- 1. You Can't Isolate Mechanisms
- 2. They Come With Side Effects
- 3. Small Fish In A Big Pond
- 4. It's An Expensive Hobby
- 5. They Can't Be A Daily Thing
The Quest To Become Limitless
This is the tip of the quick-fix spear. The world of supplements sits on a wild untamed frontier, that’s somehow managed to prop up an industry on track to hit 117.92 billion dollars by 2027. But it’s easy enough to see why. Ranging from biohacking to fat loss, muscle gain, and over to reaching some semblance of immortality, there’s always something to capture your imagination. And they all tend to promise similar things. Short-cuts that will save you months, if not years, while pulling you ahead of the competition. State-of-the-art science magic that you can’t afford to ignore.
At this point, there’s an easy enough sell. String a few heavy-hitting words together on the label, highlight your star ingredients, and you’re turning heads. But we haven’t reached the clincher.
What if these supplements could also help you skip the busy work? Ingredients so potent, that a few capsules make up for the four hours of sleep you had last night. Or perhaps they could turn up the heat and take last night’s pizza off your conscience.
There’s a carrot being dangled in front of you, and it’s the offer of extra style to make up for the lack of substance. Buying into supplements represents a step astray on so many levels.
- You can’t isolate mechanisms and expect everything to go hunky-dory
- Short-term payoffs can lead to long term sides
- They don’t hold a candle to the big guns of your fitness story
- It becomes an expensive hobby
- You can’t use them daily without paying the price
This isn’t a piece to slam supplements out of the picture, because I still believe there can be benefits. You just have to be choosy. Don’t jump at every headline that crosses your eye line.
1. You Can’t Isolate Mechanisms
The best-laid science often doesn’t get past the homeostasis trap. The body’s primary goal is to keep the metabolism in a delicate balance. When you gain weight, you burn more calories to stop you from getting too jacked. Losing weight results in the opposite. Most of the time, it does a decent enough job preserving the status quo and keeping you healthy, without looking obnoxiously good.
Just as long as you treat it to the triggers that were a feature over our evolutionary past. Whole foods, mammoth hunts, climbing trees, hurling rocks, lifting heavy stuff, you get the idea.
In this picture, supplements are an anomaly. There is always eastern medicine to look back to, but that still puts the industry in a timeline that just doesn’t match up to the evolutionary stretch of a few million years.
But without blowing the primal lifestyle didgeridoo too much, the homeostatic balance just isn’t designed to work with your classic supplement of isolated ingredients.
The metabolism is a tightly woven series of processes, and that’s reflected in the nutrients that drive it along. Adding a single ingredient to the proceedings is akin to a stab in the dark, and there’s every chance you make things worse.
Each of the micronutrients depends on others staying in balance. Fat-soluble vitamins need fat to ensure they get absorbed into the system. Sodium needs to be matched by potassium to regulate blood flow. The ratio of zinc to copper determines whether enzymes can function properly. This doesn’t get us past the first page of the metabolic encyclopedia.
In short, and without getting stuck in the weeds, it would be unfair to expect your metformin tabs to just head in there and flick the switch that makes everything better. Supplements are designed to dull symptoms, rather than fight the root cause.
So by targeting the symptoms, they often do have noticeable effects, particularly the ones that target the neurotransmitters. But that’s the short term game, and It’s a gift that comes with baggage.
2. They Come With Side Effects
Nothing in the body works in its own special bubble blissfully ignorant of the raging traffic that darts around it. Zooming back out into the real world, that shows an angle where supplements fall short. A fat loss supplement could induce more fat loss by tuning up thermogenesis, or forcing the adrenals to secrete more adrenaline. But who’s to say the body won’t simply decide to compensate for the extra few hundred calories you burnt up?
BCAAs, as an instance, are marketed as muscle-protective, by providing fuel during intense workouts. But they also compete with serotonin for uptake by the brain, limiting the neurotransmitter that helps you get to bed on time. Sleep deprivation is a sure-fire way to impede muscle recovery and performance.
Stepping outside the realms of the beach-ready physique, GABA agonists are another genre of supplements that promise profound effects. The GABA neurotransmitter effectively produces feelings of relaxation, lowers inhibitions, and quells anxiety. The perfect means to balance out a stressful lifestyle and achieve some kind of emotional wellbeing. There are a ton of different plant extracts that claim to boost GABA, and a few of them come backed by evidence. But once again, there’s a catch. They cause the body to build up a resistance to GABA, crippling the natural production line and setting up a susceptibility to depression and anxiety disorders.
Testosterone, or any steroid for that matter, works in much the same way. Bring in an exogenous source, the body can lose the ability to make its own.
Caffeine produces much of its energy by blocking off the body’s sleepy molecule, adenosine. Constant use of caffeine then causes the brain to increase the number of adenosine receptors, rendering your morning brew useless, and leaving you with a splitting headache.
As I conceded in the last point, supplements often do have short-term effects that can make you feel like you’ve found the miracle fix. It could be an energy boost, a way to curb stress, or even a non-perceptible one that just makes you feel morally better. Like stocking up on multivitamins. But they nearly always come with a catch, side effects that often reverse the effects you’re looking for.
At the very least, it’s worth doing the research before cashing in. You’re playing with fire.
3. Small Fish In A Big Pond
The kicker here is that you’re barking up a tree while there’s a forest to tackle. Instead of pinning your hopes on obscure supplements, you could turn to the whole foods, the exercise, the mindfulness, that dominate an apex lifestyle. But that’s the busy work, and people find it easier to stick with their entrenched habits, attempting to paper over the cracks with a metric ton of supplements and the occasional HIIT session.
The fact is that supplements are flashy, and that earns it the big bucks. There’s just so much more at play, with far better percentages. They just might require sacrifices greater than wallet space.
The biggest among them is nutrition, which leads the pack in every sense. Your luck with the remaining players largely hinges on the trickle-down effects of the foods you allow through your mouth-hole. I’ve written a three-part series making the case that the diet, at least the modern interpretation of it, is behind the global epidemic of metabolic disease.
But the key part in this particular story, is that the optimal human diet makes supplementation almost completely redundant. You don’t have to sweat over buying B5 or a B-complex, when there an organ meat like liver has them in highly concentrated and bioavailable quantities. Stocking up on protein powder can be pointless when you’re getting through a couple pounds of steak each day.
The caveat here, and the reason why people end up supplementing as a necessity, is that certain (plant) foods are terrible sources for micros and macros. Which is then compounded by accompanying plant toxins that literally block the body from absorbing other nutrients in the meal. If you were to take your pick from the real superfoods on offer, while minimising toxins, then the prospect of nutrient imbalances would be a non-issue.
Then you have the sleep, training and mindfulness, which can have similar effects to performance and wellbeing supplements. Except they do this endogenously, by prodding internal mechanisms into action. Quality bedtime increases testosterone levels, training turns on the longevity-boosting AMPK switch, while regular meditation can literally increase the size of your brain. Mechanisms which many supplements claim to imitate.
But even if they followed through, it would be by endogenous, or external means. Foreign invaders that attempt to insert themselves into the metabolic machinery, and inevitably cause side effects down the line. This is precisely the case with plant extracts, which take up a giant chunk of the supplement market. Plant cells just don’t bond well with human cells. The evolutionary branch split off a long way back.
4. It’s An Expensive Hobby
Stepping into the world on biohacking, or fishing around for the miracle compound that gets you past your natty ceiling, can be slippery slopes. When you begin to get to grips with the range of products on offer, it’ll dawn on you just how much information there is out there. And if you’re a completionist at heart, there’s every chance you’ll end up spending thousands as you hack your way to becoming superman.
Not that you would get there anyway, as the punch supplements can pack represents just the tip of a mammoth iceberg. Compare that to a carnivore or meat-based diet without the extra supplement baggage, and suddenly eating several pounds of steak a day doesn’t look so high-maintenance.
5. They Can’t Be A Daily Thing
This is where I can throw out an olive branch and concede the supplements do have value, just in the rare context of the major players already being in line. That cancels out a huge chunk of the population, and by that, I mean the ones who are already wading waist-deep in the fitness game. But in the case where you’re sitting on top of a well-rounded, functioning iceberg, there is value in engaging in pharmaceutical warfare. Arnie wouldn’t be Arnie without his Deca inventory. World records are getting broken at an exponential rate, and it isn’t entirely due to the athletes getting their 8 hours each night. Supplements are the 5% advantage that can tip the balance and send you into the stratosphere.
But you have to use them with caution.
The side effects of supplements come part-and-parcel with excessive doses and chronic overuse. The more you use them, the bigger the chances of receptors getting resistant, the body compensating by messing with another switch, or building physio-emotional dependencies on whatever you’re taking. You always want to be stable enough to survive without it. That’s why you need to keep a couple of rules in mind.
- Use the minimal effective dose
- Take off days each week
You can see these rules in action in my caffeine detox guide
The Priorities Of A Fitness Routine
I’ve laid out a pyramid to help you get a feel for the weight that supplements carry in the apex lifestyle. They’re not inherently useless, you don’t have to empty your cabinets for a fresh start, you just have to keep your eyes trained on what really makes the biggest differences. Not only do supplements tend to give you a measly 5% extra, there’s always baggage.
Here’s how I put this to practice in my routine.
I dip in and out of others just to sate curiosity, but that’s about it. As long as the rest of my routine is running stable, there’s no real need to overdo the supplement angle
This isn’t the first time I’ve staged a foray into the topic of substance over style, and the Technique Vs Intensity article hits similar beats.
If you’re curious to try out a carnivore-based strength programme, you’re in luck. The Fit Awakening Online Membership takes you through the complete coaching experience, with customised plans across training, nutrition, and lifestyle. Even better, it starts with a free 7-day trial.