I’m often asked what supplements I take, why I take them and if we really need supplements at all. After all, if you, like me, are following a healthy lifestyle, I’ll wager that you probably eat plenty of plants, prioritize sleep, hydrate with filtered (or, dare I say at the risk of wearing my tinfoil hat, structured) water and expose yourself to the sun as much as possible.
In other words, you, like me are probably what I call a “healthy, woo-woo geek”. You are an intelligent, well-informed person who embraces your softer side, spirituality and also prides yourself on being passionate about health, nutrition, science, and fitness.
So why would you need to take supplements for health, fitness, and longevity? Doesn’t nutrient-dense food, good water, and relatively clean living give you enough crucial vitamins, minerals and antioxidants?
I get the question: life is already complicated, there are a dizzying array of supplements to choose from, and the expense can add up fast, as can the clutter and confusion from eight billion bottles of capsules, tinctures, powders, oils, tablets and packets in your pantry. Things can get complex fast, and no one – including me – wants to spend their precious time counting and swallowing pills. I’ve definitely been overwhelmed by the amount of space that supplements can occupy (in fridges and travel suitcases), not the mention the time and monetary expenses of tracking and ordering new bottles.
Moreover, supplements can be dangerous. I’ve dedicated podcasts to exposing the deceptive tactics that some supplement companies employ and explored controversial fringe supplements.
So in this article, I’m going to present you with some pretty compelling information (all research-based, mind you) to support the notion that supplements can indeed amplify the benefits of your healthy, woo-woo geek lifestyle, especially if you’re a hard-charging, high-achiever like me.
Scientific Reasons Why You Need Supplements (Even If You’re Already Eating A Good Diet)
Let’s begin with this: our modern, post-industrial, polluted, toxin-laden lifestyle demands more nutrients than food can provide.
That’s right: the chronic stressors of modern life – whether it’s the iPhone screen interfering with your circadian rhythms and chronobiology or the never-ending work deadlines – increase your nutrient needs. Every day, you face hundreds of toxins – pollutants in the air, degraded plastic byproducts in drinking water, chemicals in cleaning products, and pesticides food – which further increase our bodies’ needs for vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These nutrients are necessary to help shuttle toxins through natural detox pathways and prevent the formation of DNA-damaging free radicals. Even exercise is a stressor that increases your body’s need for nutrients.
Furthermore, if you’re a hard-charging, high-performing exercise enthusiast (like many of the people reading this), your nutrient requirements far exceed the recommendations for the general, sedentary population. To make matters worse, you’re likely not getting the full array of nutrients from food that prior generations enjoyed. Due to modern farming techniques and fertilizers, most soil is depleted of nutrients, which decreases the beneficial vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in conventionally-grown crops.
So perhaps eating organic is the ultimate solution? While some studies suggest that organically-grown foods contain more nutrients than non-organic, other studies conclude that there are no significant differences. Furthermore, for most of human history (and prehistory), our ancestors ate now nearly-extinct, dense cell-rich carbohydrates in the form of foods such as wild tubers, which provided essential prebiotics that helped probiotic bacteria flourish (in contrast to the refined “acellular” grains and white rice that comprise modern carbohydrates).
Along the same lines, the abundance of refined carbohydrates and processed foods creates significant blood sugar swings and glycemic variability our ancestors also didn’t deal with to as great an extent. A glance at a coffee shop display case or hotel breakfast bar that features bagels, muffins, and sugary cereals explains why many people need a snack a couple of hours later just to make it through the inevitable mid-morning blood sugar crash. Blood sugar imbalances lead to chronic inflammation and may be responsible for up to 80% of modern diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease (nicknamed “type 3 diabetes”), obesity, depression, and cancer.
Similarly, the meat, eggs, and dairy products commonly found in grocery stores deliver fewer anti-inflammatory nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, than those from wild or pastured animals. Speaking of omega-3 fatty acids, most Western diet munchers consume an imbalanced ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, further predisposing us for rampant chronic inflammation.
To make it even more complicated, modern harvesting, shipping, processing, and storage techniques degrade the nutrient content of food. Plants grown with modern fertilizer can contain only 25% of the micronutrients of those grown using more traditional farming methods, and nutrients degrade as they are shipped and sit on store shelves. A fresh-picked apple is more nutritious than the apples you buy at the supermarket in winter, which were likely treated with 1-methylcyclopropene and could be up to 10 months old (according to an FDA spokesperson). And the very preservatives used to maintain “freshness” could impede the bioavailability of the food’s nutrients – and increase your body’s need for nutrients to process these synthetic additives. Similarly, many common medications for acid reflux and hypertension also inhibit nutrient absorption.
Then there are precious fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin D. Though the recommendations for sufficient Vitamin D levels are controversial, it’s safe to say that many Americans do not get enough Vitamin D. Even if we’re doing our best to get sun exposure – whether it’s a morning walk or going outside for lunch – it’s rare to get as much sunlight (and Vitamin D) as our outdoor-dwelling ancestors did.
Last but not least, our ability to absorb nutrients from food decreases as we age. Given the scientifically demonstrated longevity benefits of caloric restriction, it seems silly to argue that one could ignore calories and simply eat more food to obtain nutrients. This is another crucial area where supplements come in – a helpful boost for those of us wanting to live longer using strategies such as intermittent fasting, alternate day fasting or caloric restriction.
Did Our Ancestors Take Supplements?
But wait! Our ancestors didn’t take any of these fringe superfoods or supplements, so why should we? False premise alert! Ancient man and woman most certainly took supplements and lots of them. As a matter of fact, humans have used some form of medicine, particularly from plants and herbs, for nearly as long as we have existed.
Archeological excavations dated as far back as 60,000 years have found remains of medicinal plants, such as opium poppies, ephedra, and cannabis. The oldest written evidence of medicinal plant usage can be found on a Sumerian clay slab approximately 5,000 years old, containing a dozen recipes for drug preparations from over 250 plants, including poppy, henbane, and mandrake (yes, the same screaming plant made popular in Harry Potter novels during Herbology classes at Hogwarts).
The Chinese book on roots and grasses “Shen-Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching,” written by Emperor Shen Nung around 2500 BC, lists 365 medicinal plant extracts, many of which are used in modern medicine, including camphor, yellow gentian, ginseng, jimson weed, cinnamon bark, and ephedra.
The Indian holy books Vedas describe treatment with numerous spice plants such as nutmeg, pepper, and clove. Around 1500 BC, the Egyptians wrote the Ebers Papyrus, which lists over 850 herbal medicines, including pomegranate, castor oil plant, aloe, senna, garlic, onion, fig, willow, coriander, and juniper.
In Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, along with the writings and works of Herodotus, we can find over 60 different Mediterranean plant species referred to, including artemisia, castor oil, mustard, and cabbage. The works of Hippocrates contain 300 medicinal plants, including wormwood for fever, garlic for parasites, opium, nightshade, and mandrake as narcotics, hellebore, and hazelwort as emetics, sea onion, celery, parsley, asparagus, and garlic as diuretics and oak and pomegranate as astringents.
Near 300 BC, the Greek botanist Theophrastus generated a classification of more than 500 medicinal plants including cinnamon, mint, pomegranate, and cardamom. In his work De re medica, the Greek author Celsus named approximately 250 medicinal plants such as aloe, flax, poppy, pepper, cinnamon, star gentian, and cardamom.
Perhaps the most prominent writer on plant drugs was Dioscorides, who, as a military physician of Nero's army, studied medicinal plants wherever he traveled. In 77 AD, he wrote the work De Materia Medica, which detailed 944 drugs, including powerful medicinal extracts such as hellebore, poppy, buttercup, jimson weed, henbane and nightshade, along with variants of domestic plants such as willow, chamomile, garlic, onion, marshmallow, ivy, nettle, sage, coriander and parsley. His writings include recommendations of chamomile for menstrual pain, sea onion, and parsley as diuretics, oak bark for gynecological purposes and white willow for fever reduction. Pliny the Elder studied under Dioscorides and also writes of nearly 1,000 medicinal plants in his book Historia Naturalis.
In the 7th century AD, the Slavic people used rosemary, iris, mint, and basil in cosmetics, along with garlic, curcumin and lavender as insect repellants. Later, in the Middle Ages, monks based most of their therapy on just 16 medicinal plants, including sage, anise, mint, savory and tansy, most of which can easily be grown in anyone’s backyard or porch. Charles the Great, Roman emperor and the founder of a famous medical school in Italy, ordered medicinal plants to be grown on state-owned lands, including over 100 different plants such as sage, sea onion, iris, mint, poppy, and marshmallow. Even today, sage is a popular medicinal plant used in many Catholic monasteries.
The Arabs used numerous plants in pharmacotherapy, mostly from India. These included aloe, coffee, ginger, saffron, turmeric, pepper, cinnamon and senna. Marco Polo's journeys across Asia, China, and Persia, along with the 1492 discovery of America, resulted in many new medicinal plants being brought into Europe for cultivation. These included cacao, vanilla, yerba mate, tobacco, cayenne, quinine and pomegranate extracts.
By the early 19th century, emerging knowledge of chemistry allowed physicians and pharmacologists to begin isolating and concentrating the active ingredients of thousands of known medicinal plants into many of the same vitamins, powders, tinctures, oils, teas and salves that now appear in present-day pharmaceutical drugs and supplements, including aspirin (from willow bark), digoxin (from foxglove), quinine (from cinchona bark), morphine (from the opium poppy), and, as you’ve discovered shortly, metformin (from the French rue) and rapamycin (from soil-based probiotic chemicals).
The Animal World Takes Supplements Too.
Even the animal world supplements and self-medicates.
For example, what do orangutans do when their arms and joints hurt? They chew the leaves of a local plant called Dracaena cantleyi, then rub the resulting anti-inflammatory paste onto the painful area as a healing salve. Dog lovers may be familiar with the grass-eating habit of our canine friends, which is a strategy used to soothe their upset stomach by eating indigestible plant material to address gastrointestinal upset and to purge their system of worms, nematodes, and other parasites.
Parrots and macaws eat clay to aid digestion. Lizards feed on roots to counteract snake venom. Pregnant lemurs have discovered a lemur version of prenatal vitamins and select certain leaf species that aid in milk production and labor. Brazilian spider monkeys consume fertility-enhancing and contraceptive plants. Sparrows have discovered at some point that nicotine residue can control parasitic mites and have been known to incorporate cigarette butts into their nests.
As a matter of fact, self-medication among animals has been so widely observed that it even has an official name: zoopharmacognosy.
In the past year, as you can read about in great detail here, I’ve translated the knowledge gained from years of reading, researching and experimenting to create a line of new formulations and supplements for my company Kion – supplements that satisfy my own strict standards for quality and “scratch my own itch” as products that I personally use, endorse and take myself every day.
My goal in creating the Kion supplement line – for both the existing products and some extremely unique formulations that I’m currently developing using some of the best raw ingredients on the face of the planet – was to merge the best that modern science and ancient wisdom have to offer to enable you to optimize your body and brain. For the Kion supplements that can discover and read more about here, I personally sourced each ingredient, designed optimal ratios, and controlled the manufacturing processes to ensure the highest purity, potency, and value.
So what supplements do you take?
Do you think supplements are unnecessary?
Do you have questions, thoughts or feedback for me about supplements?
Leave your comments below and I will reply!