The Truth about Supplements - Everyone is Lying to You
When it comes to supplements for BJJ, or any other sport for that matter, almost everybody giving you advice is lying to you. Or at the very least, deluded by wishful thinking…
And just to alienate even more people, by the term ‘supplements’ I’m including most vitamins, minerals, ergogenic aids, pre-workout drinks, post-workout shakes, homeopathic medicine, herbal concoctions, chinese medicine, and all the other products offered by the supplement-industrial complex.
Many of the supplements used by grapplers and MMA fighters originate in the bodybuilding world. But bodybuilding books, magazines, and websites are a HORRIBLE place to get information about supplements because there’s a TON of money to be made pandering to the dreams of skinny adolescent boys.
I can sympathise, because like many adolescents boys I went through a phase of wanting to get huge myself. My personal goal was to make it to 240 lbs drug-free and still be lean enough to have visible abs. I rationalised this by saying it would help me with my jiu-jitsu, which didn’t actually work at all, but anyway, kudos to young Stephan for having highly specific goals.
My quest for drug-free hugeness led me to the world of bodybuilding supplements. I read a ton of the *ahem* literature and spent quite a bit of money on the latest pills, powders and potions.
And the main effect of all these supplements was that my urine became quite expensive!
Now if you’ve been an observer of the bodybuilding world for as long as I then you’ve seen many supplements come and go.
Remember inosine? There was a time when the magazines were full of 300 lb steroid gobbling monsters with 5% bodyfat swearing high and low that inosine was the key to their immense bulk and shreddedness.
Nobody takes inosine now.
The list of where-are-they-now supplenents grows longer every year: Inosine, Dimethylglycine, Trimethylglycine, Selenium, Hornet Juice, Turtle Blood Soup…
The main strategy of the supplement industry is to stay one step ahead of the science. It’s easy to make wild claims about the miraculous properties of fermented Siberian horsetail.
For anyone else to test or debunk those claims requires multiple double blind randomised trials. But doing multiple, double blind, randomised, peer-reviewed trials requires a boatload of time, money and academic brainpower. Setting up proper experiments IS A HUGE AND VERY COMPLICATED UNDERTAKING.
Is it actually in best interest of the supplement companies to spend the time and money to do this research? Do they really want to take the risk that their product doesn’t work, or isn’t safe? I think not!
The built-in delay that occurs between the release of a new supplement and its debunking gives the promoter/manufacturer/distributor/retailer of fermented Siberian horsetail a couple of years to profit from their foul-tasting capsules. A couple of years to fleece unwitting customers. And a couple of years to line up their next wunderproduct that they can promote once people become disillusioned with their last supplement.
Basically supplement manufacturers spout false claims based on bad science faster than anyone can possibly debunk them.
Whenever someone tells you about a hot new supplement, follow the money! Ask yourself who’s benefiting from sharing information about a given supplement with you? The ancient Roman orator Lucius Cassius said it best, “cui bono?” – who benefits?”
For example, take those big, shiny bodybuilding magazines. Did you know that subscription and newstand revenues don’t even come close to covering the production costs of those magazines? The profit in those magazines comes from selling advertising space, and those advertisements are mostly to sell supplements.
And then there are the fake blogs which rant and rave about the magical effects of a given supplement. Fake, fake, fake! Google has cracked down on this a little bit, but we’re still dealing with a multi-billion dollar industry so I’m sure that the same rats who were doing this originally have now found different tricks.
The sad truth is that elite bodybuilders get that way because they combine good genetics, heavy lifting, and enormous amounts of chicken breasts with anabolic steroids, insulin and growth hormone injections.
And it’s no different when it comes to other sports.
Cyclists winning the Tour de France doped to the gills. Once upon a time they thought that smoking cigarettes before a race ‘opened up the lungs’, but things have come a long way since then. Now they’re using EPO and stimulants for endurance, steroids for recovery, and a dog’s breakfast of other illegal drugs. A top cyclist may credit their admittedly incredible achievements to hornet juice or kale shakes, but it’s all a smokescreen. The reality is that legal supplements have very little to do with it.
Most UFC fighters are currently on steroids. Or, at the very least, have done steroids at some point in their training cycle.
Consider that there have been quite a few fighters have been busted for steroids. Most shocking to me is that many of them actually had quite average physiques. I’m not saying that they weren’t tough fighters – anyone who fights is tough – but they look like they’ve spent quite a bit of time lying on a couch surrounded by Doritos bags. So if these guys are on the sauce then what does that tell you about the guys who could respectably compete in a bodybuilding competition?
And it’s not just MMA: I believe that more and more BJJ and submission grappling competitors are doing the same thing.
In the defence of these athletes it’s not all about getting huge and cut – often the steroids are mostly to help them recover from the beating they take during training.
In the context of this discussion, it doesn’t actually matter why elite athletes use illegal doping agents. But when your favourite UFC fighter says that Xyience Xenergy allows him to train for 8 hours a day and then pretends to sip from a closed can at his post-fight interview he’s misleading you. You could start his training camp in fantastic shape and drink Xenergy by the caseload, but unless you were also using all his other illegal supplements your body would fall apart within a couple of days.
But what if your training partner is getting great results from some supplement? Is he lying too? Not necessarily, but that doesn’t mean that that he’s not lying to himself.
One of my toughest training partners once took me aside and told me in a hushed tone how he had SO much more endurance since he started taking dimethylglycine (DMG). Then he told me that he’d gotten his entire rugby team on DMG and they all had great results too.
Well of course I started the dimethylglycine hunt right away! This was pre-internet, so I had to phone just about every supplement store in town, but finally – FINALLY – I managed to find a store that carried this supplement. I drove down and bought three packs.
I diligently took DMG for weeks and weeks, but did my run times improve? Could I go longer and harder on the stairmaster? Did I feel different on the mats? Nope, nope, and nope respectively.
The reason DMG was hard to find is because it had gone out of vogue years ago, mostly because its alleged effects could never be demonstrated in any followup studies.
Wishful thinking is rampant among the newly converted. Everyone is looking for an edge, and thus is vulnerable to being sold expensive snake oil.
Let’s say that you had cancer. And let’s say that you decided to ‘treat’ it with super-expensive extract of earwig that your naturopath just happened to have handy. And now let’s say that that cancer went into remission. I could never, ever, pry you loose from the conviction that extract of earwig saved your life. You’d be an evangelist to anyone who would listen.
Trouble is, maybe it was something else you did that made that cancer go away. And sometimes cancer does go into remission spontaneously.
And then it turns out that some people who’ve been miraculously cured never actually had a formal diagnosis of cancer by a proper doctor – they just ‘knew’ they had cancer, or they’d been told they had cancer by their Reiki practitioner, or whatever…
Finally, let’s consider the placebo effect that occurs when someone is given fake or ineffective medicine but nevertheless has an improvement in their condition.
It turns out that the mind has a very powerful ability to affect the body. If on our way to the gym I give you a sugar pill and tell you that it’s a secret supplement used by the Bulgarian weightlifting team then you’ll probably set a new personal best on the bench press. That’s the placebo effect.
Another example: back when I was in high-school some girls in my class gave a boy a Midol tablet for menstrual cramping and told him that it was a quaalude. A few minutes later he started telling everyone that he was seeing strange colors and streaks in the air. That’s the placebo effect, and no, this isn’t a story about me! Honest!!
Every study that has ever looked for a placebo effect has found one. So even if your most-trusted training partner vouches for a certain supplement, it DOESN’T mean that it actually works.
Is It Safe?
Yes, some supplements do probably work. But if you’re ingesting chemicals produced in a lab then there’s always the possibility that you’re doing yourself short term or long term harm without knowing it.
Remember Thalidamide? This drug was distributed in the 1950′s and 1960′s as a cure for morning sickness, but ended causing up to 20,000 horrible birth defects in newborn children. Whoops!
Keep in mind that Thalidamide and other medical drugs go through a stringent regulatory process before they’re released on the market. But despite safeguards, tests, and clinical trials there are STILL mistakes, accidents and occasional nation-wide recalls.
Now, considering that the regulation of supplements is a joke compared to medical drugs, how many more mistakes would you expect?
Sure, there’s testing. And maybe the supplement in its pure form is safe.
But what if the actual supplement that’s on the shelves was produced in some Chinese factory that reuses industrial sludge from a neighbouring computer-chip manufacturing facility? Or forgot to extract some carcinogenic solvent at the end of the process. Or added God-knows-what to your creatine powder (remember melamine contaminated dogfood from China?).
A Special Place in Hell: Preworkout Drinks
It’s my soapbox right now, and so allow me to rant about a trend in the supplement industry that really bothers me: preworkout drinks.
The supplement aisles are full of giant containers of preworkout drinks and supplements right now. And at some gyms I’m guessing that at least half the ironheads pound back scoopfulls of this stuff before hitting the weights.
SuperPump Max. NO XPlode. Jack3D. Cell Tech Super-Pump 5000 Max with multiple proprietary intra-cellular nano-peptide trans-lysosomic activation factors. Blah, blah, blah.
These preworkout formulas emphasise their unique ingredients (“…now with even more L Citrulline…“) but the reality is that most of them are absolutely loaded with caffeine and sugar. Weird, huh?
My contention is that most of the effect of these preworkout drinks comes from the caffeine and sugar, and has nothing to do with the molecularly distilled trans-lysosomic activation factors so proudly advertised on the front of the bottle. If you were to slam down four espressos before training you’d feel pretty pumped too. Not to mention that damn placebo effect!
Even more worrisome is that the long-term effects of taking L citrulline, L-leucine, L-taurine, L-ornithine-L-aspartate, L-carnitine-L-tartrate or any of the other proprietary formulations that go into these energy drinks is completely unknown. If one of those compounds ends up being nephrotoxic and sends you into kidney failure 10 years down the road then it’s likely the company that sold it to you will fold its tent and you won’t even be able to sue anybody. But you’ll have a lot of time to sit and think about those stupid proprietary supplements when you’re hooked up to the dialysis machine.
It’d be a hell of price to pay in the future for slapping an extra 20 lbs onto your bench press now.
The Supplement Graveyard (or what I used to take)
Over the years I’ve trained for Judo and BJJ competitions, and was looking for any edge I could legally get. And then there were other sports with different energetic requirements as well. For example, I had to go from being a non-runner to getting a decent time on a 1.5 km time trial to get on the fire department. I’ve competed in the anaerobic nightmare known as the Firefighter Combat Challenge. I’ve run in 10 and 15 km races, both on roads and in the mountains.
As I got more and more serious about doing well in each sport there was the corresponding temptation to take more and more supplements purported to help with that specific type of activity.
Along the way I read way too many books on sports supplementation.
Then, to exacerbate the pill-popping even further, I got into the whole life extension literature by Ray Kurzweil and others. Yes, I was going to live long enough to live forever.
At this point my urine became very, very expensive!
Just to show you that I’m not immune from the hype, here’s a list of some of the supplements I’ve played around with over the years. I have to emphasise that I DON’T TAKE ALL THIS STUFF NOW (I’ll get to the very limited list of what I take now at afterwards).
Here, in no particular order, is some of what’s landed in my supplement graveyard over the years:
- Vitamin B Complex
- Cyanocobalamin (B12)
- Creatine Monohydrate
- Creatine Citrate
- Vitamin E
- Glucosamine Sulfate
- Chondroitin Sulfate
- L Glutamine
- Holy Basil Extract
- Coenzyme Q10
- Dimethylglycine (DMG)
- Bee Pollen
- Royal Jelly
- Reishi Mushroom Extract
- Sodium Phosphate
- S-Adenosylmethionin (SAMe)
- Grapeseed Extract
What I Take Now
I take much, much fewer supplements today. My main approach now is having a good diet, being well hydrated, and trying to get enough sleep.
My diet is largely vegan. Tons of vegetables, lots of seeds, nuts and beans, and very little meat.
I drink a lot of water: my current goal is to drink 3 to 4 litres per day (about one gallon).
My sleep – well, I’m not doing so good here. To tell the truth, I know my body would thank me if I had a lot more of it. But I’ve got things to do, goals to accomplish, and I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
When it comes to performing well in a sport like BJJ (and living a long, healthy life) it’s important to think about the things that you keep OUT of your body as well as what you take IN. Some people have crappy diets and try to compensate for this with lots of supplements, but this is backwards thinking.
If you’re eating at McDonalds more than once a year then worrying about which supplements you should be taking is stupid – it’s like a smoker worrying about the carcinogenic effect of pesticides on their tomatoes. If you’re eating trans fat, or ingesting tons of sugar, or using artificial sweeteners then there’s no point in taking any supplement until you clean up your diet.
Take the low-hanging fruit first by cleaning up your diet, because your diet is your biggest, most important supplement!
But I promised to share the supplements that I take now with you.
Ready? Here goes:
- Vitamin C – 1000 mg/day
- Fish Oil and/or Omega 3 extracts, 4000 to 5000 mg/day
- Vitamin D, 3000 to 5000 IU/day depending on the time of year
I reserve the right to change this as time goes on, but I can almost certainly guarantee you I’ll never get back up to the ridiculous levels of supplementation from 10 years ago!
Let me summarise this article for you…
The biggest effect of most supplements is to make your urine more expensive. The few supplements that do work may not be safe. Most new supplements are backed up with shoddy science at best. Supplements have nothing to do with the performance of elite athletes who are mostly using illegal drugs. Your friends will unintentionally mislead you. The placebo effect is real. The benefits of diet, hydration and rest far outweigh the effects of any legal supplement.
Is there anybody that I haven’t insulted yet?