Supplementation Without Evidence: How to Approach Things that *Might* Work Intelligently
Written on June 25, 2014 at 4:49 pm, by Eric Cressey
Today, we've got a guest post from Kamal Patel on the ever-controversial topic of supplementation. Kamal was instrumental in creating the great new resource, the Examine.com Stacks Guide. Enjoy! -EC
Science is a process used to uncover the truth, or at least get as close to the truth as possible. It isn’t the only option out there, but it is definitely the best one currently available to us and has served humanity very well.
Thing is, with all the praise science gets (deservingly so), people sometimes forget it is a process. Just because something is “unproven” does not mean it’s crap - it just means that enough research hasn’t been conducted. People are too quick to think that “proven” is synonymous with “effective” and that “unproven” is synonymous with “not effective.”
Consider creatine. We all know that it works for increasing power output because of the mountain of evidence and anecdotes for it, but what if we went back in time to 5 years before creatine had human evidence? What if we also took a few kilograms of our favorite white powder with us in this time machine; would the fact that no evidence existed at this point somehow render the powder completely useless?
No. Things work whether you like them or not, and things fail whether you like them or not. Science just shows us which is which, it doesn’t make them so. The only real difference is in the questions left unanswered.
These ‘unproven’ supplements can still be really good, but they have to be approached differently from other ‘proven’ supplements. In the end they are both potential options for your usage, but the body of evidence needs to be considered.
How to approach unproven agents for yourself
When you come across a supplement which looks promising but doesn’t have much evidence for it, ultimately the choice of whether or not to use it is up to you. You can honestly run out and buy anything if you want, but at the least: look into the toxicology of it.
Take something like arginine - if you overdose on it, the side effects are diarrhea. Then you take something like Thunder God Vine, where the side-effect is gradual death of the immune system. Big difference!
How to responsibly approach unproven agents for others
It is difficult to recommend unproven supplements for others because unproven supplements tend to also have less safety data. There’s a difference between modifying your own body and recommending something to someone else. It’s something to approach cautiously.
You can easily tell somebody to “just take 5 grams of creatine a day and forget about it” - since it’s well researched that’s a safe statement. In the case of unproven supplements, you need to read over the evidence with them and let them come to their own decisions. A lot more prudency is needed here.
In the end though, unproven options could be amazing. Take cissus for example (which we’ve talked about here before): the one study on it was conducted in men with work-related muscle and joint soreness (a rare population to get studied in regards to joint health, almost everything is in osteoarthritis) and it has a very good reputation with athletes. It is a prototypical “unproven supplement that could be great but we do not have enough evidence yet.”
Stacking the known and the unknown
It is clear that stacks should be focused primarily around what is known to work and is known to be safe, but given the possibilities out there for personalizing your own stack, you can be smart about it. At the very least learn how to approach these things so you remain safe, add in new compounds so you can clearly attribute what supplement did what, and use a trial and error approach to find what works for you.
Eric said that the question he hates being asked the most is: “What supplements should I take?” That’s pretty much the same question we get: “What supplements should I take for ______?”
And that’s why we created our Stack Guides. It’s not just about “take this” and “don’t take that” - it’s a lot more subtle than that. There are promising supplements out there (like cissus), and you need to be a bit more nuanced than that.
We’re an independent, 100% transparent and unbiased source. Since we don’t sell any supplements, you know that our recommendations are all based on sound science, not us trying to make a quick buck.
Each stack also includes:
- Stacks catered not only to a goal (ie. fat loss) but also demographics (ie. for people who cannot easily tolerant stimulants)
- Nonsupplemental tips to help maximize efficacy
- Practical considerations when dealing with the components, like how to easily avoid minor side-effects of inconveniences
- Safety information on possible drug-drug interactions (although not all could be mentioned, referring to your medical doctor is still mandatory)
- Tips to help future supplement additions
- Free lifetime updates - as new research comes out, the stack guides will be updated accordingly
Note from EC: I've reviewed the resource and it's fantastic. I really could have used something this incredibly thorough when I was an "up and comer"in the industry and blowing far too much money on supplements that simply didn't work. If you're someone who purchases supplements regularly, I view this guide as an investment and not an expense; it'll actually save you a lot of money (especially since it's on sale at an introductory price this week). Click here to learn more.
About the Author
Kamal Patel is the director of Examine.com. He has an MBA and an MPH (Master of Public Health) from Johns Hopkins University, and was pursuing his PhD in nutrition when he opted to go on hiatus to join Examine.com. He is dedicated in making scientific research in nutrition and supplementation accessible to everyone.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!