Lever #5: External Compounds
Supplements, drugs, and hormones, prioritizing our approach to health, and asking better questions.
Disclaimer: I have no affiliations with any of the above companies.
Pill and Powders Are Not the Answer
Tackling external compounds, interchangeable with exogenous molecules, which consist of supplements, drugs, and hormones is a difficult task. In a similar manner to nutrition, it’s much more difficult to outline the principles, strategies, tools, and tactics that are widely beneficial to all humans in this domain since we vary so widely in our biology.
When it comes to sleep and exercise, we can say with a high degree of certainty that humans will be better off if they sleep for at least 7 hours per night on a consistent basis and engage in a well-rounded exercise routine that covers aerobic, anaerobic, strength, stability, flexibility, and mobility.
However, when it comes to exogenous molecules, it’s much more difficult to make the claim that supplement X or drug Y will improve health, fitness, or lifespan in all people for two reasons. The first is that, as mentioned, we’re all different. Supplement X may be beneficial to you but detrimental to me.
The second is that the science isn’t out yet for many “longevity drugs” (a relevant example today is experimentation with NAD drips). Research in lifespan extension has only ramped up relatively recently and most of the evidence we have is either based on animal studies or anecdotal, coming from self-experimental individuals.
Taking Responsibility and Accountability
Just like sleep, exercise, nutrition, and mental and emotional health, this domain is also YOUR responsibility. It’s your responsibility to research and consult with your doctor to determine if a supplement, drug, or hormone will be beneficial for your overall health.
By taking accountability and performing your own due diligence, you’re able to proactively seek out the exogenous molecules that can improve your health and help to prevent or combat health issues. Here’s an example to help paint the picture.
My dad has been taking statins for the last decade or so due to elevated cholesterol levels. This is a genetic condition as he’s always led a very healthy lifestyle in which he’s an avid gym-goer, walker, kayaker, golfer, and maintains a healthy diet.
A few months ago, he changed pharmacies and the pharmacist asked if he was supplementing with Omega-3s and magnesium, suggesting that they would be beneficial for combating his elevated cholesterol.
Although he passed through multiple doctors and pharmacists over the years who never recommended these two supplements to help lower his cholesterol in a less potentially harmful way, it’s still HIS fault that it took a decade to find alternative remedies.
You can’t place responsibility for your health in the hands of anyone but your own. If you have a health issue, take the time to research what the doctor prescribes and look for alternative or additional remedies. If you’re in perfect health, take the time to proactively seek what exogenous molecules may help enhance your health or minimize future risks.
I’m not advocating to go rogue and sundance your way to good health, but perform due diligence to improve your ability to engage in meaningful conversation with your doctor based on your findings (i.e., I read that supplementing X may help me with Y, what do you think?).
Supplements are over-the-counter (OTC) products that are taken by mouth (capsules, powders, solids, liquids) and contain dietary ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs or botanicals, and other substances that can be used to supplement the diet (Omega-3s/fish oils, creatine, protein powder, magnesium…).
Although the supplement industry that has bulged to reach billions of dollars in annual sales would like you to think otherwise, the truth is that most supplements are a complete and total waste of money. Most supplements are either not effective or, in the rare case that they are, they are often overhyped and over-marketed.
Supplements are just that… supplemental. Select supplements can be effective, especially when we’ve done the bloodwork to support their purpose, but in the picture of longevity, they’re the last place we should point our focus. Before considering supplementation, nail down sleep, nutrition, and exercise practices and work towards building strong mental and emotional health.
This is where 95%, if not more, of our results will come from. Once we’ve developed strong and consistent habits in those areas, we can then begin to consider what supplements should be taken to further enhance our already healthy lifestyles.
Before getting into specific supplements, an important differentiation to make is that between longevity enhancing and performance-optimizing supplements. Although there may be some overlap, some supplements are geared towards helping us live for longer while others are purely meant to increase performance at cognitive or physical activities but may actually have a detrimental longevity impact.
For example, branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) can improve muscle growth and endurance, but they also stimulate mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) which has been shown to accelerate aging if over-activated.
I’ll close this section by recommending a few supplements that may be worth looking into. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a great place to start. Remember, the supplements you choose to take should be heavily researched and always consulted with your doctor.
Omega-3 fatty acids (“fish oils”)
Magnesium (multiple types)
Vitamin B complex (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12)
Sulforaphane (grow your own broccoli sprouts at home)
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Acquired by prescription, OTC, or *ahem* other methods, drugs are used in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease and/or are intended to affect the structure or function of the body (caffeine, alcohol, statins, ibuprofen, cannabis, cocaine…).
When thinking about drugs, I like to classify them into three broad categories: 1) Daily use; 2) Medical use; 3) Recreational use.
Daily use drugs are things like caffeine, ibuprofen, and other drugs that can generally be purchased OTC such as cold, allergy, and flu medications. Medical use drugs are prescribed based on a certain medical condition, illness, or disease in order to combat or treat something specific. For example, statins are prescribed in order to help lower cholesterol levels aimed at preventing a heart attack or stroke. Recreational drugs consist of legal (alcohol, tobacco, cannabis) or illegal (cocaine) substances that are consumed for enjoyment rather than health.
My advice is to do your own research on the things you take. Listen to your doctor, but inform yourself so you can ask questions and engage in discussion. Again, your health is your responsibility.
Hormones are often prescribed, since very few are available OTC, and are chemical substances that act as messenger molecules. After being produced in one part of the body, or taken exogenously, they travel to other parts of the body via tissue fluids, such as blood, where they help control how cells and organs function (melatonin, insulin, cortisol, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, growth hormone, adrenaline, thyroid hormones...).
In a similar manner to drugs, most hormones are prescribed to target a certain issue or proactively prevent or improve an aspect of our health. My advice? Understand your desired outcome, perform research, and ask questions.
Prioritize and Conquer
Do not let the supplement industry fool you. No supplement will make you effortlessly drop 20lbs of fat or easily pack on 10lbs of muscle. External compounds are Lever #5 for a reason – they should be the last area you place your focus. What’s more important? Sleep, nutrition, exercise, and building strong mental and emotional health.
I apologize if I sound like a broken record, but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to nail these first. Developing a few positive habits in each of these four areas is the 20% of efforts that will yield 80% (in reality, much more) of your results (The 80/20 Principle).
After you’re comfortable in the strength of the habits you built in the first four Levers, then it may be time to turn to external compounds to see where you can further enhance your health.
To summarize, there are three groups of exogenous molecules:
Choose your supplements wisely as most are a money grab and very few will yield real results. Do thorough due diligence and consult a physician, especially if you have other health conditions.
Air on the side of less, or preferably none, when it comes to recreational drug use. Don’t pop cold medicine the second you have a sniffle as there are potentially harmful impacts that come with the overuse of cold medication. In addition, nothing you take will actually cure a cold, medications just blunt the symptoms to relieve discomfort as the cold runs its course – we evolved immune systems for a reason.
With all drugs, OTC or prescribed, do your own research. Don’t just buy medication off the shelf of a drug store and start popping pills until you research what it is you're actually taking. The same goes if your doctor prescribes you something. Educate yourself on what it is so you can ask them good questions and potentially seek other, or additional means, of improving your condition.
Apply the same protocol as with supplements and drugs. Understand your desired outcome, perform thorough research, and consult a physician. Your health is no one’s responsibility but your own.
Leverage this framework to organize your thinking around the compounds you’re taking, what you’re trying to achieve through them, and how you can perform research to engage in meaningful discourse with your physician.
Stay tuned for future installments where we dive into particular compounds and how their use may be beneficial to our longevity and vitality.
And, as always, please give me feedback on Twitter or by hitting reply to this email.
A very helpful recap. I feared from the picture you were about to sell me a $1,000 worth of essential supplements :) Glad you keep coming back to the 20-80 rule. Focus on the biggies that'll change your life, whether addressing a deficiency condition or improving function. Add-ons may be worthwhile considering, but don't let that be your preoccupation. Most sensible.