In many ways, following a primal diet and lifestyle is all about going back to basics. The benefits lie in the simplicity; eat plants and animals, move around regularly, get plenty of sunlight, and sleep like a baby. Model yourself (within reason) on your ancestors of 10,000 years ago, and you put yourself firmly on track towards an optimum state of health. So if we’re living like a prehistoric human in the modern day environment, where do health supplements fit in?
In an ideal world, they don’t! Our ancestors didn’t take health supplements, and they didn’t need to, either. The soils in which their food was grown were rich and fertile, the wild animals that they hunted grazed exclusively on nutritious green pasture, and fermented foods were a key component of their daily diet. Pre-agricultural human didn’t face the onslaught of modern day stressors that we do in 2015, and they certainly weren’t sitting at a desk or staring at a computer screen all day.
You see, whilst the ‘caveman’ philosophy is an excellent template for good health, it’s far removed from reality in 2015. No longer do we spend our days in the sunshine hunting for grass-fed elk and bison, or foraging for wild roots and shoots in nutrient rich soils. We’re not eating fermented foods anywhere near as often as we should be. Even our water supply is filtered of its valuable minerals before it is deemed ‘safe’ enough to drink.
No matter how hard you Paleo, modern life calls for a slightly more strategic approach. Whilst we certainly don’t need expensive multi-vitamin-mineral-antioxidant complexes or the latest celebrity-endorsed cocktail of youth, there are a few key supplements that can help to fill the gaps that life in the 21st century brings.
What are they, you ask? Let’s take a look.
Why do I need them?
Right the way throughout our evolution, almost every traditional society has unwittingly consumed probiotics – both through fermented foods, and in the form of soil based organisms (SBOs). Before the days that produce could be shipped in from around the world at any time of year, traditional societies preserved their food using methods of fermentation. In 2015, our need for preserving food has all but vanished – but our bodies’ needs for probiotics remain as great as ever.
Probiotics are often touted as the answer to a healthy digestive system; and whilst this is true, it only just scratches the surface of the amazing things that they can do for our health. In clinical studies, probiotics have been shown to improve mood and mental wellbeing1, boost immunity2, and help prevent allergies3. By improving the nutrient absorption of the food we eat, they give us a greater bang for our buck every time we sit down at the dinner table. Good health begins in the gut, and when you examine the many benefits, there really is no wonder that probiotics are often considered the ‘missing link’ in the modern diet.
What should I look for?
Try to consume plenty of probiotics from different sources to help to build a healthy, diverse microbiome. Food sources of probiotics such as kombucha, sauerkraut, and live yoghurt are excellent ways to get your daily fix, whilst a high quality probiotic supplement is the perfect way to load up if you can’t get on board with fermented foods. When selecting a probiotic supplement, look for one with multiple strains of bacteria and a high CFU count – ideally of 10 billion or above per serving. If you struggle to tolerate dairy, make sure your probiotic supplement is not cultured using organisms derived from milk.
Why do I need it?
Magnesium is crucial for the health of our cardiovascular system, nervous system, brain, and muscles. It improves sleep quality and duration4, enhances the body’s resilience to stress5, and may also improve our immune response6.
But no matter how healthy your diet, there is still a good chance that your magnesium levels may be below par without the use of a supplement. This is because the magnesium content of our soil has been depleted severely in recent years, thanks in no small part to modern use of pesticides and intensive farming methods7. The food we eat is only as healthy as the soil in which it is grown; and whilst dietary magnesium would have been easy to come by in times before agriculture, nowadays, it’s not quite so simple to consume enough of this crucial nutrient.
What should I look for?
Providing you are eating a nutrient dense diet already, between 250-400mg of supplemental magnesium is plenty for the vast majority of people. Look for a highly absorbable form such as taurinate, gluconate, or hydroxide. I personally use Lifestream Magnesium, which is naturally derived from seawater, unlike many synthetic magnesium supplements that are created in a laboratory. If you prefer not to take supplemental magnesium through your diet, you can try using transdermal magnesium absorbed through the skin – either as a spray, or in a mineral bath.
Cod Liver Oil
Why do I need it?
As countless ‘superfoods’ have drifted in and out of the media spotlight, one humble offering has stood the test of time. Cod liver oil may well have been the first ever health supplement – and one that has nourished generation after generation.
One of the many benefits of cod liver oil is it’s rich concentration of omega-3, which we know has a proven ability to boost cognitive function8, cardiovascular health9, and joint health10. But much more than an isolated fatty acid, cod liver oil provides an excellent source of fat soluble vitamins A and D; both of which are notoriously hard to source through diet alone.
The vast majority of our vitamin D intake comes from sunlight, making vitamin D rich foods such as cod liver oil an excellent way to stay healthy in the summer months. Vitamin A in the form of retinol (not to be confused with beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A) is found primarily in organ meats; so if you don’t have a penchant for lamb’s liver, cod liver oil is the perfect way to meet your needs of this particular nutrient.
What should I look for?
As far as supplements go, cod liver oil is about as primal as it gets. My favourite is the Green Pasture brand, made from wild, arctic caught cod and processed at low temperatures to retain all the therapeutic goodness of one of the greatest superfoods known to mankind.
Supplements – the clue is in the name
Whilst the three supplements I mentioned above can make a welcome addition to just about any primal diet, it’s important not to lose sight of one key thing. Supplements, as the name suggests, are an addition to a healthy primal lifestyle, rather than an alternative. The most substantial health changes you will ever make will come through your day to day diet – supplements help to fill in the small holes that our modern diet, no matter how balanced, may be lacking.
There are many other supplements that can have context in a primal lifestyle, and the right supplements for you will depend on your own personal health situation. The three I have listed above are, in my opinion, the three most beneficial to the modern day human. Supplementation may not be ‘strictly’ primal, but for a caveman or woman living in the 21st century, it sure is useful.
What are your favourite primal supplements? Let me know in the comments section below!
- Bested, A.C., Logan, A.C., Selhub, E.M. (2013). Intestinal microbiota, probiotics and mental health: from Metchnikoff to modern advances: part III – convergence toward clinical trials. In Gut Pathogens. 2013;5:4. doi:10.1186/1757-4749-5-4. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3605358/
- Ashraf, R., Shah, N.P. (2014). Immune system stimulation by probiotic microorganisms: Faculty of Health Engineering and Science, School of Biomedical and Health Sciences , Victoria University , Werribee Campus. In Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, Vol. 54, Iss. 7, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408398.2011.619671?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&
- Özdemir, Ö. (2010). Various effects of different probiotic strains in allergic disorders: an update from laboratory and clinical data. In Clinical and Experimental Immunology, 160(3), 295–304. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2883099
Abbasi, B., Kimiagar, M., Sadeghniiat, K., Shirazi, M.M., Hedayati, M., Rashidkhani, B. (2012). The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. In Journal of Research in Medical Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23853635
- Seelig, M.S. (1994). Consequences of magnesium deficiency on the enhancement of stress reactions. In Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7836621
- Tam, M., Gomez, D., Gonzalez-Gross, M., Marcos, A. (2003). Possible roles of magnesium on the immune system. In European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2003) 57, 1193–1197. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v57/n10/full/1601689a.html
- Fan Ming-Sheng, Zhao Fang-Jie, Fairweather-Tait Susan J, Poulton Paul R, Dunham Sarah J, McGrath Steve P. Evidence of decreasing mineral density in wheat grain over the last 160 years. In Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology, Vol. 22, Iss. 4, Nov 2008, pp.315–324. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0946672X08000679
- Bauer, I., Hughes, M., Rowsell, R., Cockerell, R., Pipingas, A., Crewther, S., Crewther, D. (2014), Omega-3 supplementation improves cognition and modifies brain activation in young adults. In Human Psychopharmacology Clinical and Experimental, 29: 133–144. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hup.2379/abstract;jsessionid=DA0A255C9D08A56F1E06EF7A6EA4C73E.f01t01
- Mozaffarian, D., Wu, J.H.Y. (2011). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease: Effects on Risk Factors, Molecular Pathways, and Clinical Events. In Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Vol. 58, Iss. 20, 8 November 2011, pp. 2047–2067. Retreived from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0735109711031317
- Proudman, S.M., et al. (2008). Dietary Omega-3 Fats for Treatment of Inflammatory Joint Disease: Efficacy and Utility. In Rheumatic Disease Clinics , Vol. 34 , Iss. 2 , pp.469 – 479. Retrieved from http://www.rheumatic.theclinics.com/article/S0889-857X%2808%2900019-7/abstract