I struggled with severe gastrointestinal issues for most of my youth. I’m not sure if I was lactose intolerant, sensitive to gluten, nervous, allergic to certain foods, or some combination of all of those factors. But whatever the issue, there was something rotten going on.
Things got worse when orthopedic issues started to crop up in college. A litany of knee surgeries and sprained ankles left me in a lot of pain. I was taking specially made ibuprofen pills that felt like a chalky football when swallowed. I was 22 going on 90.
Right around this time, I changed my diet. I figured it was the simplest change I could make if I wanted to improve my health. I moved toward a whole-foods diet, cutting out most of the processed junk I ate for the majority of my life. I first got obsessed with the Paleo diet, then a low FODMAP diet, and even the Ketogenic diet, in which you eat upwards of 90% of your calories as fat.
After much tinkering, I found success eating via the 80/20 principle: Get 80% of your calories from whole, real, high-quality foods, and don’t worry so much about the other 20%. I started feeling a lot better. My joints ached less and my digestion issues disappeared.
But feeling better wasn’t good wasn’t enough for me. I wanted all my issues solved, and I wanted them solved yesterday. I wanted to feel perfect. That’s when I started getting into trouble.
The Vitamin Supplement Rabbit Hole
A daily multivitamin was no longer good enough. I thought I could find those vitamins from higher-quality sources if I supplemented each vitamin individually. This was more expensive, but that was irrelevant. I soon expanded out from traditional vitamins and tried every supplement on the market.
“Fermented Cod Liver Oil? Gotta be the next superfood.”
“N-Acetyl Cysteine? Yes, please.”
“Phenylalanine? That’s not a toxic chemical? Then sure, I’ll buy a bottle!”
The harder to pronounce and more obscure, the better. Sometimes, the more expensive the better. The latest probiotic had to be effective if it was $70 for 30 pills, right?
I was soon taking baggies of up to 20 pills to work and downing them with my morning coffee. I was starting to feel a lot better, but I ran into a problem. I was changing so many variables at once that it was impossible to determine what was actually helping me.
When doing any sort of experiment, you need to control your variables. If you take three (or 20) supplements at once, there’s no way to determine the effect each pill is having.
Unfortunately, at this point, my obsession with supplementation was almost as much about novelty and excitement as it was about improving my health. I would read one article about how Chinese Skullcap Extract would supposedly deepen my REM sleep and it’d be on its way from the Amazon warehouse the next day.
It’s like how technophiles line up for Apple products. If there had been a $200 bottle of L-Theanine and you had to wait in line to get it, I probably would have bought a sleeping bag and posted up outside of The Vitamin Shoppe.
I would even read books that said, “Here’s a supplement we recommend for this condition, but make sure you don’t just buy it and use it without getting your blood levels checked first.” I would promptly buy it and use it anyway. I knew what was best for me, not some dumb book.
The Downside of ‘Bio-Hacking’
My obsession with supplementing didn’t stop once I started feeling better. I then became obsessed with optimizing my mental performance, or “bio-hacking,” as some people call it.
I thought there were pills that could help me get my brain to fire on all cylinders at all times. And while there certainly are for some people, going down this rabbit hole in a haphazard manner can become a serious money suck.
I thought I needed Theanine for mental clarity, L-Tryptophan for deeper sleep and even caffeine pills at times for amped-up focus.
But I felt like I was advancing myself as a person by always looking for the next best neurological optimizer. Every bit of money I spent felt justified since it was in the pursuit of perfecting my own brain. I was obsessed.
Unfortunately, I still wasn’t tracking what was helping and what wasn’t. I just took the pills and hoped for the best. I finally wanted to get some hard numbers showing where I was at, which led me to see a specialty doctor. This, I thought, would finally solve all my issues. I’d know exactly what I was deficient in and then work to improve those areas.
This doctor assessed me for 45 minutes and then suggested a litany of blood tests for nutrient levels and food allergies. All for a mere $325. He didn’t take health insurance, but that didn’t bother me.
I was so pumped. I was finally going to see what was wrong with me in granular detail. The next supplements I bought would be targeted, basically turning me into that super-thinker from the movie Limitless.
I got the tests back and … everything was normal. Huh? This was upsetting. I needed something to optimize!
Worse, I was supposedly highly allergic to eggs, dairy, red meat, grains, and many fruits. The doctor suggested I cut those out for three months and then check back with him (for another $325, 45-minute follow-up, of course).
I instead checked into the science of the IgE blood tests I got and found some troubling information. Everything I read suggested the tests I got are not very accurate and shouldn’t be used to drastically alter your lifestyle. This made sense to me as I was eating plenty of eggs, meat, dairy, fruit, grains and everything else that was supposed to be destroying me from the inside. But all my numbers were fine. So how bad were all those foods for me?
This was my ultimate wake-up call. What was I really doing by obsessing over all this stuff? If I felt OK and my blood work was OK, then maybe it was time to start using my energy, free time, and money in pursuit of other things.
The money aspect was most troubling. Between the start of my obsession in 2012 and the end in early 2015, I earned about $60,000 after taxes. Even though I was living at home for part of this time, I had essentially no savings. That’s partly because in those years I spent… $4,000 on vitamins, supplements, and blood tests! That was about 6.5% of my total take-home earnings!
I knew it was a lot, but it blew me away when I actually went back and calculated it.
As a percentage of income, that’s over half as much as the 10% the average person spends on food. The difference is that food is necessary to live. Neptune Krill Oil? Not so much.
I stopped seeing those doctors. I stopped buying large quantities of any new supplement I heard about on a podcast. It was time for a different approach.
A More Sane Approach
Once the dust settled on my thousand-dollar-plus doctor bill, I went cold turkey on supplements. It was time to get a baseline for how I felt without taking any pills.
Turns out I felt pretty much the same. I haven’t bought a supplement since. I still have a lot of vitamin D and magnesium, so I’ll take those from time to time, especially during the winter. But that’s it. Gone are the days of handfuls of pills three times a day. It was severely hampering my ability to save money and it was having no tangible effect on my mood or energy levels.
I’m still tempted to make purchases, especially of so-called “super foods.” These feel less like supplements, but they are almost the same thing.
Remember acai? The berry that was supposed to make you lose 10 pounds and look 20 years younger? Or pomegranate juice, which got in trouble for throwing caution to the wind for pretty much claiming they stopped heart attacks?
The trend-of-the-month-type foods (looking at you, kale) are not bad in their own right, but they are often not as healthy as they claim and often come with inflated prices. No one plant or compound is a panacea. Everything needs to be approached from a holistic standpoint. Take the time to carefully add new foods to a basic, balanced diet that you are able to stick to long term. Then monitor how you look, feel, and perform. If you don’t notice a difference, it might not be worth the money.
The process of discovering that “simpler is better” was similar to the realization I had with investing. It’s not cost-effective to try to beat the market by buying up what you think are the hottest stocks. That’s akin to nonstop supplementation and testing. It’s more effective to steadily dump your money into a low-cost index fund, which is like finding a healthy diet that works for you, sticking to it and getting regular checkups.
As the old saying goes, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” The next time you see a pill, food, or doctor saying they know how to make you feel like an Olympic athlete and look like a supermodel, run the other way.