessel for the molecule known as inorganic nitrate. Nitrate is absorbed in the intestines and regurgitated (surprisingly a good term) into saliva where it is converted to nitrite. When swallowed the saliva nitrite can be converted into nitric oxide and sustain physical performance.
Beetroot is most commonly used for nitrate due to it being in the class of vegetables that are the richest source of nitrate (alongside spinach, rocket, celery, and swiss chard). It’s cheap to purchase in bulk quantities and the tastiest to blend and consume before exercise.
It does not appear to be effective for acute power output improvement, but similar to beta-alanine it can enhance physical endurance exercise and more prolonged endurance exercise.
Similar to other nitric oxide related supplements, it is also ‘healthy’ from a cardiovascular health perspective and also may confer other benefits related to nitric oxide (namely reductions in blood pressure and increased frequency of erections).
In regards to the connection between nitrates and cancer (nitrate, used as food preservative, is thought to be a factor in the connection between pink meats and processed meats with cancer) the cancer link is dependent on production of nitrosamines from nitrate. This production seems to occur at a greatly reduced rate in the presence of any antioxidant, with vitamin c being used most frequently in research. Due to antioxidants present in beetroot, nitrosamine production is not a concern.
This is also a reason why, if using supplemental nitrate, a coingested antioxidant would be a good idea (or just to take the supplement with some fruit).
Citrulline is essentially a more effective form of arginine (which tends to be pretty popular).
L-Citrulline is an amino acid that, following absorption, is sent to the kidneys and simply converted to l-arginine. It is superior to l-arginine itself because of its superior absorption rate; l-arginine is poorly absorbed, and malabsorbed l-arginine proceeds to the colon to then induce diarrhea.
Citrulline carries all the same benefits of l-arginine except at a lower dose due to enhanced absorption (5-8g commonly being used). It usually comes as citrulline malate, which gives it a slight sour/tangy taste.
Kurtis Frank and Sol Orwell are cofounders of Examine.com, where they spend their time making sense of scientific studies on supplements and nutrition. They also have a Beginners Guide to Supplements, which you should really, really check out (subtle hint).