Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
25 Nov

Grok Didn’t Take Supplements So Why Should I?

Grok with Fast Food

The Definitive Guide to Primal Supplementation

Disclaimer: I derive most of my income from selling supplements. We don’t talk too much about it here on MDA, but I get enough questions on this topic, that I felt it was time to explain exactly why I choose to manufacture and take certain supplements.

The main objective of following the Primal Blueprint is to extract the healthiest, happiest, longest and most productive life possible from our bodies – and to look and feel good in the process. Our 10,000-year-old Primal genes expect us to emulate the way our ancestors ate and moved; and the Primal Blueprint says we should do exactly as they expect. While there are many things we can do (or eat) today that very closely approximate what Grok did to trigger positive gene expression, there are also a number of obstacles that can thwart our attempts to be as Primal as possible. Artificial light prompts us to stay up too late and sleep too little. Electronic entertainment competes for our time when we should be out walking and basking in sunlight. We don’t always have access to ideal foods. We shower too much in water that’s too hot. We use medicines to mask our symptoms instead of allowing our bodies to deal directly with the problem. You get my point. It’s tough going full Primal today.

One of my tasks is to find the shortcuts – the easy ways to get the same genetic expression benefits Grok got – but by using 21st century technology or just plain old common sense. Working out in Vibram Fivefingers to simulate going barefoot is an example. Or learning how to spend time in the sun without sunscreen AND without burning. Getting more from a 20-minute full-body exercise routine than from a 3-hour cardio workout is yet another example. And given the lack of certain critical nutrients in even the healthiest diets, finding the best supplements is another.

I agree that the supplement industry does have its share of shady characters. Many – if not most – of the products you see on store shelves are probably harmless, and also probably useless. Thousands of these products have more smoke, mirrors and hype behind them than research to back them up. But there are a few categories of supplements (and manufacturers) that have shown great promise and that I wouldn’t be without in my own regimen. Here are a few of the best categories of supplements I can recommend to just about everyone:

1. Antioxidant Booster

I’ve done posts on free radicals and oxidative damage here before, so I don’t need to go into detail when I suggest that we want to do everything we can to reduce oxidative damage to our cells (and particularly inside our mitochondria). Eating right, avoiding stress and exercising appropriately (i.e. not too much high-end cardio) are always the first lines of defense. Of course, we also have our three main internal “onboard” antioxidant systems that take care of most of the normal oxidative damage when we are healthy, unstressed and eating well (catalase, superoxide dismutase and glutathione). But these systems can come up short when we are under stress (who isn’t), eating too many sugars and other carbs, trans and hydrogenated fats, or drinking alcohol, or when we are exercising inappropriately. Theoretically, that still ought to be no problem, because our bodies were designed to get additional antioxidant support from the foods we eat.

Grok handled this easily by avoiding the kinds of chronic “made-up” stress we have today and by consuming foods rich in antioxidants like carotenoids, catechins, flavones, and anthocyanidins. Our problem in the 21st century is two-fold. First, we layer far too much stress on ourselves with our workloads, our worrying, our medicines, our lack of sunshine, and our less-than-optimum diets.  This means that our stress “load” is far greater and puts a greater burden on all these natural systems. When these antioxidant systems fail us, we can get sick and even age faster. Secondly, many of our historically healthy sources of dietary antioxidants have all but disappeared or have been rendered impotent by today’s aggressive factory farming techniques. In the fruit industry, for example, obtaining the highest possible sugar content has replaced antioxidants as the focus.

The most popular measure of a food’s – or supplement’s – antioxidant power is the ORAC score (for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity). The USDA recommends we get between 3,000 and 5,000 ORAC units per day, but I believe that number is way too low and that we should look to get at least double that. That’s one of the reasons that high ORAC fruits and vegetables are at the base of the Primal Pyramid even though it’s a low-carb program (that fact distinguishes it from Atkins perhaps more than anything else). But I believe that we also need a broad mix of different antioxidants on a daily basis, since different antioxidants work in different ways and in different parts of the cell. That means taking a supplement to obtain hard-to-get nutrients like full spectrum vitamin E (not just alpha tocopherol), mixed carotenoids (not just beta carotene), tocotrienols, NAC, alpha lipoic acid, curcumin, resveratrol, milk thistle, CoQ10 and quercetin to name a few.  In fact, too much of any one single antioxidant (in the absence of others) has been shown to have potentially negative effects, as a few recent “vitamin E-only” studies have demonstrated. Conversely, when you take a good broad-spectrum antioxidant formula, all these antioxidants can work synergistically to mitigate oxidative damage and then help each other recycle back to their potent antioxidant form after donating an electron to the antioxidant effort. For that reason, I take a high-potency multi-vitamin loaded with extra antioxidants every day.

2. Probiotics

Grok ate dirt. All day, every day. Hey, when you never wash your hands or your food (or anything for that matter) you pretty much can’t avoid it. But with all that soil came billions of soil-based organisms (mostly bacteria and yeast) that entered his mouth daily and populated his gut. Most were “friendly” bacteria that actually helped him better digest food and ward off infections. In fact, much of Grok’s (and our) immune system evolved to depend on these healthy “flora” living in us symbiotically. Grok also ate the occasional “unfriendly” organisms that had the potential to cause illness, but as long as the healthy flora well-outnumbered the bad guys, all was well. Several trillion bacteria live symbiotically in our gut today – some good and some bad. Much of your health depends on which of the two is winning the flora war.

The problem today is that we don’t eat dirt; we wash everything. Of course, given the crap that’s in and on the dirt around us, it’s probably best that we do wash it all. But in the process we never get a chance to ingest the healthy bacteria that our genes expect us to. In most healthy people this doesn’t usually present a problem. As long as there are some healthy gut bacteria present, as long as we don’t get too stressed out (stress hormones can kill off healthy flora), too sick (diarrhea and vomiting are ways the body purges bad bacteria – but it purges good bacteria with them), or take antibiotics (antibiotics tend to kill most bacteria – that’s their job), and as long as we are eating well, those healthy bacteria can flourish and keep us well. Unfortunately, we live in a time when stress is everywhere, where we do tend to get sick or take antibiotics, where certain processed foods support the growth of unhealthy bacteria and yeast forms while choking out the healthy flora. Many people whose diets include daily doses of yogurt or acidophilus are able to maintain healthy gut flora, but these sources aren’t always reliable (pasteurizing and added sugars can reduce their effectiveness), and not everyone can tolerate dairy that well. For that reason, I think it’s wise to take probiotic supplements on occasion. Not necessarily every day, since once these “seeds” have been planted in a healthy gut, they tend to multiply and flourish easily on their own. I’d certainly take extra probiotics under times of great stress or when you’ve been sick or are taking (or have just taken) a course of antibiotics. The reversal of fortune from a few days of taking probiotics can be dramatic. Better than eating dirt, I always say.

3. Fish Oil

In Grok’s day, virtually every animal he consumed was a decent source of vital Omega 3 fatty acids. The fish he caught had eaten algae to produce Omega 3 fatty acids rich in EPA and DHA (which helped build the larger human brain over a few hundred thousand years). The animals he hunted grazed on plants that generated high levels of Omega 3 in these meats. Even the vegetation Grok consumed provided higher levels Omega 3s than today’s vegetables. In Grok’s diet, the ratio of pro-inflammatory (bad) Omega 6 to anti-inflammatory (good and healthful) Omega 3 was close to 1:1. Unfortunately, most of us with a typical American diet today get way too much Omega 6 and way too little Omega 3, and that unhealthy ratio tends to keep many of us in a constant state of systemic inflammation. Since Omega 3 oils are found in fewer and fewer modern foods (fish being one of the few, but fresh fish also being impractical to eat regularly due to heavy-metal content) the single easiest way to overcome this serious deficit and rebalance your Omegas is to take highly purified Omega 3 fish oil supplements. The research on fish oils is extraordinary, showing benefits across the board from decreased risk for heart disease and cancer to lowering triglycerides, improving joint mobility, decreasing insulin resistance and improving brain function and mood. The drug companies are even starting to recognize the power of this “natural” medicine and have begun promoting prescription fish oil (at four times the normal price, of course!). As healthy as my own diet is, I never go a day without taking a few grams of an Omega 3 Fish Oil supplement.

4. Protein Powders

Eating low carb often means being at a loss as to what to have for a snack or a small meal. We are so used to reaching for the bagel, a few pieces of fruit or something sweet as a snack. On the other hand, there are also times when we just don’t feel like fixing a full meal or we are strapped for time. In those instances, I like to look to protein powders to take up the slack. Today’s protein powder/meal replacements can combine the best of 21st century technology with a true Primal intent: get me a fast, good-tasting source of protein without too many carbs or unhealthy fats. I generally look for products that have whey protein as the major source of protein, and that taste great when mixed only with water (so I don’t have to add sugary juices of milk just to choke them down). That way I can always throw in a piece of fruit (or not) for added calories or flavor. If I’m in a hurry and want a quick, high-protein start to my day, my morning protein shake takes less than a minute to make and covers the bases I need covered.

There are other supplements I might use if I had particular health “issues,” (e.g. phosphatidyl serine for memory loss) and I might go into those in detail sometime in the future.

I hope this post opens up the conversation to a topic I feel quite strongly about. If you have any questions or comments please drop me a line in the comment boards.

Further Reading:

Definitive Guides to:

The Primal Eating Plan

The Primal Blueprint

Grains

Fats

Cholesterol

Insulin, Blood Sugar and Type 2 Diabetes

Stress, Cortisol and the Adrenals

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Dave: the average lifespan drops dramatically because of deaths in childbirth, trauma, infections, etc. R.G. Cutler, et al have estimated Grok’s maximum lifespan (if all went well) at 94 years.

    Mark Sisson wrote on February 5th, 2009
  2. I love the probiotic chocolate bars in the grocery store. They are pretty low in carbs and calories but high in probiotics which since I am lactose intolerant and can’t eat much yogurt these are great. I don’t know the maker but they are found around the yogurt area of the store in the fridge.

    best thigh exercises wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  3. I must admit that the arguments here are plausible. However, I have a number of concerns when it comes to supplementation:

    1) Supplements are human engineered and are therefore susceptible to flaws when it comes to formulating the concentration of nutrients in these pills. Consumers could be susceptible to toxicities of these MICROnutrients.

    2) Pure concentrated nutrients do interfere with the absorption of other vitamins and minerals -such as those you naturally acquire from food!. Again, vitamins and minerals are supposed to be consumed in trace amounts!

    Most importantly…

    3) Natural nutrient sources provide complementary cofactors that allow for the optimal absorption of consumed foods (so that you just don’t pee out most of the nutrients you’ve ingested). Most of these cofactors (like those that help lycopene absorption from tomatoes) are undiscovered and are therefore NOT in supplements.

    4) Supplements are called “supplements” for a reason. You take them if you do not have a well-balanced diet or if you have special needs (i.e. pregnant). Otherwise, you’ll just be making waste of your hard-earned living (literally!)

    Paolo wrote on September 23rd, 2009
  4. New to the site and have a question about fish oil supplements: I’ve seen those that have Omega 3 as well as those that have Omega 3 AND Omega 6. From what I’ve briefly read online, our modern diets as a society have plenty of Omega 6 already. Should I then be avoiding the combo 3 and 6 fish oils and get one with just Omega 3?

    Thanks!

    Ethan wrote on October 6th, 2009
    • Ethan, I would only supplement with Fish Oils containing just Omega 3 – for the reasons you mentioned.

      Mark Sisson wrote on October 6th, 2009
  5. Hi Mark,
    I’m a skinny guy trying to add on weight using your weight gain method. It’s true that I don’t eat a lot. I’m an actor waiting tables on NYC, so there you go. I joined crossfit and it is kicking my ass. Something thing I came across the times. I’m not trying to debunk you but there is just so much conflicting reports that it just leaves me confused. Here is a link to the article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/health/17well.html?emc=eta1

    Do you have any more advice to gain weight? muscle not lard.
    Thanks and really appreciate your commitment to positive gene expression.

    Nirmal wrote on October 11th, 2009
    • Nirmal, for every study that debunks multi-vitamin use, I can show you one that supports it. Ultimately, most of these studies are set up to fail, since vitamin intake is but one variable in a complex human life. From everything I research, I am more and more convinced that appropriate supplementation is of greater benefit than not doing so.

      As for gaining muscle, we have written a few pieces here. This would be the place to start. http://www.marksdailyapple.com/gain-weight-build-muscle/

      Mark Sisson wrote on October 12th, 2009
      • If you mix your whey protein with coconut milk and a little water it is really good. I got the idea from Robb Wolf. I mix about 1/3 can of coconut milk with a few ounces of water and a scoop or two of peanut butter and chocolate flavored protein powder that is sweetened with splenda. It is thick and very tasty, low carb too.

        P.S. I use the full fat stuff from Thailand.

        Clay wrote on October 16th, 2009
        • Hey I drink the same smoothy (and I lived in Thailand for 3 years) ..
          Be careful which peanut butter you use and try Stevia rather then Splenda……What a great drink for peanut butter lovers around the world.

          RICHARD wrote on October 2nd, 2015
  6. Regarding vitamin supplementation, even specialists in human biology and biochemistry do not fully understand how the body works because there are so many nutrients, proteins, and enzymes involved that often have multiple uses and interact in extremely complicated ways (ever look at those biochemistry flow charts? …and those are just measuring short-term effects).

    Therefore, all attempts to determine optimal levels of nutrients in supplements are highly suspect — the best we can do is note that certain gross deficiencies cause disease and guess the optimal levels using prior beliefs. The most compelling scientific guess for the optimal levels of nutrients to consume is to use the levels obtained by primal humans. This is a good guess because it’s reasonable to assume that humans adapted to this diet/lifestyle. This is what is so compelling about the primal blueprint in general. Of course, the conclusion to draw from this is that if you have a primal lifestyle, supplementation is at least as likely to be harmful (to both health and wallet) as helpful.

    I believe it’s prudent to wait for overwhelming scientific evidence that particular supplements promote health before using them. There are two types of situations when supplementation would be called for.

    First, if a placebo-controlled study involving only participants with a healthy diet and lifestyle were to show that altering our nutrient intakes from the primal blueprint lead to less disease, this would indicate that supplementation is prudent. Mark, are you aware of any such studies?

    Second, if there is reason to believe a particular individual has a specific deficiency, then supplementation may be called for. For this reason, vitamin D may be a prudent supplement for many people to take since it is obtained primarily from the sun (though getting it from the sun is probably preferable). Also, if a doctor diagnoses a deficiency of a particular nutrient, that would also obviously motivate supplementation. There may be a case to be made that seniors should supplement because their digestive systems may not be functioning close to optimally anymore, but this should still probably be done under the guidance of a doctor.

    I personally think that a basic (100% RDA) multivitamin may be prudent, but only to prevent a fluke deficiency disease, not to try to optimize health. It’s my understanding that the benefits of even a basic multivitamin are controversial, but at least it’s probably harmless because the levels of the nutrients are not megadoses.

    Jon wrote on October 17th, 2009
  7. As a pharmacist and specialist in supplementation and alternative medications I can tell you that when properly implemented – supplementation can be very beneficial.

    I’ve seen this not only in my own life but also others. The trick is though, to weave through the minefield of information and claims out there.

    Mark is right. Antioxidants are important.

    One problem I see though, is that too many people (not on this blog) substitute supplementation in place of sound nutrition.

    Curtis wrote on November 3rd, 2009
    • Do you know of any large double-blind placebo-controlled trials on people with healthy lifestyles that show a statistically significant effect on mortality or disease occurrence? It’s my understanding that all such trials have had disappointing results.

      I think it’s inadvisable to supplement based on anecdotal evidence from benefits that are just as likely to have been the result of the placebo effect as anything else.

      Jon wrote on November 29th, 2009
  8. I just wrote an article about supplements on my blog. I can’t agree more. I try to get my nutrients from good natural food but they just aren’t nutritiously dense like they should be, so I supplement. Great read!

    Aaron Curl wrote on December 20th, 2009
  9. Any advise on getting started with probiotics? You mention only a need to take them occasionally. I guess I was thinking one a day for a week or two and then scaling back to once a week except when sick or stressed. Also, outside of higher sales can you comment on why most probiotics recommend daily use?

    The probiotic I chose to start with is Garden of Eden – Primal Defense Ultra.

    Great article, thanks for all the work.

    zack wrote on January 13th, 2010
  10. Awesome post Mark. I would take Fish Oils every now and then btu now i take a few of those per day along with eating more fish (wild caught of course). I am thinking about adding protein powder to my diet to help make up for any protein I’m not able to get in due to my hectic schedule. I know the stress isn’t ideal but what about if you thrive under stressful situations?

    Matt Forrester wrote on March 18th, 2010
  11. Mark this site has tons of great information. Thank you for all your hard work. However I have to disagree with this post. For one the vitamins in supplements are artificially produced (artificial vitamins have been shown to be several times more toxic beyond certain concentrations than their natural counterparts – that should tell us something). Also supplements lack the ratios and trace elements that exist in nature to ensure our bodies absorb them the way we are ‘genetically designed to do’.

    Nutrients in nature exist as part of extremely complex bio systems and our bodies, complex bio systems themselves, are designed to interact with these complex systems as they exist in nature – not as they exist in the mind of a chemist.

    There are many micro nutrients and trace elements that exist along with the major nutrients in extremely precise ratios that affect how bio available, toxic and ‘healthy’ they are. Until very recently we could only detect those nutrients and elements that we already knew existed and therefore at best our knowledge of nutrients and macro-nutrients is very very basic. There are thousands of micro nutrients and trace elements that are crucial for our bodies and for the way our bodies deal with nutrients that we know nothing about beyond the fact that they might exist.

    To assume we are doing our bodies good by injecting it with man-made ratios of artificially produced nutrients that lack trace elements and micro-nutrients sounds very contradictory to the ethos of returning to our ‘natural’ diet.

    Instead of relying on synthetically produced nutrition to fix the issue, I believe it is wiser to ensure the fruits and vegetables, meats and other foods we consume are of the highest nutritionally dense quality and to consume those foods in the way our ancestors did – with very little going to waste. That is what gave them the benefit then and what will give us the benefit now.

    Dana wrote on May 19th, 2010
  12. Love to get my nutrients from natural foods rather than rely on supplements.

    If you can count that the food is just one ingreadiant eg. a carrot you can’t go wrong with avoiding processed harmful foods.

    Thank for a good read

    Richard Huntley wrote on June 5th, 2010
  13. Krill oil is superior to fish oil by many times.

    When buying a protein powder, try to get whey protein from organic grass fed cows.

    Jeff wrote on November 20th, 2010
  14. At the same time there are many, many issues with the supplements sold through the website.
    Isolated whey, being the first issue.
    The use of sucrose (if ever there was an ingredient that was not Primal it is this one).
    Probable synthetic ingredients.
    The list goes on…

    Tymothy Smith wrote on November 24th, 2010
  15. I supplement with magnesium to help fight diabetes. I also take vitamin D3, alpha-lipoic acid vitamin K2. CoQ10 will be added next as soon as I figure out how much I need.I choose my menus based on magnesium and of course, protein content.

    mary titus wrote on January 1st, 2011
  16. Hi Mark & People,
    Just got here by reading Mark’s attack article on grains elsewhere.
    There are four basic things people fail to notice in the fight to be alive today:
    1. What you think of as “grains”, aren’t. Especially “flour”.
    2. Supplements a waste of money. Better to spend it on real, live, (Biodynamic) natural foods.
    3. Meat was a foreign substance to our bodies long before it was “redesigned”.
    4. 90% of the world (far healthier and vastly tougher than us) basically eat grains (almost no wheat)as their principal food.
    AND they eat a fraction of what we do while they work much harder than a triathlete!
    Meat was your main killer. Fineground white flour has taken over.
    Hint: “If it’s white, or in a box, it is not fit for human consumption.”

    Himagain wrote on January 21st, 2011
  17. Mark,
    I recently switched over to the PB eating plan and have been on it for about 3 weeks. I haven’t noticed any major difference in my energy levels yet since I’ve always tried to ‘eat healthy’ and get 7-8 hrs. of sleep. The one thing that I have noticed, however, is that my turds now float when before they almost always sank! Is this tmi? I don’t know if you have ever heard of Edgar Cayce but he had a book that was titled Edgar Cayce’s Guide to Colon Care and in his book he mentions that when a person is eating correctly he will have fully formed stools that float! I would be curious if you or any of your PB followers have experienced similar experiences with their turds! Signed, FTM (Floating Turd Man, lol!)

    Dean Lamborn wrote on February 18th, 2011
    • Turdman :^)

      From what I have read if your digestive tract is in good health and your diet right, your turds should float. Mine float like a battleship in dock!!

      >8^)

      Thunderchild wrote on April 6th, 2011
  18. hi mark, what do you think about thermogenic supplements? lipo6 or hydroxycut (containing yohimbe and caffeine)?

    monch wrote on February 22nd, 2011
  19. I have a question about protein supplementation. My trainer has told me to take a protein shake immediately before and after my training. The problem I have is that he recommends mixing the powder with sugar, for example fruit juice. I would rather avoid all sugars but he insists that it helps the body absorb the protein. Thanks.

    Robert wrote on April 25th, 2011

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