The article in short
Are supplements useful for optimizing your health, body and mind? The most annoying answer: it depends. If you're trying to reach peak performance in health, training or work, at one point your progress will slow down. Each step further requires a higher amount of effort – the law of diminishing returns. In the beginning of each performance quest, you won’t require supplements to perform. Your development will go fast enough without. When starting to run 5K, your body doesn’t “need” isotonic drinks. When doing a bodyweight exercise for strength, you could as well focus on natural protein from your diet, instead of a shake. When you want brain power, you could drink plenty of water, eat clean and get fresh air for a start.
However, supplements have great benefits in terms of convenience and can push you to higher levels, even if it's just for the placebo. That’s why in this article you will find my top minimalist supplements, ranked according to their ROI.
Important: I'm neither a doctor nor an expert. Just a fellow biohacker who wants to perform on a higher level, using trial and error, experiments, tracking as well as experience to learn more and help others on the way. If you want to start supplementing and are uncertain about whether you should take something or not, consult your doctor.
Why I am pro supplement
I’ve tried a whole lot of biohacks and supplements to improve my health and increase my performance. Looking back, a lot of them were a waste of time and money and I feel stupid for having believed in some of those methods at all. But I’m a curious person, eager to try and see for myself if something works or not. With minimalism in mind it is important to figure out which supplements offer the highest return on investment in terms of money and effect. You don’t want to spend lots of money on things that don’t give you real benefits.
For me, using supplements to achieve my goals faster has always been motivating. It kept me focused on my habits and the process, instead of only the goal. When I take a supplement like creatine, I want to make the most of it, which pushes me to work out harder. So for me supplements are not just for the top level of performance but rather a support on the way. It’s like buying new sports clothes to get motivated to work out. If it gets you to the gym, who cares if it was really "necessary"? If it works and has no negative side-effects, fine. Even though they usually cost more money than their real-food-equivalent, supplements usually offer the benefit of convenience. Drinking a shake after a work-out is faster and easier than to fry up a salmon steak, right?
Still I’m sceptic with supplements and additions. I ask two key questions to decide whether to implement something or not:
1. Do I feel a positive effect? Also over a longer period of time? Or if I stop taking it, do I feel less good?
2. Is there sufficient evidence (in the form of proper studies) to underline that the supplement is beneficial?
From all the things I tried (and am currently still trying) I have chosen six as my top supplements, which I can support from a minimalistic performance optimization point of view. Of course there are others that might work and I’m still experimenting with many, but for those I can say they definitely have a huge impact on my performance and offer the highest return on investment.
Caffeine / Coffee
The holy grail of performance enhancement, when you ask me. I discovered the power of coffee when I started studying in Southern Germany, while I had to write an extensive paper on macroeconomics. Not only did the caffeine keep me awake and concentrated but also the motivational effect of coffee struck me as powerful. Not to mention the beautiful ritual behind it.
For a certain period of time I believed that too much caffeine will weaken me and my immune system. I suspected the adrenal glands and the hormone cortisol to be the cause. To test the theory, I drank MORE coffee than before. A bulletproof coffee in the morning plus two cups in the office, a last coffee after lunch and then I switched to the decaffeinated version. The effect: I felt good, without any signs of adrenal fatigue or nervousness etc.
The founder of bulletproof and author of several books on biohacking, Dave Asprey, states that some coffee beans are contaminated with mold, leading to brain fog and a drastic reduction of brain and body performance. Coffee should make you feel good! It should be slightly elevating your brain performance but not making you nervous or giving you a tingly feeling. If it does, the coffee might be too strong for you or the coffee beans are low in quality.
If you don't like coffee, switching to green tea is a great option and comes with other health benefits. I usually consume both.
As I’m living in Austria in Central Europe, chances of a lack of Vitamin D3 are pretty high, especially as I’m sitting in an office at least 8 hours per day. In order to get enough sunlight for the body to produce sufficient Vitamin D3, we would have to spend a lot more time outside. Until the indoor office culture with an 8 hour workday is finally outdated, I’ll work with a Vitamin D3 + K2 supplement.
In Winter I take up to 10.000 IE per day. In Summer I leave it at around 1.000 – 3.000 IE per day.
I clearly feel the effect on my mood in winter. In the past I was often slightly on the negativity side (I don’t want to use the word depressed) but with Vitamin D3, I don’t get those kind of mood drops. For me it's a cheap and easy supplement to take with a noticeable effect. At the time I'm writing this article I also work with artificial daylight on my office desk. I feel similarly positive effects on my energy levels and mood. Light is definitely a powerful form of "supplement" and I will cover it in an extra blog post.
Attention: With Vitamin D3 it might be important to additionally supplement with Magnesium. Otherwise it might not be fully metabolized and arteries might be calcified. The Vitamin K2 addition might also be important to ensure that Calcium is transported out of your joints properly. There are contradicting opinions out there but I'll rather be safe than sorry.
MCT stands for Medium Chain Triglycerides which means fatty acids with a medium chain length in their molecule structure. Its pure form "MCT oil" is usually derived from coconut oil, colorless, odorless and liquid.
Fatty acids with medium chain length are:
Caproic acid (C6 – 6 C bindings, shortest)
Caprylic Acid (C8 – 8 C bindings, medium)
Capric Acid (C10 – 10 C bindings, medium)
Lauric Acid (C12 – 12 C bindings, longest)
The length (amount of C bindings) is the important factor as it decides how the fatty acid can be used and how fast it will travel through the body. The short and medium chain fatty acids are absorbed quickly and converted into energy. MCTs pass through the digestive lining and enter your liver, where they are broken down into ketones, then move into your bloodstream. C8 and C10 provide the quickest energy and take only 3 steps until they are turned into ATP (Adenosine triphosphate – cellular energy). Compare that to a staggering 26 steps to turn sugar into ATP. That’s the reason your brain works well on MCT oil. That's also the reason why the concentrated forms of MCT oil used for biohacking contain either C8, C10 or a combination of both.
In terms of MCT I definitely feel the effect if I take 1 tablespoon in the morning. My mind feels clearer and I feel energetic and hyped when I mix it in my coffee. That’s why it’s on place 3 in the Minimalist Biohacker top supplements. If you want to look into topics like intermittent fasting or a detox period, consider MCT for more energy.
It has severely helped me during my gut optimization, which included one week of intermittent fasting. It suppressed the feeling of hunger and I was comfortable without breakfast until 12.00 or 1.00pm when I had a spoon of MCT oil .
Omega 3 Fish Oil
Alpha-Linolenic Acid or Omega 3 is a fatty acid which consists of 18 Cs with 3 double bonds, which means it's “buckled” three times. That's what makes it polyunsaturated or elastic. Omega 3 is not only used to create energy but also as building blocks for our body (especially for cells in the brain and the eyes). The effects include better signal transmission of neurons in your brain, which means sharper thinking as well as a reduction of inflammatory processes in your body. A beneficial effect overall and for your joints, especially when doing lots of sports.
To get your omega 3 in a more natural way, fatty fish (especially salmon and trout) but also linseed, chia seeds or walnuts are great sources.
To insure proper availability of Omega 3 fatty acids in my body, I take a capsule every morning. Capsules with fish oil, purified on a molecular level, are free of quicksilver or other heavy metals, which is often a concern.
The idea of using charcoal to bind toxins is most likely as old as fire itself. You might know it from times when you had some trouble in your stomach or digestive system. For me it has great potential and I’m using it when I know I consumed food which is not helpful or even harmful (like trans fats). I also use it when I consume alcohol and have the impression that it reduces my hangover significantly.
Activated charcoal capsules are cheap, easy to use and a natural biohacking supplement. Therefore they clearly qualify for the Minimalist Biohacker. If you want to dig deeper into activated charcoal, I recommend the article on bulletproof.com. You can jump over to their article by clicking here.
This is a big discussion amongst nutrition experts and biohackers. On the one hand there is a lack of individuality (one fits all) and the potential risks of “overdosing”. On the other hand vitamin complexes are quick and easy to use, cost effective and low maintenance.
So if we are eating healthy, why would we need additional vitamins and supplements at all? In a documentation called "Food Matters" the interviewed people make the claim that a lack of micronutrients comes from several factors:
• Reduced nutrient density in the soil caused by heavy farming and use of chemicals
• Long transportation time from the field to the supermarket and a degradation of nutrients
• Long storage times in the supermarket until it arrives in your household
• Further processing of the vegetables by heating and cooking
Those factors lead to a reduction of vitamins and minerals in the food we consume, which in turn might lead to a form of malnutrition in micronutrients.
For a period of time I had several individual supplements like magnesium, vitamin C, zinc and folate. A neat stack of vitamins and minerals blocking space in my kitchen. Even though I could individually take the minerals and vitamins, I still had a problem which is at the same time an argument against multi-vitamins: How would I KNOW which one I need and how much of it? Without a blood test it is not yet possible to know (although I’m certain that within the next 5-10 years we will have a small application for the mobile phone which takes a small drop of blood when you press your finger on it and tells you exactly what you need).
Now I go with multi vitamins as it is much more convenient. The danger of overdosing is low and even though my pee might be more expensive than before, I rather stay stacked up on all important vitamins each day. The daily dose, which is always mentioned on the packaging of the supplements, states the minimal dose to avoid deficiency syndromes, not the dose for optimal performance. So I’m not afraid of taking too much by eating healthy plus taking extra vitamins. They are also much easier to handle when traveling, which is a big bonus for me. I used multi minerals before but have felt a rather negative effect on my cognitive performance and overall feeling. When taking a multi mineral, I sometimes felt a bit off for a few minutes. I didn't feel any negative effects by not taking them anymore and mostly focus on supplementation with Magnesium now on the mineral spectrum.
Am I afraid of side effects? As long as the quality of the supplements I take is high – No. Supplementation does not replace a healthy diet. Eating lots of natural foods and vegetables is still the most important part.
With so many things advertised to improve performance and so many different supplements to try, this list contains the things I would want to keep if I had to choose only a few. There are other supplements with positive effects and benefits but when it comes to the highest ROI, those belong to the premier league. Coffee for the brain boost, good fats like Omega-3 and MCT for your cells and brain, proper supply of vitamins (especially D3+K2) as well as charcoal to bind toxins, which harm your performance.
So the list of supplements I will continue to use for optimized performance looks like this:
- Vitamin D3+K2
- MCT Oil
- Omega 3 Capsules
- Activated Charcoal
And yes, I'm taking more supplements than the ones above. I also take a vegan protein powder, creatine, amino acids and supplements in the direction of nootropics, like Ginseng. However I'm still figuring out whether they are actually effective and helpful, so I wouldn't list them in the minimalist supplements list.
If you go out to buy those supplements and you take them for a few days, you should feel the impact. You should feel more energized and mentally clear. For example if you ingested something bad or had some alcohol, you will recover much faster with the use of charcoal. Also when you start out from a low level of performance and you experience tiredness or brain fog, supplements can give you the tiny breathing room to turn your mind and health back on. You might feel able to think clearly and dig deeper into into your status quo for the first time . You might not feel tired after a long day at the office, giving you the power to read and learn more about your body and performance.
Of course you have to see what works for you but it’s only a small amount of money for a big potential return. The supplements above are minimalistic in terms of time, money and effort and have a positive impact. Try them out and let me know what your experience was.
If you liked the article and got some benefit out of it, I would be grateful if you would recommend it to people who should get that info, too. You help someone you love and at the same time spread the word about optimized performance. If you're interested in daily updates on better performance, follow @minimalist_biohacker on Instagram.