Whey protein, creatine, beta-alanine, caffeine, fish oil, vitamin D. . . these supplements are the poster boys for places like GNC and online supplement retailers.
They are well known, effective, and are beneficial for most hard-training, health-minded individuals.
While we all love these popular supplements, there are some less well-known supplements that appear to be just as effective as the big hitters above.
Interestingly, a lot of these newer supplements appear to modulate your neurotransmitters and can be considered “nootropics”.
Glycine is an underappreciated amino acid, perhaps because it is the smallest and not one of the sexy BCAA’s. However, it can serve as a neurotransmitter and supplemental glycine has been shown to be effective for improving sleep.
Glycine appears to be superior to nighttime carbohydrates, and even magnesium, for improving sleep quality. Did that blow your mind? It blew mine when I first read through the studies.
Most studies show that low doses of glycine appear to be the most beneficial. In humans who reported poor sleep, consuming 3 grams of glycine before bedtime improved their sleep, reduced daytime sleepiness, and improved performance of memory recognition tasks1.
In a double-blind cross-over study, 3 grams of glycine before bed improved fatigue and “peppiness” the morning following supplementation2. I know I would benefit from more morning “peppiness”.
Based on what we know at the current moment, it appears that 3 grams are the “magic dose” as a third study demonstrated that 3 grams of pre-bed glycine improved sleep and reduced fatigue and daytime sleepiness3.
L-tyrosine, another amino acid, can be categorized as a nootropic. L-tyrosine primarily has effects on stress, well-being, working memory, and even cognitive function. Much like glycine, many of the benefits of L-Tyrosine have been repeated across several studies and it appears to be a safe supplement.
L-tyrosine works primarily by being a precursor to several neurotransmitters: dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline. In a group of young men, 2 grams of tyrosine was able to reduce stress and fatigue and improved cognitive performance.4
This has been repeated under different forms of stress where tyrosine prevented the decline in cognitive performance during periods of sleep deprivation (i.e. shift work or long hours of being on call as a health care worker)5.
Tyrosine has also been tested in a couple of the most unique but bizarre supplement studies (science does some wacky, but really interesting stuff sometimes).
Supplementing with tyrosine has been shown to reduce stress and improve mood after exposure to intense, prolonged cold6. In another cold-exposure study, tyrosine supplementation reverses the “brain fog” that is observed under extreme cold exposure7.
Currently, it looks like the most effective doses range from about 1 gram to 2 grams, and about an hour before an event seems to maximize the effectiveness of it.
Ashwagandha is commonly referred to as an “adaptogen”. It is a popular herb used in ayurvedic medicine and is typically used to reduce anxiety and stress, as well as alleviate insomnia. One of the lesser-known features of ashwagandha is its effect on physical performance, specifically power output.
There are several studies to support the claims of ashwagandha as an anti-anxiety supplement and that it may be a helpful way to reduce stress during stress periods. In one study, ashwagandha was 77% more effective at reducing anxiety than a placebo8. In a group of people with moderate to severe anxiety, ashwagandha was 85% more effective than the placebo group9.
Based on the data we have right now it looks like ashwagandha is a pretty effective natural anti-anxiety supplement.
Now, these studies sort of knocked my socks off. I was not expecting these results. I guess the beauty of science is you learn things that often surprise you.
Supplementing with Ashwagandha has been shown in a couple of different studies to improve velocity, power, VO2 max, and small increases in muscle size and strength10,11. I am guessing these effects are secondary to it reducing stress. Regardless of the exact mechanisms, it is really interesting!
4. Green Tea Extract
When you look at the research, green tea is like the magical cure to everything. I am only half-joking on that point. It displays a ton of really interesting properties and has motivated me to start drinking a little more of it.
When we really boil it down, the main effective ingredient in green tea appears to be a chemical we will refer to as EGCG. Now let us begin the trek through what green tea has been shown to do.
First, in human studies, green tea intake has been associated with a large reduction in the risk of liver cancer12.
Second, one study showed that consuming a low dose of EGCG was able to increase fat oxidation after a meal. The level of fat oxidation observed was similar to that seen by taking a 200 mg dose of caffeine13.
Now, some evidence suggests this results in actual fat loss, but not all of them do. For example, one study that showed it to be efficacious lost 1.1 kg more than the placebo group consuming ~700mg of the compounds found in green tea per day for 12 weeks14. This result has been repeated with similar weight loss at 90 days in participants consuming ~900mg per day15.
Some really interesting studies suggest it may also help with nutrient portioning by increasing glucose uptake. Those studies were done in rats so we can’t really tell you it will make you a glucose-burning machine, but it is pretty darn interesting16.
While you can buy “pharmaceutical grade” green tea extract, it still appears that drinking a couple of cups of green tea is probably the safest and cheapest way to get the benefits of green tea.
- Glycine ingestion improves subjective sleep quality in human volunteers, correlating with polysomnographic changes
- Subjective effects of glycine ingestion before bedtime on sleep quality
- The effects of glycine on subjective daytime performance in partially sleep-restricted healthy volunteers.
- Tyrosine improves cognitive performance and reduces blood pressure in cadets after one week of a combat training course.
- The effects of tyrosine on cognitive performance during extended wakefulness.
- Treatment with tyrosine, a neurotransmitter precursor, reduces environmental stress in humans.
- Tyrosine reverses a cold-induced working memory deficit in humans.
- A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of the anxiolytic efficacy of an ethanolic extract of withania somnifera.
- Naturopathic care for anxiety: a randomized controlled trial ISRCTN78958974
- Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers.
- Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial.
- Green tea consumption, inflammation and the risk of primary hepatocellular carcinoma in a Chinese population.
- Epigallocatechin-3-gallate and postprandial fat oxidation in overweight/obese male volunteers: a pilot study.
- Ingestion of a tea rich in catechins leads to a reduction in body fat and malondialdehyde-modified LDL in men
- Effects of catechin enriched green tea on body composition
- Anti-obesity actions of green tea: Possible involvements in modulation of the glucose uptake system and suppression of the adipogenesis-related transcription factors