Understanding Supplementation

Today we will be examining a series of questions centered on the popularity of supplements. I am sure you have experienced a family member, friend, or acquaintance that has sworn up and down that a certain supplement has done “wonders” in alleviating or improving some health issue in their life. We will examine anecdotal evidence in a way that will make you better educated at dissecting bullshit from reality. You may be surprised by how effective supplements really can be, but how limited that effectiveness is truly. Let’s get started.

How do we define supplements?
Briefly, I should mention that throughout this article we will be discussing the word “supplement” loosely to describe “something added” to a foundation. With this definition, I hope you will soon realize what supplements really do in respect to a variety of scenarios you might find yourself in.

Are supplements effective?
Yes and no. Confusing, isn’t it? Supplements work or do not work depending on which physiologic scenario one finds themself.

Scenario 1: Supplement work
Likely you have heard of someone who has taken a supplement and seen marked results from said supplement. How does this happen?

To explain this appropriately, let us build ourselves a scenario:

You have just bought yourself some whey protein powder called No Whey! (see what I did there!?) that claims it will help you dramatically increase the amount of muscle you will put on your body, and as your goal is to add some muscle to your frame, you are sold. You begin taking one scoop of this whey protein supplement every day, and would you believe it? You build more muscle!

Wow, it really may work. So, what does this mean? Does this particular protein have special properties that other proteins do not? No. The answer is almost always “no”.

Then, what?

For us to understand why this protein is so effective, we must examine several possibilities.

1. Placebo Effect

People begin taking new supplements, they get excited, because the container is stimulating their minds with a bunch of crazy promises (increase energy 297%!), and believe it or not, that belief in a product can have a profound effect. Simply believing in something can increase one’s psychological mindset for success. If you believe a product will create better results, you are likely to curve your actions, subconsciously, toward making the results happen, even in face of a lack of physiological efficacy from the product itself.

2. Optimizing Nutrition

This could be called a series of different titles, but this is likely the most prominent reason of all listed. Basically, if you do not keep your nutrition in strict check (and I know you may think you do, most think they do, but the reality is – no, you don’t) and hit certain markers (fats, vitamins, etc.) and your body is deficient in one marker or another, you will see a rapid, substantial betterment in whatever category said supplement addresses. In this example, you could be highly deficient in protein to feed your body under the new stress of exercise (which increases protein requirements) and an added 30 grams (from 1 scoop of No Whey!) gets sucked up by your body like a cool glass of water in the desert.

Similarly, if you are feeling drowsy, unable to muster up energy for anything, you may be deficient in your overall calorie intake, deficient in one or more B complex vitamins, or suffering from a lack of sleep (these are only three possible answers of many). Optimizing one or all of these issues would see a tremendous difference in your function.

So, based on these two examples, you should be able to deduce that the supplement is not a super supplement working added benefit to an already well developed lifestyle, but rather filling in the gaps from where your staple diet and behaviors are failing to address key areas of physiological functionality. This boost back up to normal ranges creates a noticeable difference, but only does so, because the deficient state has been a state of being to which you have gotten used. Once your body regulates, being offered the proper resources, you notice an upswing.


Scenario 2: Supplement works for her/him, but not for me?
Ever had a supplement recommended to you by a friend after they’ve tried it and seen great results, and when you try it, you see no (or few results)? What gives?

Again, let’s paint a scenario:

Billy just started using Test 9000 Xtreme which brags a massive boost in testosterone of over 177%! He says he’s had more energy, been gaining muscle, and is lord of his domain. You want in on this product that has worked so well for your friend, so you buy some and after the usual 4 weeks, you do not feel nor see any difference. Why is this so effective for Billy, yet so ineffective for you?

There is nothing wrong with you. As unlikely as a testosterone supplement is to work, we will ignore that fact, you and Billy have a series of potential fundamental differences that render the supplement more or less effective based on the circumstance (him vs you). Let’s examine.

1. Placebo Effect

Again, it is entirely possible for a supplement that does not work on a physiological level can have varying degrees of psychological impact depending on the person. Funnily, probably the less educated a person is, the more potent this psychological benefit is (sorry for educating you). Billy may have believed it whole heartedly, yet you may have not.

2. Optimizing Physiology

I’m taking what I wrote in “Optimizing Nutrition”, above, and repeating it in terms of testosterone. Billy’s testosterone may have been below healthy ranges and somehow (unlikely with an over the counter test booster, but let’s ignore that for a second) this testosterone booster bumped him up to within the normal range. So, he went from a deficient state to a non-deficient state, which again can make a dramatic difference in how a person feels, looks, and performs. On the other hand, you could have had normal testosterone levels, and as such, this supplement giving a boost did not raise your testosterone into supraphysiological levels (which is the only way to see added benefit from a normal state).

Scenario 3: Supplement does not work
You bought a supplement and it does not work for you or anyone else you know.

I think… we’ll write a scenario, perhaps?

You bought a supplement, tried it to the fullest allowable dosage, yet after weeks you still see no results. You gave it to a friend who was interested in trying it, and they get the same results (or lack of results). What is wrong with this supplement?

1. Placebo Effect

You do not believe in the product, and as it has no physiological effect, it fails at bringing about either benefit (psychological or physiological).

2. Optimizing Nutrition/Physiology

The part of your nutrition profile or physiological profile that this supplement aids with is already topped off. Your body has no use for more, so the supplement is a huge waste as it is probably excreted with little to no effect in terms of your body. This would be a more prevalent scenario if the supplement addresses a part of the body’s functioning that most people already get enough.

3. Effectiveness

The supplement doesn’t work on any level – deficient or not. In common terms, it blows.


Understanding Supplements
So, with a lot of repetition, I’m hoping this is sinking in. Supplements are, just as the word describes, a supplementation that is most effective when:

A) You are in a deficient state in one way or another (not enough water, no vitamin C, not enough protein, the list is ever long – just pick something).

B) The supplement you choose somehow addresses said deficiency adequately.

The end. That is the most potent use of a supplement.

You might think, “but couldn’t a supplement increase some marker beyond my normal amount and have an effect?”


There are few markers in the human body in which having greater amounts of said marker leads to increased performance, looks, or health. The body will dispose of the extra via any number of pathways and your extra ingestion will be for naught. In some cases, for example some vitamins, it is dangerous to take in greater amounts (ever heard of the word “overdose”?), so not only is it fruitless, but it can be harmful.

In the few instances that more can lead to benefits, the “more” is far more than any over the counter supplement can offer, so again, rather fruitless.



After much repeating, I hope you understand now that supplements can be effective, but are generally only noticeably effective to combat deficiency. They do not “add” to an already optimized physiological or nutritional state, but can help in achieving that physiological or nutritional state if taken correctly and if the supplement is needed to fulfill normal parameters. Over the counter supplements, in almost every instance, do nothing to increase results beyond normal values of a certain marker.


Writer: Nicolas Verhoeven


1) http://vicecaptainverve.com/supplementation-101-school-budget-edition/
2) http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/spending-wisely-on-vitamins/?_r=1

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