Upgrade Your Energy, Optimize Your Supplements
By: Dave Asprey
June 12, 2012
There are three groups of people when it comes to supplements.
The first group shuns all forms of supplementation because “it isn’t natural” or because “cavemen didn’t have supplements.” They try to get all of their nutrients from food, but often come up short.
The second group thinks supplements can make up for a poor diet and high-stress levels.
The final group is somewhere in between. In my opinion, this is the best place to be.
Supplements are a double-edged sword. The wrong ones can do more damage than good, but the right ones can massively improve your health, even if you already eat a nutrient-dense diet. In this article, you’re going to get an overview of the problems with generic supplements, how to pick the right supplements, and the list of supplements almost everyone should be taking.
Throw away your multivitamins
With half of the U.S. population taking a multivitamin, many people seem to think multivitamins are the first line of defense against malnutrition and disease. In fact, the opposite is true. Multivitamins can actually do more harm than good. Here are the two main reasons to choose targeted, individualized supplementation over multivitamins:
1. Nutrient imbalance
Most multivitamins have too much of some nutrients (like vitamin A or B6) and not enough of others (like magnesium). The result is overdosing on some nutrients, while not getting enough of others. It is a common practice to use very small amounts of expensive nutrients, which allows manufacturers to still list them on the label. Average consumers don’t notice there are meaningless amounts of some nutrients, and they only want to take one pill anyway. There is no way to fit “a complete spectrum” of nutrients in one single pill. Not to mention your individual nutritional needs. In other words, a mom with two kids and a full-time job is going to need a different spectrum of nutrients than a professional athlete.
2. Most multivitamins are low quality
Nutrients come in different forms that behave differently inside your body. Folate is an essential B vitamin, but folic acid, the kind found in generic multivitamins, can increase your risk of certain cancers. This may be why some studies show no benefit to taking multivitamins and others suggest an increase in mortality. 
This is assuming you even absorb the ingredients. Many multivitamins are made with fillers and additives that make it hard for your body to even absorb the nutrients. So, even if they have the right amount of a nutrient on the label, very little may reach your cells.
In the end, you get what you pay for with supplements. You can delude yourself and buy the generic multivitamins at a big box store, or you can spend a little extra and actually do something to improve your health.
How to start supplementing
Before we get into the exact supplements you should take, here are some general criteria for supplementation:
Get the majority of your nutrients from food
You don’t eat nutrients – you eat food. Whole foods behave differently from their individual parts. For instance, the nutrients from a piece of meat are more bioavailable than consuming the equivalent nutrients from a pill or powder. Antioxidants from food are beneficial, but taking mega-doses of some synthetic antioxidants comes with risks like tumor growth. The nutrients in food work together in a process known as food synergy. In short, this means food is more powerful than the sum of its parts. That’s why it’s important to start with a nutrient-dense diet, then supplement specific nutrients according to your specific needs and goals.
When in doubt, go without
Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be harmful. It’s possible to abuse even the most natural herbal supplements or food-based vitamins and minerals. And supplements are not immune from heavy metals, contaminants, and byproducts from processing. Always check the sourcing and quality testing of your supplement providers. Your best bet is consulting with a licensed practitioner who can recommend quality brands.
What supplements should you take?
I take over 100 pills a day, carefully selected for my own needs using blood and urine testing over the last decade. That’s why this isn’t called “the complete guide to supplementation.” This list does not cover my recommendations for smart drugs or other brain-enhancing nutrients. These are just the basic supplements that most everyone should be taking.
For each nutrient, you will get a:
- Dosage recommendation.
- The correct form it should be taken in.
- The best time to take it.
In an effort to save time and make it easier/safer for you to take these nutrients in their highest performing form, I have been following cutting-edge research to source and develop some of these nutrients in their most proven/pure form and dose. It takes a lot of effort and resources to develop a truly exceptional supplement. If I haven’t been able to do that yet, I will recommend another product I trust and use. I have no relation or affiliation with those companies.
Here are the 10 nutrients (almost) everyone should supplement with:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K2
- Vitamin C
- Krill Oil
- Vitamin A
- Zinc and Copper
- Methyl Folate and Methyl B12
* Bonus: Vitamins A, D, and K above work in a complementary fashion for immune, heart, and bone support. You can get them all in one supplement: Vitamins A-D-K.
Vitamin D isn’t just the most important supplement – it is possibly the most important biohack. Vitamin D acts on over 1,000 different genes and serves as a substrate for sex hormones like testosterone, human growth hormone, and estrogen. It moderates immune function and inflammation. It assists in calcium metabolism and bone formation. It’s no coincidence this is one of the few vitamins humans can make on their own, with a little bit of sunshine. Without it – we’d be dead. It’s true that you can get adequate vitamin D from sun exposure, but for non-nudist non-equatorial dwellers, sun alone is not enough. And for those concerned about toxicity from supplementation: if you’re getting adequate vitamin A, it’s almost impossible to overdose on D.
Dose: 1,000 IU / 25 pounds of body weight.*
Form: D3 with vitamin K (Vitamins A-D-K)
Take it: In the morning
*People with brown/black skin don’t convert sunlight into vitamin D as quickly as lighter skinned people. If you’re brown-skinned, a safe bet is 1,500 IU / 25 pounds of body weight, but you should always test your blood levels because individual response to dosage varies.
This is almost as important as vitamin D, and almost as underappreciated. Magnesium is used in over 300 enzymatic processes, including all of those involved in ATP (energy) production. It’s also vital for proper transcription of DNA and RNA.
Magnesium deficiency is a serious problem. Symptoms include heart arrhythmias, tachycardia, headaches, muscle cramps, nausea, metabolic syndrome, migraines, and pretty much everything else you don’t want. It’s also associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, anxiety disorders, and PMS.
Almost all Americans are deficient in magnesium. The majority of people don’t meet the RDA, which is already too low. Due to soil depletion and poor farming practices, it’s almost impossible to get enough magnesium from diet alone. Without a doubt – everyone should supplement with magnesium.
Dose: 200-800mg /day (start low and work your way up)
Forms: Citrate, malate, glycinate, threonate, or orotate
Take it: Before bedtime.
Unless you grew up eating only grass-fed meat and raw milk – you’re deficient in vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 is a fat soluble vitamin involved in calcium metabolism. Excess calcium is deposited in arteries, leading to calcification and decreased vascular function. This is why vitamin K2 could play a role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and bone loss.
Vitamin K1 is the kind of vitamin K found in leafy vegetables, and vitamin K2 is the kind found in grass-fed animal products. Ruminant animals like cows and sheep convert K1 into K2 in their stomachs, but humans don’t convert K1 to K2 as efficiently. Just another reason you should eat grass-fed animals – they can only get K1 from grass – not grains.
There are two subsets of vitamin K2: MK-4, and MK-7. MK-4 is the kind shown to produce the most benefit, but MK-7 is still important. You should consume a total of at least 2,000mcg per day of K1 and K2, at least 100mcg of which should be the MK-7 form.
Dose: 2,000mcg / day (100mcg MK-7 form)
Forms: MK-4, and MK-7 (Vitamins A-D-K)
Take it: At meal time, along with some fat and your vitamin D supplement
This is one of the safest, most effective supplements you can take. Vitamin C is needed for collagen and connective tissue formation. It’s used to manufacture glutathione, the most powerful antioxidant in the body. Vitamin C can enhance immune function and help quench free radical damage. Studies show you can take up to 120 grams of vitamin C a day with no side effects (besides loose stools, aka disaster pants), not that I recommend this amount.
It’s hard to get enough vitamin C from food, which is why 30 percent of the population is deficient.
Some fruits and vegetables are high in vitamin C, but cooking and storage methods can deplete vitamin C content. Supplementation with at least 500mg per day is optimal. You should take a lot more if you are suffering from chronic infections or healing from injury.
Dose: 1-2 grams / day
Forms: Ascorbic acid crystals or time release capsules.
Take it: In the morning and evening, but it’s best not to take it after a workout as isolated antioxidants can negate the insulin sensitivity gained from exercise.
Iodine is crucial for proper thyroid function and metabolism. It also enhances immune function and prevents brain damage. Iodine deficiency is widespread, so supplementation is wise. Physically active people are at especially high risk for deficiency because you lose iodine through sweat. You can get some iodine from seafood, but unless you’re eating it with every meal, you probably won’t get enough. If you suffer from a thyroid condition, consult your functional medicine doctor before you supplement with iodine.
Dose: 150 mcg to 1000 mcg (1 mg) / day
Forms: Kelp powder or potassium iodide capsules
Take it: Once daily, with food
EPA/DHA (krill oil)
This is a tricky one. Small doses of high-quality fish oil reduce inflammation, improve brain function, and even enhance muscle growth, but poor quality or high doses can cause more problems than they help to solve. Not all fish oil is created equal. Most of the brands you are likely to buy at your local grocery are contaminated, oxidized, and low potency. If you can’t find a good fish oil, you’re much better off avoiding it altogether.
That’s why I recommend krill oil over fish oil. Krill is more stable and it is phosphorylated, meaning it’s easier for your brain to use. It also comes with astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant.
There are real benefits to taking EPA and DHA, but most of these are strongest if your diet is deficient in omega-3s, or too high in omega-6’s. Most people don’t get nearly enough omega-3s through diet alone. Humans need 350mg of DHA and EPA a day to have optimal brain function. If you’re eating grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish several times a week, this is easily obtainable. If you can’t find grass-fed meat or wild caught seafood, you should supplement with 500-1000mg of krill oil per day.
Dose: 500-1000mg / day
Forms: Krill Oil
Take it: With meals
These are just a few basic supplements I think most people would benefit from. If you’re looking for a more robust regimen, take a look at some of the following:
This is essential if you aren’t eating organ meats like beef liver, kidney, and heart (you should). Vitamin A is an important cofactor for numerous metabolic reactions and bodily functions. A quarter of Americans consume less than half the RDA, which is already too low. An important thing to remember is that you can’t get vitamin A from plants. Plants don’t have vitamin A, they have beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is poorly converted into vitamin A, which is why some populations develop vitamin A deficiency despite consuming far more than they should have required. Sorry vegetarians and vegans, carrots aren’t going to cut it.
Dose: 3,000-10,000 IU / day.
Forms: Retinol (a good source of vitamin A is cod liver oil, which also has vitamin D) (Vitamins A-D-K)
Take it: With meals
L-Tyrosine is an amino acid that boosts mood, cognition, physical and mental stress response, and healthy glandular function. It quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier to increase the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. It’s also a building block for thyroid hormone. Your body can make it, but it depletes when you’re stressed, and with modern living, most people’s production can’t keep up. Studies have shown that cadets in combat training supplementing with L-Tyrosine had reduced negative effects from physical and psychosocial stress on mental performance.
Dose: 500-2000mg per day.
Forms: Pure L-Tyrosine
Take it: Whenever you want.
Zinc + Copper
Zinc and copper both serve hundreds of critical tasks to keep you healthy, and I take them together for a couple reasons:
1) Too much zinc can decrease copper levels in your body.
2) Together, zinc and copper form the antioxidant copper-zinc superoxide dismutase (CuZnSOD), one of your body’s most critical natural defense mechanisms.
Zinc is a key mineral in the support of healthy immune function, energy production, and mood. It’s important to supplement because it can be tough to get a meaningful amount from food, and your body doesn’t store it, meaning you need to replenish each day.
You need copper to work in conjunction with zinc, and for proper vascular and heart function. Most of the U.S. is woefully deficient in copper, consuming only .8mg per day. This is worrying since less than 1mg per day is enough to cause heart attacks. Copper intake has fallen over the last century due to modern farming and dietary practices. Modern fruits, vegetables, and conventional meats are low in copper, containing 75 percent less than they used to.
Dose: 15mg zinc orotate and 1-2mg copper orotate per day
Take it: Outside of meals/supplements containing iron, calcium, and phytates, which can decrease absorption of zinc.
Methyl B-12 and Methyl Folate
Most people are deficient in B12. Vitamin B12 can protect against dementia, increase immune function, maintain nerves, and regenerate cells. B12 lowers homocysteine and protects against atherosclerosis. It’s necessary for maintaining methylation reactions that repair DNA and prevent cancer. One of the most crucial areas for B12 is the brain.
Folate deficiency can also cause mental symptoms, although B12 is more likely to be a problem. Folate and B12 are both required for mental function, and a deficiency in one produces a deficiency in the other, but folate will not correct a B12 deficiency in the brain. Folate also supports a healthy heart and nervous system. If you make the mistake of treating B12 deficiency without folate, you can get permanent brain damage. Likewise, high amounts of folate without adequate B12 can cause neurological conditions. That’s why I take them together.
Dose: 5mg+ of methylcobalamin or hydroxocobalamin and 800mcg+ of folate (5-MTHF or folinic acid, NOT folic acid)
Forms: Capsule and/or lozenge
Take it: Daily with food
Supplementation is something everyone should do, but how much depends on your diet and other lifestyle factors. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to your naturopathic or functional medicine doctor to figure out an individualized plan that works for you.
Looking for more?
The list above was a small portion of supplements to consider taking. They’ll provide you with a foundation for further supplementation with things like smart drugs and sleep hacking supplements. And don’t forget the post about calcium-d-glucarate! Sign up for the Bulletproof Newsletter below for more on how to upgrade your biology. Thanks for reading and have a great week!
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