Supplements are meant to be addendums to your diet and lifestyle. They are for plugging holes, fixing deficits, and reaching optimal nutrient levels when it’s impractical or impossible to do so otherwise.
This begs the question: Is it possible to get everything you need without resorting to supplementation? Does an ideal diet and lifestyle exist, such that you never need to rely on pills or powders? And because you are here, what you probably really want to know is: If you follow all the tenets of the Primal Blueprint, will you still need or want to supplement? And if yes, what supplements should you take?
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. We do that by honoring our primal genes, which expect us to emulate the way our ancestors ate and moved. 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. Indoor jobs and electronic entertainment prevent us from 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. You can’t go back to Paleolithic times. Modern life, for all its wonders, leaves a lot to be desired. One of my tasks is to find the shortcuts—the easy ways to get the same genetic expression benefits Grok got—using 21st-century technology or just plain old common sense. Working out in barefoot shoes is an example. Learning how to spend time in the sun without sunscreen AND without burning is another. And given the lack of certain critical nutrients in even the healthiest diets, finding the best supplements is another.
You might know that I have been making and selling supplements for many years now. I started my Primal supplement line for the same reason I started Primal Kitchen—because I saw a need and knew I could make better products than the ones I was finding in the stores. We don’t talk too much about it here on MDA, but I want to explain exactly why I choose to manufacture and take certain supplements despite my longtime commitment to a Primal lifestyle.
Here are some of the categories of supplements that just about everyone could consider:
9 Supplements I Take (At Least Occasionally)
1. Antioxidant booster
Some people claim the exogenous antioxidants are useless or even harmful because we already have our three main internal “onboard” antioxidant systems (catalase, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione) to take care of most normal oxidative damage. But these systems can come up short when we are under stress (who isn’t), eating too many sugars and other carbs, consuming trans and hydrogenated fats, drinking alcohol, or when we are exercising inappropriately.
Theoretically, that still ought to be no problem. Our bodies were designed to get additional antioxidant support—and hormetic stimulus— from the foods we eat. Unfortunately, though, many of our historically healthy sources of dietary antioxidants have gone extinct or have been rendered impotent by today’s aggressive factory farming techniques. In the fruit industry, for example, fruit is bred for sugar and durability rather than nutrient content.
Still, I’ve always emphasized and encouraged the consumption of non-starchy veggies and brightly colored berries because they’re some of the most antioxidant-rich produce around. But I believe that we also need a broader mix of different antioxidants to emulate the wide variety of wild plant foods we evolved consuming. That means supplementing with 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.
Now, you could make sure to eat all the foods that contain those nutrients, and in an ideal world I’d prefer you do that. But not everyone can, or even wants to. This is where supplementation comes in. Too much of any one single antioxidant (in the absence of others) has been shown to have potentially negative effects. When you take a good broad-spectrum antioxidant formula, all these antioxidants can work synergistically to mitigate oxidative damage. They 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 on an irregular basis.
Nowadays, I’ve got my health dialed in. I eat right, move correctly, sleep well, and kinda-sorta handle stress adequately. I don’t need to take an antioxidant supplement on a daily basis, so I take it intermittently. One pill after breakfast one day, three the next day, and none for half a week. That’s just an example, not a prescription. I jump around, basically. What’s funny is that because I’m fairly healthy, taking Master Formula every day could conceivably offer diminishing, or even negative, returns. Taking it the way I do now has the hormetic effect I’m after.
Grok ate dirt. Hey, when you don’t wash your hands or your food (or anything for that matter), you pretty much can’t avoid it. With all that soil came billions of soil-based organisms (mostly bacteria and yeast) that entered his mouth and populated his gut. Most were “friendly” bacteria that 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 gut bacteria. 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 (usually) well.
Several trillion bacteria live symbiotically in your gut today, some good and some bad. Much of your health depends on which of the two is dominating. 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 fail to ingest the healthy bacteria that our bodies need and expect.
This doesn’t usually present a problem in most healthy people. Especially if you make a point of eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and daily doses of yogurt or acidophilus, you can generally maintain healthy gut flora. However, these sources aren’t always reliable (pasteurizing and added sugars can reduce their effectiveness), and more importantly, hyperprocessed foods, stress, sickness, and antibiotics can all disrupt the gut microbiome and allow pathogenic species to flourish.
For that reason, I think it’s wise to take probiotic supplements on occasion. Once these “seeds” have been planted in a healthy gut, they tend to multiply and flourish easily on their own, especially if you feed them (see the next section), so daily probiotic supplementation isn’t necessary. (Frequent, even daily, consumption of fermented foods is still a good practice, though.) 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.
For most of human history, carbohydrates were different. Rather than refined grains, white sugar, and white rice, we had wild tubers. There’s something to understand about the wild tuber: they generally don’t turn into creamy, smooth, starchy goodness when baked. They’re tough, fibrous things that provide a fraction of the usable energy modern cultivars provide. Whereas your typical kilogram ofpotato offers over 1000 calories, a kilo of many wild tuber varieties hover at around 300 calories. Eating these would have provided a moderate dose of glucose plus a load of prebiotic fiber for the gut bacteria.
That’s very important. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that we cannot digest. When we eat them, they pass through to the colon where our gut bacteria consume them. In doing so, they create short chain fatty acids like butyrate and propionate, which have a host of health benefits.
We get a lot of prebiotics through foods like garlic, onions, leafy greens, and other plant matter. But it’s often easier and more reliable and more commensurate to the doses our ancestors commonly ate to take prebiotic supplements like inulin and raw potato starch (a source of a particularly potent prebiotic, resistant starch).
4. 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 of omega-3s than today’s vegetables.
Unfortunately, most people with a typical American diet today get way too much omega-6 from seed oils and way too little omega-3 from seafood and pastured meat, 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) 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. 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!
Nobody needs fish oil. But not everyone’s willing to eat seafood on a regular basis and avoid seed oils high in omega-6 fats.
5. Meal replacement
The reality of modern life means that sometimes there just isn’t enough time to lovingly cook a real Primal meal. Eating low carb often means being at a loss as to what to have for a snack or a quick meal. We are so used to reaching for the bagel, a few pieces of fruit, or something sweet. I’m a busy guy too, and there are times when I just don’t feel like fixing a full meal. Sometimes I need something fast, easy, and nourishing.
To fit these requirements, I created Primal Fuel. It combines coconut milk (for healthy saturated fats, including medium chain triglycerides for easy ketone production), whey protein isolate (the single most bioavailable protein around), and prebiotic fiber for a low-carb, moderate-fat, high-protein meal. Add a few ice cubes, a cup of water, maybe some greens or berries, blend it all together, and you’ve got yourself a legitimate meal in a cup. The coconut milk provides creaminess and texture, so it tastes almost exactly like a milkshake.
6. Collagen powder
In a world full of shrink-wrapped steaks, boneless chicken breasts, and other examples of lean muscle meat, people often forget that about half of an animal is “other stuff.” That other stuff includes marrow, liver, kidney, heart, and other organs; but much of the other stuff is bone and connective tissues like tendons, ligaments, and cartilage.
These days, the bones and connective tissue usually go into pet food, glue, and other industrial products. But for millions of years, right up until your grandparents’ time, hominids consumed as much of the animal as possible. They made soups, stocks, broths, aspics, head cheese. They ate the tendons straight up. They gnawed the gristly bits at the end of bones. In other words, they consumed a lot of collagen.
Most modern people eat only the muscle meat, and this is significant. Muscle meat has a totally different amino acid profile than collagen. Meat is rich in methionine. Collagen is rich in glycine. Methionine metabolism requires and depletes glycine. In animal studies, diets high in methionine lower lifespan and cause a range of health issues—unless the diet is also balanced with glycine. 1 We see glimpses of this occurring in humans, too.
To skirt around it, and to reduce the need to spend all my time making bone broth (which I still do, just not enough), I take collagen powder.
7. Vitamin D3
For tens of thousands of years, we lived and worked “outside.” This was the situation because, for all intents and purposes, “inside” didn’t exist. Now, we spend all day inside. For many, it’s a rare treat to see the sun, feel its rays, and make some vitamin D the old-fashioned way, yet our bodies are set up to obtain vitamin D from sun exposure. It’s safer that way—we only produce as much as we need. It’s more enjoyable that way—we make endogenous opioids in response to sun exposure.
We can get vitamin D from foods, but it’s tough. Unless you want to exist entirely on a diet of sockeye salmon (there are worse things to eat, I guess) and cod liver oil, you won’t get enough vitamin D from your diet. We should strive to get moderate-yet-sufficient sun exposure, but almost nobody does. Luckily, it’s really easy—and incredibly important—to boost vitamin D with supplements.
8. Vitamin K2
We can eat it in natto (a sticky, gooey fermented soybean from Japan), aged gouda (my preferred method), goose liver, and some other foods, but the most reliable way to obtain this scarce yet vital nutrient is through supplementation.
Why do we care so much?
Vitamin K2 essentially directs calcium to the right spots. If you have good vitamin K2 status, calcium goes to teeth and bones. If you have bad vitamin K2 status, calcium may go to the arteries, leading to calcification.
9. Adoptogenic Calm
Instead of facing the kinds of chronic “made-up” stress we have today (jobs we hate, traffic we hate more, and other trappings of modern society), our early ancestors faced acute stress, like encounters with dangerous animals or enemy tribes and intense hunting sessions. That’s the environment in which we evolved: big spikes in stress followed by long valleys. The environment we have now involves constant elevations in stress with very little respite. Our bodies are set up to deal with acute stressors and woefully unequipped to deal with chronic stressors. That’s where supplementation can come in.
Phosphatidylserine is the lead ingredient inAdaptogenic Calm, a custom formulation that blunts the spike of cortisol in the bloodstream in response to stress. My old training partner Brad and I used phosphatidylserine for over 20 years to help speed recovery from our crazy training binges. Phosphatidylserine and the supportive ingredients in Primal Calm are also effective against routine modern life stressors like jet travel, hectic daily routines, work stress, compromised sleep, and so on.
While I don’t categorize this as a daily supplement (long-term anyway), it wouldn’t be unsafe to use Primal Calm that way if that fits your needs (just check with your doctor if you have a health condition or take any medications—standard suggestions for any supplement protocol). Personally, I’ve benefited from using Primal Calm as a “situational” supplement, taking a few capsules when my body or emotions are under extra stress.
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 board.
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.