T Nation

How Supplements Work


What would be a good area of study to go into for learning more about the processes of the human body and how different supplements work? I'm guessing Pharmacology & Toxicology, Molecular Biology, and Chemistry for starters?


Diet and Nutrition as well, but be careful because the only academic nutritionalist I met didn't seem super stoked when I told her I was on a Ketogenic diet, she just kinda looked at me while I was stupid or something... and she didn't know anything about ketosis either, and she's already got her nutrition degree, now working on some masters in exercise bullcrap... which for some reason the few of them I've met don't even work out, go fig?



Most general college level courses won't really give you the targeted information on supplements that you're looking for. You'll be slaving away through many courses for small snippets of interesting info. I'm not really sure what the best way would be, other than to do your own reading on the internet and textbooks.

But if you want courses, physiology/exercise physiology, biochem, molecular/cell bio, nutritional science, and pharmacology are all good starts. General bio, general chem/organic chem may be prerequisites for a lot of those classes though, and they are boring as hell because you won't really see much relevant info in those basic courses (that's 6 semesters just for those 3 series).

As you can see, that is probably about 1.5-2 solid years of college courses to get some basic information that won't directly touch on nutritional supplements, unless you're lucky enough to find a class that discusses them.


Perhaps I worded it a bit wrong, but I'm not specifically looking for supplement information as much as the science behind them..... delivery systems, reactions on the cellular level.... basically, how it ALL works together, not just the supplement business.


Basically the courses I mentioned will be what you need to get started. Then you should apply to grad school in biochem/pharmacology/biological chemistry to get a phd. This is if you're interested in drug research or perhaps helping in the design of drugs.

However, if you're more interested in the practical aspects of drug dosing and prescription, go to pharmacy school after undergrad. If you're in college now, you will need those courses, and to do well in them in addition to other basic ones to be able to apply to the good grad programs. If you haven't started college yet, you should major in something like molecular and cell bio or biochem or physiology.

Grad school is going to be at least 4 years after undergrad, depending on what your dissertation is about. Pharm school is about 4 yrs, depending on the program you choose.


If you have access to a academic paper search engine like Google Scholar, ScienceDirect, or STNEasy (the former two I get for free at my college), then what you can do is search for whatever supplement you want to learn about and include the word "review". Often times, there will be papers out there that are essentially a review of some field of work over the past few years. I've had to do it for some chemistry research papers.

As for things that you should learn, well it depends on how you want to look at how they work. For me, I prefer to view things from a chemistry point of view, but you may want to look at it from purely a biology point of view. For me, these are the things I think would be best if you want to learn about supplements from a chemical point of view:

-Basic Chemistry: I hope this is obvious.

-Organic chemistry: Most supplements are organic molecules, and learning the reactions from organic chemistry will help in understanding how they work, and how they are metabolized. Learning how to name molecules will also help when trying to figure out what a molecule looks like when it is listed on a supplement bottle. Like p-methylcarbonylethylphenol in HOT-ROX. It looks like a complicated name, but you can easily figure out what the structure of the molecule is with 1st semester organic chem.

-Medicinal chemistry: The supplement design industry almost parallels the medical pharmaceutical industry in terms of how new compounds are made. Med chem will help you understand how druge and supplements work with things like bioavailability (aka pharmacokinetics), how supplements/drugs react with receptors, how agonist/antagonists/inhibitors work (steroids, and aromatase inhibitors for example), molecular motifs and their activities, and the list goes on...

Like I said though, I am more of a chemist than a biologist, so you may want to read up on bio too, but a lot of it is covered under medicinal chemistry by the nature of the field.

Hope that helps!


Nutritionists are NOT bodybuilders - why would she recommend a ketogenic diet to a normal person? Why does she need to train?

Nutritionists are all about the micro nutrients and about health rather than fitness.

I understand your frustration though - it is like, who do you turn to?


Hmm - interesting point of view..

I am a professional trainer who specialises in muscle/physique motivated clients.
I am currently deciding what types of further education i should pursue to attain the levels i need for my own professional goals - the main subjects are pharmacology, nutrition and psychology.

I mean - psychology is easy enough - Sports Psychology would suffice and i know there are degrees on that.

Diet is harder.. A Nutritionist is not fitness based at all - although has a broad area of expertise - too broad for my niche i think. Nutritional advisers only have the ability (legally) to advise on macro nutrients but to healthy individuals, and i already possess this - nutritional consultants are able to advise special pops legally but that isn't really my niche either.
Maybe a sports nutritional qualification - except i have one and it is lacking (as in what the paper says i can do - which is the most restrictive factor in my case).

Then there is pharmacology - doing an endocrinology exam or a pharmacology exam is useless to me as the covering of PES/PED is little to almost none. But you mentioned medicinal chemistry - and all you have mentioned so far under that category i have a thorough understanding of - so it would seem to be suitable.

I find that doctors of many professions have very little understanding of fitness - especially in the iron sports and in drug use for performance - not just GP's but i have heard many accounts of Endo's having a piss poor understanding of how AAS work in the body and how to even manage simply hormonal imbalances such as prolactin or estrogen pharmacologically! It makes me fucking sick.

As with the diet the best we can hope for is trainers who have relevant qualifications but who take it upon themselves to also learn the specifics of certain neglected areas of expertise.

Most trainers will agree that a qualification is important - especially the basic first qualification they get - the fitness one - but it is common to meet trainers who have great qualifications but no fucking clue - and vice versa!

I digress. thanks for the helpful post :wink:


If you're talking about run of the mill supplements sold at GNC and such, then biochemistry will be the main class that connects the two, IME. I have taken classes in all of the subjects above and bio will cover 99% of the supplements that are sold. However, there are always odd balls. Simple physiology and basic understanding of biochem would be beneficial as well. Molecular pharmacology, toxicology and advance chemistry (O-chem, Medchem, etc) sub groups are not really needed unless you are trying to synthesize products.


I guess it all depends on how you want to understand the fitness world. It is possible to be a jack of all trades (master at none), which is sufficient for a normal person who is just curious about supplements. Knowing a little bit of purely basic biology, chemistry, nutrition, physiology, etc. goes a long way for someone like this. However, if they want to make their career in the fitness industry (especially if you are a PhD), then it would probably be a good specialize in only one of the fields (not to say you can know a bit about the others, but yeah). If you want to go THAT deep into the science of how supplements/other things work, I think you should get an education and be involved in the industry somehow, in my opinion.

As for doctors, yeah they suck for the most part! Then again, there was a good article on here a while back about how doctors are only trained to help normal people, not T-Nation type people (which again goes into the specialization thing I was talking about).


I do specialise - as in i train clients for muscle and performance - rather than old ladies and businessmen. Bodybuilding, physique and fitness as well as sports performance ans strength - both for regular peeps or athletes.
So due to the client base, i advise on training, diet AND PES - and while my knowledge is enough for what i do - i always can know more - and i want to.
I also know i need papers to back shit up, but i am deeply interested in sports pharmacology and ideally would focus on that area largely.

But being a greedy fucker i would love a degree in sports psychology too - but that can wait till an employer pays for it or i can afford that shit on my tod (alone). :wink:

PES would be the number one direction though, and a job designing supplements (Bill Roberts anyone?) would be great - and of great interest, while i could still advise top level athletes too.. that is the goal at least :wink:


Good point. I guess a lot of jobs require you to be well-versed in multiple disciplines, especially yours. I will leave that stuff to people like you though. Gonna be too busy being in biophysics/biophysical chemistry...haha.

And I'm sure we have taken the topic of this thread way too far, but I don't care. :smiley:


I am glad for the conversation - thanks mate :slightly_smiling: