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.
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.
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.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.