Kamal Patel is co-founder and director of Examine.com. He holds two master’s degrees from the Johns Hopkins University, in business and in public health, and is on hiatus from a PhD in Nutrition for which he’s investigated the link between diet and chronic pain. He’s published peer-reviewed articles on vitamin D and calcium, as well as on a variety of clinical research topics. He’s also been involved in research on fructose and liver health, on nutrition in low income areas, and on mindfulness meditation.
People always ask us “What supplements should I take?”, expecting a list of must-have supplements.
Spoiler alert: There are no supplements that everyone should take.
Supplements are all about context. Choose the right supplement for your job, not the supplement that’s touted for everyone’s jobs.
Think of it like this: A cast-iron pan might be a great cooking tool if you want an amazing sear. But if you’re lightly sautéing, there are better options. It’s also heavy, so you wouldn’t use it if you have a wrist injury, and it might also be a bad option if you have iron overload. Nutrition and supplements are also like this — what’s good in one scenario isn’t necessarily good in another.
With that said, here are five supplements that are supported by research and have an above-average chance of efficacy (side note: It’s a good thing we don’t sell supplements, as we’d be terrible at it —“Buy our supplement! You may possibly find a positive cost:benefit ratio!”).
Creatine is wildly popular with fitness enthusiasts, and for good reason. While you still need to train consistently to make strength gains, creatine can provide a good power boost by helping your cells make energy, which in turn helps you grow more muscle. There are some people who don’t respond to it, but most do.
Creatine has had a controversial history: health concerns, misinformation about what it is, and notable sports scandals, such as when Mark McGwire’s creatine use was scrutinized for providing an unfair advantage. These days, it’s not controversial in sports, and research suggests that it’s safe. The International Olympic Committee even gave it the go-ahead in 1998, noting that it’s a food component and not at all comparable to steroids and other substances that provide an unfair advantage.
The body makes its own creatine, but not at levels that maximize muscle growth, so using a supplement makes sense for some people.
You can get creatine from meat, but it’s difficult to get as much through food as you would from a supplement. And if you don’t eat a lot of meat, or don’t eat meat at all, creatine can be even more beneficial. Perhaps the most interesting research on creatine these days involves potential benefits for cognition and depression.
In summary, creatine definitely isn’t a ‘can’t-miss’ supplement (like we said, these don’t exist!), but it is a tool that can get you a little closer to maximal performance. And if you buy some, just go with simple creatine monohydrate. It works just as well as any of the fancier, more expensive types.
Bottom line: Creatine works. It is especially powerful if you are vegetarian.
Sometimes, supplement research unveils different benefits than you’d expect. For example, let’s look at garlic.
The most common belief about garlic is that it boosts the immune system and helps prevent us from getting sick—and it might, but the research isn’t clear. What is more clear is garlic’s positive effect on blood pressure and cholesterol.
Garlic isn’t going to make people immune to heart disease nor dramatically slash risk, and its effects are only reliably seen in people with elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. But it can be a useful tool in your arsenal to potentially help improve lipid panels.
You can read more about it in our article on garlic and other helpful foods.
Bottom line: While garlic could possibly improve immune health, it may be even more useful for cardiovascular health.
Getting a good night’s sleep is essential to living a healthy life. Good news: Melatonin can actually help.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Taking it can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep when lying in bed at night, helping you avoid the dreaded “tired but wide awake” time. It may also modestly improve the quality of your sleep. Results may vary, but enough people benefit from taking melatonin that it’s worth mentioning.
Even if you don’t personally find benefit from melatonin supplements, it can still pay dividends to focus on melatonin. How’s that? Well, you can manipulate melatonin levels in your body without taking a supplement. The reason why camping can reset your circadian rhythm, for example, is by forcing you to avoid the blue part of the visible light spectrum at night, then forcing you to see that light in the morning. Blue light is what suppresses your body’s own melatonin production. You can approximate the camping effect at home by avoiding too much TV, computer, and smartphone light in the evening.
By the way, before looking to supplements to fix your sleep issues, consider reading our ten tips for better sleep.
Bottom line: There’s nothing more important than sleep, and it pays to focus on the master sleep regulator: melatonin.
As I’ve said before, there is no panacea in the supplement aisle. But every now and again, a supplement comes along that seems to be useful for multiple things. Curcumin looks to be one of those. Turmeric is a popular spice, and curcumin is a compound in turmeric that has been widely studied. The hype may actually be eclipsing the research at this point (curcumin is touted as a wonder-supplement by thousands of gurus and supplement companies; while research findings are generally positive, they’re sometimes mixed or of poor methodological quality), but curcumin looks promising for lowering cholesterol, improving blood sugar control, lessening symptoms of depression, and reducing osteoarthritis pain.
Most of these things have a common element: excessive inflammation. Curcumin appears to be a powerful anti-inflammatory compound, with the ability to increase the amount of antioxidants our bodies make. So while curcumin may eventually turn out to be overrated for some things, it does make sense to try it for potential inflammation reduction.
Note that curcumin is poorly absorbed if it’s not formulated correctly, so check out our curcumin page and the How to Take section.
Bottom line: Few supplements live up to their hype. Curcumin might, due to unique effects on inflammation
As I mentioned in the previous email, while multivitamins don’t make a lot of sense for most people, taking individual nutrients is sometimes a good idea. Zinc is an interesting one, because it’s plentiful in diets that include beef and fortified cereals, but low in some diets or disease states. For example, lower levels of zinc become more common when people are insulin resistant or have type 2 diabetes.
According to available research, this creates a vicious cycle: Zinc levels go down, which then leads to further insulin resistance. Zinc also seems to have a beneficial effect on HDL and LDL cholesterol levels for people with blood sugar issues, but that benefit doesn’t extend to people with normal blood sugar control.
This is a great example of what I’ve been harping on: In certain contexts, it makes sense to take a supplement. Otherwise, getting all your zinc from food is just fine for non-insulin resistant people.
Bottom line: It’s easier than you’d think to become low in zinc (rhyme not intended), so targeted supplementation is sometimes warranted.
BONUS: What constitutes a good reason to take a nutrient supplement, versus a bad reason?
Here are a couple of examples. “I don’t want to eat healthily, I just like snacks and dessert too much” is a bad reason to take multivitamins, while a confirmed deficiency in multiple nutrients is a good reason. Being low on sleep and hoping that extra B-vitamins will boost your energy? Bad reason (especially because they won’t).
Do you live in a dark hole during winter? Vitamin D may be wise.
Are you a vegan? Vitamin B12 is your friend.
In addition to zinc, magnesium levels tend to be low in people with type 2 diabetes, and supplementation can help.
To repeat our mantra: everyone is unique, and there is no one supplement that every person should take. But some specific supplements may be helpful to some people with nutrient deficiencies.
In the next lesson, we’ll delve deeper into what to look out for when buying supplements.
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