Let’s face it: in the fitness world, you’re constantly being bombarded with “take this” or “take that,” “this will make you lose fat” or “this will make you stronger.” And if it’s not supplements, it’s someone telling you how to eat for weight loss or to gain muscle.
While the fitness industry tends to suggest that there are magic pills or fixes for everything, here’s the truth: there is no magic pill or replacement for hard work. Getting what you want – and not just physically speaking – takes hard work, dedication, time, and commitment.
If you’ve buckled in on your diet and you’re looking to venture into the world of supplements for that extra edge, how do sort through all the mumble jumble and differentiate between what you “need” and what you actually need?
Here, we’re going to put aside all the bogus information and take a look at some supplements that are actually worth your time and money.
Electrolytes are nutrients (or chemicals) found in the body that play a vital role in how we function. They are salts that, when in water, dissolve into positively and negatively charged ions. These ions have two crucial functions in the body: they regulate the flow of water in and out of cells, and they transmit nerve impulses.1 Without electrolytes, our cells will either have too little water and shrivel up, or have too much water and burst. The movement of ions in and out of the cell also allows nerve impulses to be transmitted from the brain or spinal cord to other regions of the body.
So why are electrolytes on this list?
After a brutal workout, your clothes are probably drenched in sweat. Electrolytes like sodium and chloride are deposited in sweat glands and released to the surface of the skin, thereby leaving the body. Since they play a crucial role in heartbeat, blood pressure, and muscle contraction, electrolyte imbalances can result in symptoms like muscle cramps, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and mental confusion.2 Muscle cramps are the number one sign that your electrolytes are low, but it’s important to replenish them before you get to this stage.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs are 3 of the 9 essential amino acids, meaning that your cells can’t manufacture them and you must provide your body with them. BCAAs are a mix of 3 amino acids — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — and are a crucial part of muscle recovery and repair.
Why? They help trigger protein synthesis by increasing cellular capacity to do so. Unlike other peptides, BCAAs are shunted directly to the muscles so work can start immediately, bypassing the need to process through the liver. These amino acids also help balance stress hormones, especially cortisol. Consumption of BCAAs after a workout helps to balance levels and prevent them from rising too high.3 Supplementing with BCAAs during a workout also helps increase endurance performance and prevent fatigue. They do so by inhibiting the uptake of tryptophan in the brain, which prevents conversion to serotonin — the neurotransmitter that increases fatigue and tiredness.4
Glutamine is well known for its ability to heal and promote an overall healthy intestinal tract. We all know the importance of having a properly functioning GI system — its where our nutrients are absorbed. But glutamine has a few other important functions in the body that make it a key supplement to incorporate into your regime.
First of all, it’s one of the 20 amino acids found in protein, and the most abundant amino acid in the bloodstream. Besides improving gastrointestinal health, glutamine also helps promote muscle growth and prevent muscle wasting. During intense workouts, the body becomes stressed and the muscles and tendons require more glutamine, surpassing what is usually taken in through diet. This helps to the muscles to recovery faster after a hard training session and increases muscle hydration.5
Glutamine also helps burn fat and build lean muscle mass by suppressing insulin levels and stabilizing blood glucose. In doing so, less muscle is used to maintain steady blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity within cells.5
Essential fatty acids (fish oils)
There are several types of fatty acids in the body, many of which can be manufactured from within. Two specifically – linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 – cannot be.
So why are EFAs making the list of supplements that are actually worth taking? There are several reasons. They play a role in immunity, cell signaling, brain health and function, hormone production, thyroid function, and adrenal activity. They’re also anti-inflammatory. Need we say more?
The vast majority of our brain is of fat, so it makes sense that by increasing fat intake and supplementing with EFAs, we can boost our brain health. Indeed, research has shown that omega-3 fatty acid consumption improves brain cognition and decreases the risk of brain-related diseases.6
If you’ve ever experienced joint pain and stiffness, fish oils may be your go-to supplement. Omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fatty fish help reduce inflammation by blocking the inflammatory pathways in the body, as well as increasing circulation.7 So next time you’re experiencing soreness after a good workout, try reaching for your fish oils.
Creatine is one of the most controversial supplements in the fitness world. But should you take it, or shouldn’t you? If you’re a serious athlete, creatine should be on your “must have” supplement list. And even if you’re not, you should still consider it.
Creatine is an organic acid that serves as a back-up energy source for muscles during high intensity exercise, as it boosts levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — your main source of energy during high intensity activity. It’s highly beneficial for short-duration, high intensity exercises, as it improves repetitive performance of muscular strength and short-term power, while also helping short bursts of muscular performance.8
Don’t worry – the bad rep that creatine has for helping you “bulk up” isn’t necessarily true. Creatine is hydroscopic, and therefore helps retain water in the muscles. This can make them look bulkier for a short period of time. Long-term use of creatine, however, encourages protein synthesis.8 If you’re looking to increase lean muscle mass, stick with it in your daily supplement regime.
If you’ve ever looked at the ingredient list for a pre-workout, you’ve probably noticed beta-alanine as one of the ingredients. The body uses beta-alanine to form compounds called carnosine by combining beta-alanine with the essential amino acid, L-histidine. One of the functions of carnosine is to regulate the pH in the body. When muscles are continuously contracting, the body becomes more acidic. This impairs the ability of the muscles to keep contracting, and eventually they stop.9 This is the point that fatigue sets it.
One of the main reasons for supplementing with beta-alanine is its ability to improve muscle endurance and overall body composition. Taking beta-alanine will help increase time to exhaustion,10 allowing you to push harder before reaching the point of muscle cramping and fatigue. Besides boosting muscle endurance, beta-alanine (when converted to carnosine) also has antioxidant, anti-aging, and immune boosting properties.10
If you’re going to supplement with a vitamin, vitamin D should be on the top of your list. Known to many as the sunshine vitamin, it’s produced by the body from direct exposure to sunlight and is one of the most powerful vitamins out there, with a whole slew of health benefits.
One of the main functions of vitamin D is to regulate calcium absorption in the body. It promotes absorption in the gut and maintains adequate levels of serum calcium and phosphate, which are necessary for bone growth and remodeling.11 Vitamin D also plays a role in maintenance of the nervous system, heart function, normal blood clotting, supports a healthy immune system, modules cell growth, supports good mental health, and reduces inflammation. 11
Vitamin D deficiency is among the most common vitamin deficiencies, and is especially prevalent in cooler months. It’s important to supplement regularly with this one.
So if you’ve ever looked at any of these supplements on the shelf and been a little hesitant to give them a try, don’t be. Experimentation and finding what’s right for you is key.
1 Levi, A. (2017). What Are Electrolytes and Why Do We Need Them? Retrieved from https://www.health.com/fitness/what-are-electrolytes.
2 Lockwood, K. (2011). Do I Really Need Electrolytes After Exercise? Retrieved from https://greatist.com/fitness/do-i-really-need-electrolytes-after-exercise.
3 Mercola. (2016). Branched-Chain Amino Acids: Improve Mental Fog, Help Reduce Muscle Soreness, How to Get Them. Retrieved from https://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2016/12/09/branched-chain-amino-acids.aspx.
4 Poliquin Group. (2013). Ten benefits of BCAAs. Retrieved from http://main.poliquingroup.com/articlesmultimedia/articles/article/1088/ten_benefits_of_bcaas.aspx.
5 Axe, J. (2018). 7 L-Glutamine Benefits, Side Effects & Dosage. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/l-glutamine-benefits-side-effects-dosage/.
6 Link, R. (2017). Essential Fatty Acids Benefits, Sources & Recipes. Retrieved from https://draxe.com/essential-fatty-acids/.
7 Reed, K. (2016). All You Need To Know About Taking Fish Oil For Reducing Inflammation. Retrieved from https://www.positivehealthwellness.com/diet-nutrition/need-know-taking-fish-oil-reducing-inflammation/.
8 Creatine: Everything You Need To Know. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.coachmag.co.uk/nutrition/supplements/1154/creatine-facts.
9 Matthews, M. (2015). The Definitive Guide to Beta-Alanine Supplementation. Retrieved from https://legionathletics.com/beta-alanine/.
10 Semeco, A. (2016). Beta-Alanine - A Beginner's Guide. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/beta-alanine-101#section3.
11 Office of Dietary Supplements - Vitamin D. (2018). Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/.