How to choose quality supplements ft. Shawn Wells
- The truth about supplement “proprietary blends”
- What to look for when reading supplement labels
- The one supplement you should be taking, but don’t
- How to take calcium supplements safely
- Top supplements for anti-aging, sleep and immunity
Today, we’re very lucky to have with us Shawn Wells. Shawn is something of a, you might say a Swiss army knife. He’s both an inventor, a dietician, a nutritionist, an academic journal fellow, a speaker on podcasts and on TV, and also a biohacker. And he’s been a keto dieter for more than 20 years, and dabbled in paleo, intermittent fasting. He’s the CEO of Zone Halo Research, a developer of performance supplements, and also a board member to the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Shawn really brings a unique perspective. He has both a rigorous technical foundation, a lot of practical experience, but most importantly – heart. Shawn is warm and approachable, and knows how to make the complex, simple.
Shawn, thank you for joining us!
Thank you for having me on. I’m excited to be on.
Earlier this year you featured in a series called Supplements Revealed. Without giving away too much, what would you say was the biggest revelation about the supplement industry that perhaps most people aren’t aware of?
I would say that 80% of supplements really are not ideal, either from being adulterated, meaning they have ingredients that they’re not listing, either intentionally or heavy metals or allergens, cross contaminants. But also a lot of the herbal extracts that can come from inferior suppliers are tainted.
Let’s say cinnamon might have some green tea extract in it or something like that. So it tests out for a certain level of polyphenols. It just happens a lot. The most common herbs are also the most adulterated. And I think most people don’t realize this. And then you also have proprietary blends, which is probably the number one scam in supplements, where you have a blend that’s listed as one amount, one mass. So let’s say it’s the “strength and power blend” in some pre-workout, and it’s 1700 milligrams. Of that, 1699 may be creatine, and then one milligram of the other 20 ingredients. And this is just a very common practice. People don’t understand it. If they see 20 ingredients that look great, and so they think, Oh, well, I’ll buy this. This is cheaper. This one’s got everything.
But to me, when you see “proprietary blend”, when you see a company that doesn’t list the genus and species, the plant part, the standardization, the type of extract, the dose, in a clear, transparent form, then there’s questions. And to me, once you get over about five ingredients, typically, unless it’s maybe a multivitamin, then I think there’s a reason to question it. When people buy these kitchen sink formulas, I can almost guarantee you that you’re getting a lot of nothing instead of something.
So I like the idea when I formulate, of stacking mechanisms of action. What’s the best ingredient for that one mechanism, and then how can I stack complimentary mechanisms that work together instead of saying, “hey, all five of these ingredients do stuff for blood sugar, so let’s include all five of them”. That doesn’t make sense.
People may see five ingredients and say, “I recognize those”, but why not just use the one that works right, and use the one that has the best mechanism of action and then use another ingredient that has a different one that’s complimentary to it. And people think all this is happening, that there’s scientists and biochemists and formulators like me that are doing this, but they’re not. A lot of times it’s a contract manufacturer or a raw ingredient supplier essentially that’s putting it together, or the CFO, the financial officer that’s putting it together. And it’s not a scientist. These are some frustrations for me, but there are very, very good companies out there that are doing the right thing.
Hmm. So more ingredients is not necessarily better. There could potentially be a negative interaction between ingredients the more you have. But what would you say is the one supplement that many people should take for their general health, but don’t? What do you commonly see as the supplement people are missing from their toolbox?
Berberine is a glucose disposal agent. It’s better than Metformin the drug, which is probably the best known drug for anti-aging and longevity. It really protects you against glycation damage, which is blood sugar damage, and which leads to AGES, which are appropriately named Advanced Glycation End Products, that do cause more rapid biological aging. And it protects against oxidation and inflammation associated with mitochondrial dysfunction.
So berberine is just powerfully anti-aging, affecting the telomere length, and sirtuan genes and mitochondrial health and all those things. Glycation inflammation and oxidation, and literally if I was to name one thing that you should be taking that will probably…and they’ve shown Metformin itself can probably add about two years to your life. And this actually performed superior to Metformin. And then there’s a form that is an active metabolite that I did a patent on – and this isn’t me plugging. I’ve been plugging berberine for years. It’s just because my passion that I ended up patenting a metabolite called dihydroberberine.
Basically berberine in the gut converts to dihydroberberine and can pass through the gut that way. And it converts in plasma back into berberine again. But that said, it’s about five to six times more bioavailable in the dihydroberberine form, and can cause less GI distress. Some people get that issue with higher dosing of berberine, but regardless of which form you use, it’s absolutely to me the most important ingredient you can take. It’ll improve your dyslipidemia, inflammation, almost all markers of disease and aging.
Ah! It sounds like a hidden gem. What about supplements on the athletic performance side? There’s so much that’s being taken there. What do you say are the supplements that have really made the difference for athletes in terms of their performance, other than say, standard whey proteins or pre-workouts and so on?
I find it fascinating because there’s a lot of times when I’m looking for unique sports nutrition ingredients, I’m looking in the anti-aging realm and then vice-versa. When you’re looking at great anti-aging ingredients, you look in the sports nutrition realm. Things like creatine for example, are amazing when it comes to anti-aging, it’s actually protective to the eye, to the brain, to bone, to reproductive health and the testes.
It’s a great methylator, which is anti-cancer, and a lot of other issues like homocysteine. So creatine is a powerful compound for anti-aging, also like protecting you against sarcopenia and kikexia – like losing lean body mass as we age. Which is incredibly important. That’s a great anti-aging compound, is creatine, well known in sports nutrition and vice versa.
I think something like berberine, for example, that I was just mentioning, while a great anti-aging compound, I can take it over to sports nutrition and it becomes something that increases AMPK, which can help with body fat loss, and it also as a glucose disposal agent, can help with nutrient partitioning – so you’re shuttling more of the glucose into the muscle rather than fat tissue. So that’s an interesting one for example. But what else with sports nutrition?
I think we’re going to see that recovery is under appreciated in sports nutrition. We’re always trying to elicit a greater performance, thinking about an acute bout, but we’re never thinking about recovery. And people are instead of over-trained, I think under rested or under recovered, and that’s a better way to look at it. We always look at it like, Oh, we trained too hard. No, you didn’t recover well enough. And so that’s the problem.
I definitely see when it comes to athletic performance, I see things that enhance sleep quality as being very important, and things that enhance immune system function. So with sleep quality, I think of magnesium, theanine, melatonin, GABA, some ingredients like that. And with the immune system, there’s a compound called AHCC, from mushrooms, that I’m a huge fan of. It’s super powerful. Every time I feel myself crashing, and I have a ton of auto immune issues, this thing brings me back. It’s expensive, but it works. L-lysine, which is cheap, it’s a ketogenic amino acid but it boosts the immune system. There’s things like Cat’s Claw, Monolaurin, which comes from coconut oil, is potently, anti-viral, anti-bacterial. Some things like Colostrum from a really good source can be good. There’s huge quality differences in Colostrum, but that’s the kind of thing that I would look at with athletes. I think we’ve done a pretty good job with the acute bout. We’ve done a very poor job with the other 23 hours.
Hmm. I mean the classic example of course is weightlifting, right? You’re not growing when you’re in the gym, you’re actually tearing muscle down. One topic you’ve covered is probiotics, and gut health or gut health testing is something that has becoming a bit of a thing over the last five years. But probiotics have been around for quite a lot longer. So do you see a difference now in the way that probiotics are made and sold today, compared to the early days before there was this awareness about gut health and the microbiome?
Yeah, for sure. It’s definitely gotten better. There’s more strains that have been to your point clinically tested, so now we do have a little bit more data on which strains might affect health and the immune system. Not a lot of data on the gut-brain axis and some of the more complicated areas that we’re heading towards, that certainly some people see benefits from. You have just as much, if not more, neurotransmitters in your gut than you do in your brain. And there’s leaky gut and there’s also leaky brain, and there’s a lot of fascinating things going on that are demanding more research. But you’re definitely seeing more stable probiotics, in terms of soil-based ones, the spore-based ones, the micro encapsulated ones, where they’re protected in terms of their delivery to the gut. Two, you’re seeing a better doses of them in terms of colony forming units, the count of the bacteria.
And then again, you’re seeing better strains and combinations of the strains. So I think that’s helping. And then you’re seeing an evolution of the entire gut microbiome being addressed with prebiotics, these different fibers that feed the probiotics. And then there’s even this idea of postbiotics with things like butyrate, the short chain fatty acids. Part of what these probiotics are essentially doing is creating more butyrate in the gut, which is a four carbon short chain fatty acid that has a lot to do with got health. It’s present in butter and heavy cream and cheese. Butyrate is associated with longevity for sure, and it’s also associated with a higher levels of BHB – beta-hydroxybutyrate. And you can hear the butyrate in that name. And so it’s associated with higher levels of ketones. And you’re also seeing that C2 and C3 might help with gut health as well, which is acetic acid, which is what’s in vinegar. And C3 is propionic acid. And they’ve found for example, that one, C3, that athletes have a higher amount of that in their gut. There’s a lot that we don’t know, but it’s really an interesting area.
I think a lot of people are shooting from the hip. The idea is good, there’s a lot of science there, but then there’s some that fall short in the actual application. And how helpful it actually is with some of these supplements? Not really sure. It depends on the status of your gut. I would just say to try it and see what you feel.
But certainly try and keep your diet stable and a lot of other lifestyle factors stable. There’s some out there that I do think are more effective than others. And a lot of what I’m telling you, the fact is I can give you the science, I can give you the thought process, but one it depends on you, and two, we need more data.
Of course. What supplements do you take yourself and why?
Well, that’s one I get a lot too…
What don’t you take?
Well, what don’t I…I do take a lot. I do take a lot, it scares people when they see how many pill products are in my cupboard. I think if I was to list my top 10, they’d actually be really simple stuff. It would include berberine that I mentioned before. It would include creatine for a lot of reasons. I think a great multivitamin that includes organic minerals or amino acid chelated forms of minerals, and co-enzymated B vitamins. That means that they’re in their active form. So things like 5 Methyltetrahydrofolic – big word, but basically methylfolate – so that, you have four enzymatic steps to try and convert folate into this active form, and sometimes people have genetic issues in making all the steps. And so you can show enough folic acid in your plasma in a test, but maybe you’re actually anemic. So it’s great to just get the active forms. Methylcobalamin is another one, the active form of B12 versus cyanocobalamin, the typical form. P5P is the active form of B6, versus pyridoxine. So looking for that is a good thing.
Calcium I think is actually taken too much and can actually lead to calcification of arteries. I think way too many people are taking way too much calcium and not taking it in that bone mineral matrix, where it has the other components that include silicon and magnesium and phosphorus and all these other components in there, one, and then two, I believe that you need to get plenty of D3 and K2 with your calcium.
So I definitely think that is a must to take for your health, for heart health and bone health, is to get your D3 and K2. And actually vitamin D3 is essentially a hormone and is implicated in all kinds of things with depression and brain health and obesity, and just a slew of things. It’s part of this hormonal milieu or hormonal cascade, if you will, that’s really important. It’s way more than just, it’s a vitamin and it prevents rickets. It’s so much more than bone. So that’s a fascinating one.
Probiotics possibly. Like I said, I really like this other method potentially. And I do like butyrate as well. Fish oil. I like a high DHA fish oil. That’s really great for brain health. I like Alpha-GPC, kind of the foundation of all nootropic stacks is a good choline source. That’s really important, one for phosphatidylcholine, which is the phospholipid that a lot of the brain is made up of. But two, again going back to that neurotransmitter acetylcholine, that’s really important. And whenever you increase focus or increase brain energy, it runs through a lot of choline. So it’s important in these stacks, they usually have CDP-choline or Alpha-GPC choline. These are superior forms of choline that cross the blood brain barrier and are really the ones that you want in your brain health stack. It’s anti-Alzheimer’s, helps with muscle strength, and there’s all kinds of things that choline is associated with.
And I do like, one of my racetams that I might choose is called Noopept. It’s really potent. I didn’t mention it before, but it works at about 10 to 30 milligrams a day, and it’s a really fascinating compound, and it’s one of the ones I’ve found to be pretty effective and is worth trying. And I do take a colostrum for immune health, and AHCC, like I said, at times. The adaptogens are amazing compounds. My two favorite…and so adaptogens help your body adapt. If you’re too high, too low, in terms of blood sugar, blood pressure, stress. If you’re fatigued, if you’re wired, they seem to put you in this sweet spot. And if you look throughout history and all these cultures, you’ll see in China the most famous herb is ginseng.
And in South America, it’s Maca, and in Russia it’s Rhodiola, in India it’s Ashwagandha. These are all adaptogens, they’re super powerful herbs that really improve everyone’s health. The thing I would recommend is cycling them and just using one at one point, and then using a different one. But my two favorite are probably a Rhodiola and Ashwagandha. Those just seem to be really potent in terms of improving sleep and immune health and mood and all that. So that would be a list of some of my top players right there. Yeah.
Okay. So you had some health issues before. Can you maybe share some of the things that you’ve been through and what changes you were able to make?
Pretty profound. I’ve been through quite a health journey in my life. I grew up obese and bullied, and that led to anorexia and some pretty bad body dysmorphia, and going way up and way down in my weight at points. Some where I was near 300 pounds, and some where I was near 150 pounds, at about six foot three.
So right now I’m at about 205 and very happy, and I work out every day, but it’s taken me a long time to get there, to what I feel is like a healthy mindset and point. But also I think, because of all that mental stress and physical stress I put myself through, I ended up getting Epstein-Barr virus, and it took hold. Some people are just able to get past it. For me, it led to chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and then I got Hashimoto’s with my thyroid. So my body really crashed for a long time. I was in extreme pain and inflamed, and I was struggling to even get out of bed for about six months. That led me to keto and supplementation and hacking myself. And I was able to work myself out of that hole.
But then eventually I also got a brain tumor, pituitary adenoma, and it helped me refocus on all the things I was doing and really clamp down with keto, with paleo, with intermittent fasting, with biohacking, with supplements, with working with an allergist, with looking at my labs, and having an exercise routine, and trying to de-stress. And some of these other things that…that’s what’s led to me becoming so passionate about this and being knowledgeable on this subject, is me trying to fix myself and how broken I’ve been. And a lot of it starts with mindset and ends with mindset. And I can tell you about cold plunges and blue light blocking glasses and NAD IVs and all this stuff, but a lot of it has to do with, are you happy or not? Are you living your purpose or not? Are you getting good sleep at night? Do you feel loved? Can you give love? Like it’s really basic stuff and it’s an area…do you struggle with addiction? For me, it was feeling like I’m not enough and trying to push for work, and working 80 hours a week for decades.
A lot of this self-work and self-love and self-help and self-care has become really important. And I would say if any of this stuff seems stressful to you, either get someone to help you with it, or don’t do it, and focus first on getting your foundation, this self-love, this self-care, this fulfilling your purpose, starting with your why, and having a good tribe of mentors around you. All of that is so much more important than the biohacks.
I mean, they’ve shown that you live 12 years longer if you choose happiness, right? It’s a massive difference if you can take care of yourself. I’ve been trying to fix myself, kind of like fixing the tire while I’m rolling down the road at 80 miles an hour. Like that’s what I’ve been doing for years. Instead of like pulling over and doing a really good assessment and fixing the car and then let go. And so those are some of my biggest learnings is that, yeah I’ve had a lot of health issues and we can pick those apart, but the biggest aspect to it is mental health. And then the biggest aspect to all these things I’m telling you is, are you going to be compliant? I can tell you a million things, are you actually going to do it? And that’s a huge factor. So that’s where bio-individuality comes in too, listening to the person and what their needs are and what they’re actually going to do.
Yeah, I can relate to that. From my experience, I was bullied growing up, I had my own body esteem issues. I got really into training – lifting weights in college. And in my 20s – I’m 36 now – I was really intense and I would really try to fill all my spare time with activity, to be super productive. I got a lot of things done, but things really came to a point when I was in a banking job, really burned out, looking older than I do now, my father was dying from prostate cancer. And it made me realize – there really is no time like the present, and your health is so precious.
So now I’m less ripped than I was say five years ago, I’m less busy in some ways, but I think my quality of life is so much higher. And, talking to what you’re saying about biohacking – it’s a bit like supplementation. The way that you’re tweaking something that already exists, but the fundamentals are more important. By all means take the supplements, by all means track your health, but get your diet in check, get your lifestyle in check.
And it also feels like, something which started in “Quantified Self”, very dry, very data-driven, really the mind without the heart, has shifted to something like biohacking, which has its challenges – sometimes the sales gets ahead of the science – but now I think it seems…and I’d be grateful for your opinion on this, that we’re going through this transformation towards healthy aging and wholesomeness in a broader sense. Like if you go to the Biohacker Summit in Europe, people are talking about music and dance and relationships, not just killing it in the office and having great labs. So that seems to be the shift that’s going on now. What do you think?
Totally agree. That’s what I’m seeing too. Paleo f(x) has evolved, that’s a conference that I speak at. And now they’re keto, they’re paleo, they’re movements, it’s supplements, it’s biohacking. It’s also plant medicine and it’s meditation and deep breathing and all this kind of stuff. And then you’re seeing Health Optimization Summit, which I spoke at in London. They actually moved away from the term biohacking and it was about optimizing oneself. And they had, like you said, rhythmic dance and breathing and spirituality and sexual health and relationships. Yeah exactly, it’s not about just killing it at the gym or killing it in the office, and how do I have longer telomeres?
I want more life in my years than years in my life. It’s quality. It’s quality of life that’s that’s most important, and people are now reaching for that over just quantity.
Yeah. That’s a great note to finish on. So it just leaves me to say thank you once again for joining us, Shawn. Really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and making time in your busy schedule.
No problem. Thanks for having me on, I appreciate it.
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