A Look at Health, Performance, and Why Supplements are Like Dungeons & Dragons
I get more questions about supplements than I do about anything else. Historically, most of these questions are about fat loss supplements; however, recently there’s been a big shift in the questions about preventing disease and improving health, usually citing specific supplements they’ve heard about in the media—everything from ground rhino horn to rhodiola and everything in between.
Having fielded so many questions about supplements over the past twelve years, and having done a lot of research (as well as having had a hand in designing a few), I feel comfortable saying that, unlike some fitness professionals, I don’t take a hard line against supplements.
I’m a meathead bro at heart, and I like supplements. I don’t love them, I don’t think they’re necessary, and I don’t think they’re for everybody. I just think that under the right set of circumstances, they can help—sometimes, they can help a lot.
In general, I like to keep things as simple as possible, and stick to just a few supplements. This ensures compliance (you’re more likely to get a client to take one supplement than five), cuts cost, and (with few exceptions) is just as effective.
That said, if my clients had a complete diet, I would feel comfortable recommending no supplements at all.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
We eat too much food with not enough nutrition. We don’t get enough micronutrients; we don’t eat enough vegetables. On a deeper level, we’re eating in a way that makes us too acidic and not alkaline enough.
All of this leaves a lot of “holes” in your diet that can lead to something as superficial as trouble losing fat, something more moderate like compromised sex drive, or something more serious, like digestive issues and frequent sickness.
To fill these holes, I think it’s generally easiest and most effective to prescribe a good supplementation plan, rather than try to get clients to eat three pounds of spinach and hope for the best.
While there are a lot of great options out there, as I mentioned earlier, I typically feel that investing in too many supplements at once isn’t really the right what to go (I’ll get into why below).
Instead, I want to focus on the one supplement you “need” for improved health and well being—which just so happens to have some additional benefits when it comes to fat loss.
But first, let’s talk about the reason you “need” it in the first place.
When it comes to health and fitness, an area of great concern is what scientists call “cellular damage” and nutrition geeks term “oxidative stress.” Whichever moniker you choose, this nasty bit of business is the result of increased free radical production.
So, just what is a free radical, and why is producing more free radicals bad?
It’s actually quite simple: a free radical is a chemically-reactive molecule or molecular fragment that contains at least one unpaired electron in its outer orbital or valence shell. Yeah, like I said: simple.
Speaking practically, a free radical is the crap resulting from all the chemistry that goes on in your body while you’re at the gym.
During exercise, most oxygen consumed by trainees combines with hydrogen to produce water. However, about 2-5% of this intake forms oxygen-containing free radicals, such as superoxide and hydroxyl.
This exercise-induced free radical formation is the result of at least two causes. The first of these is an electron leak in mitochondria—probably at the cytochrome level—that produces superoxide radicals; the second results from alterations in blood flow and oxygen supply, which also triggers free radical generation.
Once formed, free radicals interact with other compounds to create new free radical molecules.
The stress caused by free radicals increases the likelihood of cellular deterioration that comes with advanced aging—we’re talking wrinkles, cancer, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and a general decline in central nervous system and immune function.
Your body, of course, is not without its armor. You have a lot of what are called “scavenger enzymes” to defend you, compounds like catalase, glutathione peroxidase, superoxide dismutase, as well as certain metal-binding proteins.
But this mechanism is only so effective, and the fact that you substantially increase your free radical production from activities like intense exercise is a threat to overloading the body’s natural defenses.
When this happens, in addition to increasing the likelihood of cancer, you also step into counterproductive territory. Excess free radicals have also been shown to increase cortisol, hindering both fat loss and muscle gain.
As in most cases regarding your health, it’s better to be proactive than reactive. I mean, you could just wait around for your skin to shrivel and your heart to burst, but you’re probably better off taking steps to prevent free-radical production with the weapons you have available to you.
Antioxidants protect the plasma membrane of cells by reacting with and removing free radicals.
Not all supplements will have a synergistic, or even additive, effect when combined. Some will provide no additional benefit, and some will actually negate the effects of the compounds they are combined with.
For that reason, and those mentioned earlier, I like to keep it simple and just use the single supplement that gives you the most bang for your buck, a compound that isn’t simply just extremely effective in terms of antioxidants, but also possesses an array of other health benefits.
Again, I understand that sometimes practicality, finances, or even just plain laziness will inhibit you from taking advantage of all of the antioxidants available to you to protect your health, which is why I don’t recommend taking a bunch of supplements.
Instead, I like to take care of everything at once, which is why I just take a high-quality greens powder.
Greens powder, when you choose good ones, are packed full of raw greens, antioxidants, herbs, enzymes, co-factors, mushrooms, vitamins, scarce nutrients, adaptogens, trace elements, minerals, prebiotics, and probiotics.
Now, I know that sounds like I’m just rattling off a list of jargon, but, trust me—that shit’s important. In combination, those things give you an insane boost to your immune system, an increase in energy production, and a nudge towards alkaline balance, all while improving gut health and digestion.
To find a great one, look for a high ORAC rating.
Well, it’s the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity, of course! And as everyone knows, that’s the measurement of antioxidant capacity. Therefore, the higher the ORAC, the better a supplement will be at offsetting oxidative stress.
I know that might sound confusing, so let me put it another way.
There’s a point in Star Wars when, to the everlasting dismay of nerds everywhere, Qui-Gon reveals that the Force could be quantified by measuring something called midi-chlorians. The ORAC rating is like that, only without the glaring error of ruining the entire idea of mystical energy by adding numbers to the mix and making everyone hate George Lucas.
Star Wars aside, the ORAC is kinda like that—in some sense, it quantifies the degree to which a compound will be effective against free radicals.
Just as midi-clorians are a measurement of your skill with the Force, ORAC determines how well a supplement fights free radicals.
Now, if you’ll forgive me further descending further into my seemingly never-ending spiral of nerdiness, the way I see it, greens powders are like a really effective Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party.
As any geek off the street can tell you, variety is crucial in a good party. You need to have a well thought out mix of races and classes to ensure success across various types of challenging situations; while it’s fun to be a barbarian and smash Orcs with your giant war hammer, a group of five barbarians isn’t terribly versatile—if they run into an chaotic evil Archmage who can cast fireballs at a distance, chances are good they’re screwed. We’ve all been there before.
Instead, a good party will have a “tank” (a big guy with lots of health who can absorb equal lots of damage), a healer like a Cleric or Priest, an offensive magic-user, and an agile, distance based warrior like a rogue or ranger.
With all of these classes, you’re prepared, with each having a strength that shores up ther others weaknesses.
So, they’re like the perfect D&D party of the health world: no matter what you need in a given situation, you’re covered.
Need a lock picked? Your rogue is on it. Someone to pepper the enemy with arrows from afar as you rescue prisoners from a maze? Your ranger is already in position. Healing spells? No problem, the priest already cast it. Someone skilled at fighting the undead? Your Paladin is dual-wielding his Mace of Disruption and Holy Avenger—you’re set. Dragon about to blast you with his fiery breath? No sweat, your mage just covered your entire party with a fire resistant etherial shield.
Well, that’s exactly what greens drinks are like. Only instead of a bunch of nerds sitting around a table rolling 20-sided dice it’s a multitude of freeze-dried fruits, veggies, and vitamins to make your body healthy.
And instead of helping you fight dragons and deal with your general inability to talk to girls, the best super greens powders fights free radicals and patches the holes in your armor created by your less-than-perfect diet.
But you can see how they are similar.
The point is, no matter where your deficiency is coming from—whether it’s from too much acidity or too few micronutrients—greens can help fill the void and get you back on track to pristine intestinal health.
That’s because it’s packed with everything from fruits fun-to-say-and-fun-to-eat like pineapple and papaya to hard-to-prononuce probiotics like Lactobacillus acidophilus to even-harder-to-pronounce stuff I’ve never heard of like Eleutherococcus senticosus root extract and Astragulus Membranaceus Root Extract—and as everyone knows, if you can’t pronounce it it’s probably really important1.
So, if when you’re looking for a source of free radical fighting goodness, you have a bunch of options that you can read in our article on greens powders.
The long and short of it is this: when it comes to supplements, my goal is always to provide my clients with the most optimal set up.
For a lot of people, that means minimal effective dose—getting as much out of their supplement plan as possible, while using no more than is absolutely necessary. For others, I’m a bit more heavy-handed and recommend quite a few things.
Every client is different. But one thing that never changes is this: I recommend greens for every single client I work with, because just about everyone can benefit from it. It’s like a one-stop-shop for everything your body requires without you realizing it.
These supplements help us do what so many of us fail to do: cover all the bases. Think of it like nutritional insurance.
That’s why I love it. No matter how good the nutrition program we’re following is, all of us need a little extra help.
And with just one supplement, you can fill all of the nutrition “gaps” that invariably occur when dieting while helping boost immunity and improves gut health. These things are great on their own, but they also play heavily into fat loss—so greens actually helps you make progress faster.
As an added bonus, it’ll help improve your appearance in other ways: they’re great for skin health, and over time will help you look younger, healthier, and more vibrant.
A multivitamin, in theory, provides the same benefits as greens. But there is a key difference. Our body won’t absorb vitamins and minerals extracted for multivitamins because they’re separate from the delicate environment presents in Whole Foods that helps our body absorb them. The fancy word for this is “bioavailability.” Vitamins and minerals from whole food sources often have better bioavailability.
Now, multivitamins are not terrible, but they’re often not as effective, and it some cases harmful. For more on multivitamins, check out this guide from Examine.
Look, you can make your own juices. You can buy whole-food vegetable juice at Trader Joe’s. There are dozens of options for a greens supplement, and just about every major supplement company has a greens supplement because now it’s a cool thing to sell. However, make sure you’re choosing a good one.