From capsules and tablets to gels and powders, an athlete’s countertop can look more like a pharmacy than a kitchen. To sort through the insanity, we’ve got a breakdown of the 10 supplements than can help you reach your fitness goals of maintaining optimal health, building muscle, and decreasing inflammation.
1. Protein Powder
Protein powders are about as common as water bottles in the athletic world. Whey protein isolate is the top choice, as it’s complete, tastes good, is easily ingested, and has the perfect amino blend for muscle building, strength, and recovery. This smooth textured powder has also been shown to help keep you healthy by boosting immune function via its ability to increase glutathione (master antioxidant) at the cellular level. It can act as a quick protein source at breakfast in the form of a smoothie when there’s no time to make eggs or lean turkey sausage, and it’s a vital part of proper workout recovery fuel. Within 30 minutes after training, strive for 0.5 grams of carbs per pound (or 1.1 grams of carbs per kilogram) of body weight, along with 20-40 grams of protein for strength-training sessions, or 15-25 grams of protein for cardio-based sessions.
Not able to use whey protein due to milk sensitivities or other issues? Eating organic, lean meat is a great source of protein, with approximately 7 grams of protein in every ounce. For a nondairy-based protein powder, choose a plant-based product (non-soy) made from peas, rice, or seeds, such as Vega Sport or Sunwarrior, with 17 to 26 grams of protein per 1 scoop serving.
Electrolytes are minerals that break into small electrically charged particles (ions) when dissolved in water. Among the most important are sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, and magnesium. These help maintain your body’s proper fluid balance, pH balance, transmission of nerve impulses, and muscle contractions. Hydration status, cognitive function, and muscle movement would not be maintained at optimal levels throughout tough training sessions without the aid of electrolytes.
Of the top five mentioned, sodium, potassium, and chloride are the primary electrolytes lost through sweat. Sodium is typically the front runner and most important to replace, as it aids in optimal fluid balance, muscle cramp reduction, and thirst stimulation—all critical components of athletic performance.
When intense training lasts more than one hour or is performed in extreme heat, most of your fluid intake (especially during and after activity) should be in the form of a well-formulated sports drink containing electrolytes. It is okay to alternate between a sports drink and filtered water. Gatorade, PowerBar, Ultima, and Vega Sport are among a number of brands making electrolyte replacement powders and drinks that can be found in most health food stores.
You don’t need a multivitamin with mega doses, especially as a health conscious, clean-eating machine—a basic one is just fine. The form your vitamin comes in, however, should be far from basic. Skip the tightly bound, cheap, synthetic, poorly utilized tablets, and go for an optimally absorbed liquid like Intramax or Organic Life Vitamins. Most well-made capsules and powders are also superior to tablets on the absorption scale. Multivitamins are a great nutrient backup for busy days when your eating isn’t up to snuff—and are one of the best general health and wellness products you can take each day.
As far as mimicking a multi in the form of food, eating a balanced diet is key. Lean proteins such as chicken and fish, carbohydrates like green vegetables, quinoa, and sweet potatoes, and healthy fats including raw nuts and avocados should all be consumed regularly.
Approximately 70-80 percent of your immune function is based in the gut. Probiotics are good bacteria that patrol your GI tract, keeping your flora in proper balance. There are about 500 species of bacteria, good and bad, roaming around down there. Keeping the number of good guys (probiotics) flourishing is essential to staying healthy.
You do not need to take probiotics daily for the rest of your life, but upping the amount during cold and flu season or at the onset of a bug, during and/or after taking antibiotics, and during times of intense training can definitely benefit your health and decrease your number of sick days and doctor’s visits.
Probiotics can be found in well-absorbed capsule and powder form in most health food stores, or they can be taken via food in the forms of yogurt and kefir.
Creatine is a natural substance found in the body as a component of skeletal muscle. It’s used to produce phosphocreatine, a precursor to the energy molecule known as adenosine triphosphate (better known as ATP). In theory, the more creatine available, the more phosphocreatine produced, the more energy you’ll have through workouts, and the longer it takes for fatigue to set in. This allows for longer, stronger, and overall better training sessions. Supplementation touts enhanced recovery, increased lean body mass, and improved performance—specifically in brief, intense, high-power output exercises (resistance/strength training, sprinting).
Several creatine dosing regimens have been used and studied, some with loading doses of 20 grams per day for a few days. Effective maintenance doses seem to hover around 2-5 grams per day. Side effects can include weight (fluid) gain, muscle cramping, nausea, and GI disturbance, so be sure to stay hydrated and alert your healthcare practitioner if any symptoms arise.
Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in your body. It’s considered conditionally essential, and our body produces its own. In certain situations, however, your body may not be able to keep up with the demand. Glutamine levels tend to plummet during frequent and intense training periods, and lower levels can inhibit strength, endurance, energy, and immune function. Glutamine supplementation can bring anti-catabolic and immune-enhancing benefits to combat these exercise-induced problems.
Glutamine is found in food sources, such as chicken, beef, fish, and red cabbage, but it is easily destroyed during cooking. To compensate, many athletes choose supplements of 5 to 10 grams per day. Glutamine also plays a role in the health and integrity of the GI tract, acting as fuel for the cells that line the small intestine—your very important defenders against toxins, allergens, and disease-causing microorganisms.
7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids/Fish Oil
The proven anti-inflammatory properties of Omega-3 fatty acids make them vital to an athlete’s routine. Boasting a slew of other benefits, including lowering the risk of heart disease, and improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and cognitive function, these polyunsaturated fatty acids do more than reduce joint pain.
There is quite a long list of hard-to-pronounce words when it comes to naming all the Omega-3s. With regards to nutritional importance, the three heavy hitters include alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), with EPA and DHA showing more benefits in the areas listed above compared to ALA.
Some of the most potent foods sources of EPA and DHA include salmon, sardines, mackerel, and tuna. To reduce the consumption of fish contaminated with mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), the best source is wild caught salmon. If salmon doesn’t float your boat, there are myriad fish oil supplements on the market. Choose wisely and look for trusted companies that have a verified process to purify the oils and remove toxins, and make sure your supplement lists a breakdown of EPA and DHA (versus just listing total Omega-3 content).
8. Nitric Oxide (NO) /Arginine
The amino acid L-arginine is a precursor to nitric oxide (NO), which is a potent vasodilator (a substance that widens blood vessels, increases blood flow, and decreases blood pressure). NO/Arginine supplements are typically taken for their advertised benefits of delivering more nutrients to muscles, leading to longer, stronger workouts and faster recovery times. Research supporting these claims is sporadic, but many athletes report that they notice substantial results.
Related studies that test nitrate-rich beetroot juice seem to be more promising. The dietary nitrate found in beets/beetroot juice is reduced to nitrite via certain bacteria on the tongue’s surface, and then further reduced to nitric oxide. This source of nitric oxide has shown improved performance via increased mean power outputs, decreased oxygen consumption, increased time to exhaustion, and lower perceived exertion ratings.
9. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is another immune enhancer that can keep you in the gym (and off a couch surrounded by cold meds and tissues). This is a fat-soluble vitamin your body produces on its own with exposure to sunlight. During winter months or in regularly cold and overcast climates, natural vitamin D levels are depleted. There are very few vitamin D rich foods (cod liver oil, wild salmon, mackerel), and people cannot make up for a vitamin D deficiency through diet alone. Supplementation in a gel cap or liquid-based D3 is optimal and is typically advised. Adequate Intake (AI) recommendations are 200-400IUs daily for most of the population, but many researchers studying immune function and athletic performance are suggesting 2000IUs daily as a therapeutic dose. Because vitamin D is fat soluble and can become toxic at high levels, be sure to get your levels checked first.
10. Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs are a group of essential amino acids, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine, that your body uses to build proteins, with muscles having a particularly high content. The term “branched-chain” refers to their molecular structure. The best food sources of BCAAs include red meat, dairy products, chicken, fish, eggs, and whey protein.
Supplementation is proposed to increase protein synthesis, postpone fatigue, decrease muscle damage and breakdown, boost the immune system, and inhibit muscle glycogen degradation (glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrate and primary fuel used by muscles). BCAAs are typically taken before and after workouts.