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To Supplement or Not To Supplement
Supplements. Be it vitamins, minerals, herbs, antioxidants or nootropics. It’s a billion Dollar industry and wildly popular at that. Perhaps your best buddy swears by this-and-this tablet or you scroll through Instagram and find adverts for every imaginable supplement under the sun. The marketing is beautiful and the promises are magnificent. It’s curious how almost everything promises to (maybe) reduce your risk of cancer or make you look like a model!
So, is it all fluffy advertising or are there real reasons to supplement? You’ll often hear people argue that within the context of a healthy diet, supplementation shouldn’t be necessary and that it’s a waste of money. After all, our ancestors didn’t supplement. I disagree with this viewpoint and think that there are numerous reasons for everyone, the healthy and those with health concerns, to supplement and to supplement smartly!
First of all, our ancestors did supplement and have done so for centuries. It may not have come wrapped in a pretty bottle, but they certainly supplemented their daily diets (with what looked very similar to what we today call nootropics or other natural ingredients). Ancient supplements included root, stem and leaf teas, as well as medicinal powders and highly concentrated oil extracts.
Secondly, a healthy diet is important to get al the necessary nutrients that our bodies need to function at their best, but sadly the reality of modern living is that the healthiest of foods can no longer fully deliver in this respect.
And finally: we live in an ultra-competitive society. We are no longer just battling lions and the elements, but also each other to be “the best”. Supplementing to (legally) give your cognitive and physical performance a boost has become as commonplace as the “this supplement may [insert promising claim]” mantra has become!
Clearly, I think supplementation is necessary for most people. Especially if you want to optimise your health and wellness. However, the most important thing is to supplement smartly. This includes not just taking a supplement because your tjommie does (i.e. what is your reason for taking a supplement), making sure you take your supplement at the right time of the day and finally being aware of the bioavailability of different substances, which simply means whether your body is able to absorb what you pop in your mouth.
Before we get into these points, let’s look at the top reasons why supplementation is important:
1. We Don’t Always Make Smart Food Choices
We don’t all eat healthy diets, and certainly not all of the time. Modern diets which include a lot of processed food, takeaways, chemicals and often lack variety contribute not only to lacking nutrients, but also to poor digestion. This in turn means that even the nutrients that are consumed, are poorly absorbed. Supplementation can’t replace a bad diet, but it does help with some damage control.
2. Nutrient Needs Increase as We Age
There are two important things to remember as we start ageing and specifically after 50. First off, nutrient needs increase. We require more calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, especially to address decreasing bone density. While strength training is so important in this context, supplementing with these nutrients and vitamins becomes crucial.
Secondly, as we age, malabsorption becomes a greater concern (notably due to lowering stomach acid). It becomes increasingly difficult to absorb vitamin B12 from food, and our bodies aren’t able to break down food in the same way as when we were younger. This is exacerbated by the fact that we’re likely taking more pharmaceutical medications, which deplete essential nutrients and further interfere with mineral and nutrient absorption.
3. Lifestyle Factors and Nutrient Needs
Be it lifestyle factors like smoking or getting insufficient light exposure that deplete nutrient levels, or life stages like pregnancy that increase our nutrient needs, it’s important to be cognisant of the fact that we may need to provide our bodies with additional support in these instances.
4. Environmental Factors
There are external factors that even the best diets can’t escape. Modern farming techniques that include pervasive use of pesticides and herbicides leave soil deprived of nutrients, which means that the plants that grow in them are similarly affected and cannot form essential minerals and nutrients.
A recent study showed that when compared to vegetables grown in the 1970’s (when recommendations were made as to what we should eat to consume adequate vitamins and minerals), the modern-day equivalents are significantly less nutritious. I used to get super excited if I saw beautiful red tomatoes that look absolutely perfect and last for weeks in my fridge. That’s not achievable in nature but rather through genetic modification, which unfortunately very often results in low nutritional values.
In addition, veggies that are shipped long distances suffer further depletion, and so it is important to opt for local, seasonal and organic produce where possible. But even then, smart supplementation aids with bridging that nutritional gap and increasing the nutrient density of our diets.
If we consider that modern water filtration inadvertently also filters out the good stuff and that we are bombarded by EMF signals, artificial light, pollution and other environmental factors, it makes sense that we would need to supplement our diets to some extent.
5. Restrictive Diets
This could be due to choice (following a particular diet) or due to allergies or intolerances to certain foods. As an example, vegetarians and vegans need to be very mindful of finding a way to include vitamin B12, iron, zinc and iodine into their diets to optimise their health. Also, if you limit food intake for weight loss purposes or lack of appetite, it’s important to make sure that you’re not skipping on important nutrients.
6. Medical Conditions and Medications
Medical conditions like celiac disease or colitis result in absorption being impaired and supplementation becomes very important. In addition, an astounding amount of medications not only impair absorption of nutrients, but also deplete nutrients.
A perfect example of this is oral contraception (birth control), which results in a number of significant vitamin deficiencies, including folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin C, thiamine, magnesium and zinc. All of these are rather crucial for optimum, or any, health!
7. Active Lifestyles and Exercise
Athletes and active people require additional energy and nutrients, not only for performance but also for recovery. This need cannot always be met by food alone, and so supplementing with key nutrients becomes even more important.
8. Optimisation, Plain and Simple
As mentioned, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! If making sure your mind and body is optimised by giving it what it needs helps you be as strong as you possibly can, then shouldn’t this be a priority? Nootropics are a natural way in which especially our brains can be optimised for peak performance. Think caffeine, CBD, green tea, Lion’s Mane, Noopept and curcumin. There are so many wonderful nootropics that enhance our cognitive performance that they make excellent additions to any daily supplement regime.
Read More: What are Nootropics again?
Important things to look out for when choosing supplements:
“You are not what you eat, you are what you absorb”. If you think about it, that really makes sense. When people talk about supplements being nothing more than “expensive wee”, they’re not completely wrong as we often supplement just for the sake of it, without considering whether our bodies are actually able to do anything with that supplement and then just gets rid of it. In fact, there really are a truck load of supplements that simply don’t work because your body can’t do anything with them.
Excellent examples include resveratrol and curcumin, which have poor natural bioavailability. But the miracle of nature gave us Piperine, which is the bioactive compound found in black pepper. Boom, consuming even a pinch of black pepper with your resveratrol or curcumin makes it up to 1,500% and 2,000% respectively more bioavailable than without black pepper. That’s a 20-fold increase in how well your body can actually utilise those supplements.
Black pepper does the same for CoQ10 (32%) and Vitamin C (50%). Ingredients like ginseng and astragulus do the same as black pepper for other supplements, so it’s important to buy supplements from a company that you trust and who you know have considered these factors when compounding your supplements.
Making sure you buy quality supplements cannot be overemphasised. It’s more expensive, but what is even more expensive is buying a supplement that not only doesn’t deliver on its promise, but causes more harm than good through the inclusion of ingredients in those supplements that have no place in a healthy diet (due to their toxicity or (can you believe it) impairment of absorption).
These include magnesium stearate (even the vegetable kind), SLS, propylene glycol, polyethylene, sodium benzoate, aspartame, TBHQ, acesulfame-K, benzoic acid, BHA, BHT and gluten.
Timing of Supplements
I took a particular supplement for months until I read that it should never be taken at night (which is exactly when I was taking it!). My sleep drastically improved overnight after switching to mornings. Yes, I felt like an idiot, but it really showed me the power of timing your supplements correctly. For example, taking magnesium or collagen at night can aid in sleep, so they’re best taken close to bedtime. A good quality supplement will tell you when to take the supplement!
To Supplement or Not to Supplement
This is the question. Yes, a healthy, whole foods diet will take you a long way. Good sleep, being hydrated and a healthy diet is amazing. But often what we buy is pumped full of hormones or genetically manipulated or pesticide ridden and there are outside factors that we cannot control.
Supplementing need not be an expensive exercise if you follow a targeted approach and are aware of what your individual needs are. You might even save on health costs in the long run. To enjoy optimal health, and to boost your brain and your physiology, supplementation in a smart and educated manner will make all the difference!
Ultimately, supplementing with minerals, vitamins and nootropics is a natural, time-honoured way to enhance your body and brain and is even more important today where we face modern stressors that even the cleanest of lifestyles cannot fully escape.
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- Thea is the founder of Neolaia – Biohacking SA and passionate about all things biohacking, functional medicine, holistic and ancestral wellness. She enjoys the occasional triathlon, is fanatic about yoga and the gym and loves n=1 biohacking experiments more than anything else! Learning about the latest in scientific research for health and wellness and applying this knowledge is what makes her happiest!