Supplement Review: Supplements That Suck, Supplements That Work, and Supplements That Are Underrated Part I
The topic of supplements is about as controversial as they come – right up there with homeland security, government deficit spending, global warming, that silly ban on big gulp sodas in NYC, and trying to figure out who the best Spice Girl was back in the day.
Scary Spice obviously. No, wait…..Sporty Spice!
On one end of the spectrum you have those who take a minimalist approach (like myself) and generally advocate people to lean more towards those supplements which elicit positive health benefits outright; such as fish oil, vitamin D, multi-vitamin (or a Green’s product), protein powder, and I’d even throw creatine into the mix.
On the other end of the spectrum you have those who take anything and everything under the sun and whose kitchen cabinets look more like a pharmacy than where they keep their peanut butter and canned peas.
Regardless of which side of the spectrum you fall on, to say that the supplement industry is a bit confusing is a massive understatement. Which ones work? Which ones are a waste of money? Which ones cause explosive diarrhea? These are all very important questions.
Thankfully my buddy, Sol Orwell of Examine.com, offered to sift through the muddy waters and provide some much needed insight on some common supplements and whether or not they’re worth the hype.
Glucosamine is usually marketed as a joint health supplement, and is commonly used by many athletes to either help alleviate joint pain and/or increase the mobility of joints.
Despite how popular glucosamine is (one survey found that 5% of the entire population had taken glucosamine), beyond exhaustive research into people with osteoarthritis, there is very little research done into glucosamine usage by athletes.
Glucosamine is usually associated with being a building block of collagen or otherwise stimulating its synthesis. While glucosamine can do that, it’s in concentrations that you cannot achieve with oral supplementation. What it can do is help decrease the rate of collagen breakdown; essentially it can slow down further degeneration, but it cannot actual cure the problem.
Glucosamine is not outright crap; it could potentially be an anti-catabolic (but not anabolic) agent for connective tissue in athletes undergoing high impact training.
However, using it to help deal with joint health is likely wasted money. It can slightly help (a meta analysis found that it can slightly reduce pain), but it is nowhere near as amazing as marketed.
Tribulus Terrestris (and “testosterone boosters” in general)
Tribulus is a triumph in marketing and human psychology. It is one of the few supplements that has ample evidence to outright demonstrate that it doesn’t work. Still, it is the most popular testosterone booster on the market (with d-aspartic acid coming up fast).
Tribulus is a libido enhancer, confers some urogenital benefits (reduced formation of kidney stones), is generally a healthy herb, has some antioxidant and antiinflammatory properties, and is potentially heart healthy.
It does not boost testosterone, nor luteinizing hormone, at all; there is no evidence to support this claim and there is quite a bit of evidence against it. Treat it like a vegetable (good for you) that also makes you horny, but does not actually increase testosterone
On the topic of testosterone boosters in general – they do exist, there are a few studies (mostly in animals) to support their actions and efficacy in increasing testosterone.
The category is just overhyped; no testosterone booster will give you the muscular gains that are classically ascribed to testosterone boosters and no study has actually measured the muscular gains from a testosterone boosting herb intervention. Theoretically, it should be dose-dependent (assuming you eat right and work out, the more testosterone the better) but the magnitude of benefit could be so small it isn’t even that visible.
Statistically? Significant. Practically? Irrelevant. Most of the testosterone boosters being marketed increase your libido; people incorrectly assume their increased libido is due to a correlated increase in testosterone.
Testosterone boosters should be viewed as cognitive enhancers. They make you horny and a bit confident and might increase cognition and output in the gym, but the ones currently on the market are unlikely to ‘pack on muscle’.
With the importance of dietary protein come the individual amino acids being sold as their own supplements. Common ones include BCAAs, leucine, glutamine, arginine, and tyrosine. Glutamine is one of the more popular ones, and really the only one that truly does not fit its claim (arginine technically does, although is subpar; glutamine just seems to be lying).
Glutamine is said to build muscle, and supplementation of glutamine in real-life situations just does not.
Glutamine is involved in cell anabolism, and is especially important for the cell when it is sitting outside of a body in a culture. When glutamine is introduced to a muscle cell in isolation, there is dose-dependent muscle growth; this has been demonstrated repeatedly, and glutamine is basically a requirement for a proper in vitro study to just keep the cell alive (glutamine being the food source).
That being said, glutamine is highly regulated in a living system; there will not be such an excess of glutamine at a cellular level since it can simply be converted to carbohydrates in excess or otherwise partitioned to other organs. Oral glutamine supplementation is well known to be sequestered by the intestines and liver, leaving barely any to reach the muscle cell (only as much as the body seems to allow).
The only time glutamine builds muscle mass is when the body is in a glutamine deficient state. This is obscenely rare, and seems to only frequently occur in physical trauma patients or burn victims. Glutamine can build muscle in these settings (or at least, slow the incredible rate of muscle loss) and has absolutely no evidence beyond these settings.
There is a school of thought that glutamine can be a sacrificial amino acid during periods of carbohydrate and caloric restriction, and thus provide an anti-catabolic effect by being gluconeogenerated itself in place of skeletal muscle; this works in theory, but has not yet been demonstrated.
Check back tomorrow for part two, where I’ll cover supplements that I actually like and those I feel are drastically underrated.
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).