2018-07-10

Supplementing My Life Away


For a while now, I’ve been adding supplements to my diet, and I’d like to dedicate some space here to the supplements I’m taking and why.

I started taking a multivitamin some years ago. While I recognize that there is little evidence that these vitamins are actually absorbed, they don’t cost very much money, and I am a diabetic. Diabetic people don’t absorb vitamins very well. There are two ways to think about this: The first is that we diabetics have even less of a reason to take a multivitamin; after all, if “normal people” can’t absorb the vitamins in a vitamin pill, diabetics are even less likely to be able to do so. The other way to think about it is that, since I’m getting fewer vitamins from my food than “normal people do,” I should throw more vitamins at the problem in hopes that it does some kind of something for me. I chose the latter way of thinking about it, although I concede that the former is probably more logical.

For a long time, that daily multivitamin was all the supplement I took. Then, one day, a colleague of mine at work mentioned that he was taking milk thistle. He didn’t strike me as being the voodoo-hippie-supplement type, so I asked him about it. He said that milk thistle was good for your liver, and from this I gathered that my colleague started taking milk thistle as an insurance policy against his appetite for weekend partying. No judgement here, he was a virile twenty-something guy doing what virile twenty-something guys do. But it was enough to cause me to do some research on milk thistle. As it turns out, milk thistle is genuinely excellent for the liver. The data is pretty clear on that, it successfully lowers the primary marker for liver disease. I’m not a hard-partying twenty-something, but we diabetics, in addition to poor vitamin absorption, often suffer from liver failure. So, I started taking a half-dose of milk thistle daily as a preventative measure.

That brought me up to two daily supplements, but after a short while, that wasn’t enough for me. I started to wonder, if there are legitimate supplements out there, like milk thistle, what else might I be missing? I started to do some more research, ruling out all the useless supplements and getting curious about the ones that had data to back them up.

One supplement I discovered was called “phosphatidyl serine.” According to some research, there is some weak but not terrible evidence that phosphatidyl serine reduces the cortisol response in the body after exercise. If true, this would prevent my blood sugar from spiking after a hard workout. I bought a bottle and started taking it daily, but eventually looked at the ingredients list. There was only one ingredient: soy lecithin. After some additional research, I realized that the reduction in post-exercise cortisol was something that could be achieved by eating some protein; so the main benefit of phosphatidyl serine is that it’s a miniscule amount of protein.

So, I struck out there. But no big deal. It was a harmless health experiment.

Next on my list was glucosamine. Glucosamine is often prescribed to arthritic dogs, and since it’s over-the-counter, arthritic humans also sometimes take it. It’s not a cure for arthritis, not by a long shot, but it has strong evidence in its favor. That is, the evidence suggests that it very definitely does some good, but only a little bit of good. It’s also cheap and has no side-effects, so I bought a bottle and started taking one daily. This time, the experiment worked like a charm: I have literally not had tendinitis since I started taking glucosamine, despite increasing my exercise frequency and running perhaps more than I have in the previous ten years. To be fair, I don’t know for sure that glucosamine is what made the difference here. Maybe I somehow managed to improve my running form after 30 years of great form. Maybe. But my family is prone to arthritis, and my anecdotal experience suggests that the glucosamine is doing some good. So I’ll keep taking it.

The next one I thought I’d try was coenzyme Q10. Coenzyme Q10 is a coenzyme that the body naturally produces and that helps the heart do what the heart does. Some people have a medical issue wherein their bodies are deficient in coenzyme Q10, and for those people the CoQ10 supplement is actually a total solution. The supplement restores their CoQ10 levels and they return to living normal lives. For most other people, there is no harm in CoQ10 supplementation, but it’s not clear that anyone really benefits from it. I did some research and discovered that, at least epidemiologically, diabetics tend to have lower than average CoQ10 levels. So, when it went on sale at Costco, I bought some. I figured, there are no side-effects, the price is right, and it might do me some good. I’ve never had my CoQ10 levels checked, but I am diabetic, so why not.

Here's where things get interesting. After several weeks of daily CoQ10 supplementation, I observed a very small improvement in my blood glucose control. In addition, I simply felt better. Was this a placebo effect? Possibly. But when I go on vacation, I don’t take my CoQ10 supplements with me, and I always feel a little worse. Then I get back home to my supplements, and I start to feel better again. I repeat: this might be a placebo effect. But it’s working for me, so I’ve been keeping up with my CoQ10. It seems to give me a little more energy and… I don’t know… spry-ness, maybe? Virility? (Not like that, perv.)

Two days ago I started taking Niagen. Niagen is nicotinamide riboside, i.e. a form of vitamin B3. The thing about nicotinamide riboside is that, as it gets absorbed in the cell, it “activates” some genes associated with anti-aging. Every form of B3 activates genes in order to absorb the B3, but only nicotinamide riboside activates these specific genes. This much is factual. The speculative theory is that, by activating these genes, nicotinamide riboside actually gets the body to do “anti-aging stuff.” If true, it would prevent some cell aging, notably in the brain, but also in the body, thereby preventing cognitive decline, and also physical decline. People self-report that nicotinamide riboside supplements make them feel younger, look younger, perform at a higher level of athleticism, get better sleep, and many other things. I have no idea whether these claims are true. But I decided to try a bottle and see what happens.

Finally, today, I started adding creatine to my post-run protein shake. The benefits of creatine are thoroughly described elsewhere. The short story is that creatine really does cause muscles to retain more water, and thus improves their ability to absorb nutrients and create ATP during exercise. In the end, this causes people who exercise to get a little bit more out of their training sessions. The reason I had previously avoided creatine was that it was supposedly contraindicated for diabetics. According to more recent research, however, that’s not true.

Another cool thing about creatine is that it is associated with higher levels of insulin-like growth factor, which has anti-aging properties, and which also (as the name suggests) lowers blood sugar levels. So, I’ve been keen to try creatine, and today I finally did.

We’ll see where all this gets me.