This article describes synergy between the ingredients in supplements that are commonly found within the supplement industry. It is all very an good dosing a product with the best and most clinically researched ingredients – but how do they react when combined?
In simple terms, synergy means ‘working together’, derived from Greek. There’s a subtle difference when we refer to synergy and just working together though.
It means that the subject being described as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That means the individual constituents improve each other. This concept is at the root of supplement manufacture – or at least it should be.
The word ‘stack’ is used a lot when referring to supplements, and it refers to the combination of ingredients to achieve a synergistic effect. When you use stacks, you are trying to increase the value of each component.
When used with the right partner ingredients, even the relatively common caffeine can open up and become a much more effective supplement. Weight loss, muscle building and nootropic (cognitive function enhancers) compounds can all possess synergistic properties.
We talk about stacking and synergy a lot on this site, so it makes sense to expand on the subject. Later on I will discuss the multi-functional qualities of some ingredients, where a fat-burner might also improve your concentration or mood…or where a muscle-builder might also improve your sex drive!
Greater Than The Sum of Parts
Anyone can throw a bunch of ingredients together and call it a recipe, in the kitchen, or in the case of supplements, in the lab. The skill of product design and formulation comes from combining the ones which will work together to not only fulfill their own roles – i.e. have their effect on the user – but also boost one another’s effects.
This skillful combining of ingredients is especially important when manufacturers turn their hand to making capsule form (or pill form) products. Inside the capsule’s shell – which dissolves once inside the user’s lower intestine to release it’s contents – there is not a lot of space for ingredients.
So, it is of paramount importance that the inclusions they do put in the pills have maximum power to weight ratio.
Profit Over Quality
That being said, many companies are pretty profit-over-quality driven and don’t care too much as to whether their supplement is any good at all. Although they could fit a few thousand milligrams in the pills, they still decide to leave a lot of room or pack it with worthless filler ingredients.
Sometimes – if the ingredients are really potent – it is by necessity that they don’t fill the pills because all the power required is there in a small amount.
Another reason the formulators can get it wrong is if they include compounds which compete with each other at receptor sites in the human body. You can put two very good inclusions in the blend, but if they compete for beta-2 receptors (for example) then they are pointless.
To be synergistic, they need to compliment each other by hitting different receptors at the same time, or have some other augmentative effect within the chemical/enzymatic chain.
Examples of Synergistic Ingredients
White Willow Bark, Synephrine and Caffeine
This is a take on the classic ECA stack (Ephedrine, Caffeine, Apsirin) except synephrine is safer than ephedrine and white willow doesn’t hurt your stomach like aspirin can.
Caffeine + L-Theanine
A simple but very effective cognitive enhancer. Caffeine and other stimulants can be smoothed out by the alpha-waves that L-Theanine brings to the party. What’s even better is the cognitive benefits of said stimulants are improved in the process. In return, the stimulant helps to increase the mood-lifting effects of L-Theanine as they are known to heighten feelings of euphoria.
Citrulline Malate + Branched Chain Amino Acids (Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine)
Here you have a pretty good muscle and strength partnership where Citrulline Malate increases the amount of arginine in the blood which thereby increases the amount of nitric oxide and thus widens the blood vessels via vasodilation.
This in itself can assist muscle strength and growth. When you add BCAAs to the mix, they will be shuttled to the muscles quicker because of the Citrulline’s vasodilating effect.
BCAAs are different to other essential amino acids in that they can be metabolized for energy directly within the muscle to be used as fuel for them to work harder and longer.
There is a lot more knowledge of supplements floating around the social networks than there used to be, which is a good thing.
Hype and Clever Marketing
People are less easily drawn in by hype and clever marketing and understand a bit more about what they are finding in these products.
Also, synergy is not the only way that ingredients can comprehensively boost the efficacy of the blend. There’s also the multi-functionality of the individuals themselves.
When manufacturing a supplement – especially one that comes as small capsules – it is essential to use compounds/ingredients which are synergistic, mostly because there is little volume to take advantage of, and what there is should be as efficient as possible.
The other reason is that if the ingredients do not behave synergistically, they may be competing for the same receptor sites in the body and therefore acting counter-productively to the end goal.
Supplements and Multi-Functionality
Another interesting trait of these substances we might find in the capsules and scoops of our favourite supplements is Multi-functionality. It’s another way to get the most from the supplement as a whole and expand the benefits to the user.
In a way, this fits under the umbrella of synergy anyway, because when two effects, caused by the same ingredient are mutually beneficial you could say it is synergistic with itself!
A good example is those ingredients which metabolize fat. They are amongst the most common because they help the user to lose fat (well, the good ones do) and get an energy boost at the same time. You’ll often see thermogenic, energy boosting blends in pre-workout supplements and capsule fat burners.
The Ingredient’s Curriculum Vitae
While multifunctionality is good, it’s the way you use it that counts. There’s no point having a product marketed as an out and out fat burner if you thin it out with muscle-builders that might have a secondary – and smaller – effect like thermogenesis.
A fat-burner should contain ingredients which burn fat, primarily, while a muscle-builder needs anabolic compounds. Before the recipe is designed, however, the effects of each ingredient should be researched almost like a manager would look at job applicants’ CVs. And once all the top qualifiers have been identified, they can be shortlisted for the ultimate formula.
In a perfect world, this process would produce ridiculously powerful, safe and effective supplements. Of course, money and other limiting factors, such as politics, within and outside the industry prevent this from happening in many cases.
As the handicap of money stunts technological development (and nearly all other sectors), so it does with supplement science.
The FDA and other Authorities
Another, and pervasive, problem in the sports nutrition business is its lack of oversight. The FDA and other authorities seem to have neither the inclination nor the precedent to instil stricter rules as to what supplements can and cannot contain.
Rather than open up the field, affording it the freedom to produce the best possible supplements, it brings out the worst in the profiteers at the head of most companies.
Unscrupulous companies will put pitiful amounts of an ingredient in their product, an ingredient which might work at higher dosages.
Others will add illicit compounds to their formula, hoping to sell enough of it before the FDA (or other authority) finally does get wind of it and makes them take it off the shelves.
Rarely does this result in a punishment more severe than a bit of profit loss for the company, and the authorities have bigger fish to fry than supplement manufacturers.
All of this means what you get in a product is not always what you think. On this website, we always test products and only ever recommend ones which have come from an inspected lab and that has a top safety record.
…but back to multifunctional ingredients. You can see there are obstacles between the design and production of a perfect formula, but the most conscientious companies will endeavour to use multi-functional ingredients applicable to their product’s goal as well as selecting those which are synergistic with one another.
Examples of Multi-Functional Ingredients
Quite understated in the field of sports nutrition, the bioactive component Forskolin has several beneficial effects on the human physique. What’s even more interesting is that these effects come via one mechanism: the increase of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) in the user.
This simple compound produces a thermogenic fat-burning response in the main body of the user. In men, it’s elevation in the testicles boosts testosterone production, the principal anabolic hormone. And, in the mind, it enhances cognitive function!
[info]Note: Forskolin is also synergistic with Caffeine, another cAMP booster![/info]
Alpha-glycerophosphocholine, or Alpha GPC for short, is an acetylcholine booster, which is a principal neurotransmitter in the brain and central nervous system. Its elevation improves cognitive function and even helps the user generate more contraction force in their muscles.
That’s not all though. Another effect of Alpha-GPC is that it increases endogenous human growth hormone production. This in turn may have an anabolic effect on muscle tissue and even a fat burning result as well.
Ross Tidy writes for ResearchedSupplements.com. Ross has been a martial artist, an Iron-Man and now a bodybuilder. Each discipline requires a completely different set of training methods and supplementation. Ross is passionate about his subject and can talk articulately and at great length to anyone about supplementation, training and fitness.