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Andrew Huberman Has Supplements on the Brain

Neuroscience professor Andrew Huberman hosts one of the most popular science podcasts. So why does he love dietary supplements so much?

Combining the calm delivery and pared-down wardrobe of a Sam Harris with the more imposing physique of a Joe Rogan, Andrew Huberman wants to give you science-based tips on how to optimize your biology. Neuroscientist at Stanford by day and podcaster by night, Huberman is the host of The Huberman Lab podcast. The video version of its first episode published two years ago has garnered 1 million views on a YouTube channel that counts over 3 million subscribers. Whenever I’m on the hunt for a new podcast to listen to, my podcast app is sure to show me The Huberman Lab under “Trending.”

The aesthetics of Huberman’s show are that of masculine minimalism. The science educator wears a black button-up shirt and sits in front of a black background and behind a black Shure microphone. The viewer’s attention is drawn to Huberman’s face and voice. He talks about cortisol and neurotransmitters and his personal goal to bring zero cost to consumer information for the public. He always makes sure to highlight that this project is separate from his role at Stanford University.

He also, again and again, reminds his very large audience that he is not a medical doctor. “I’m a professor,” he clarifies. “I’m professing a number of things that you can decide for yourselves what to do with or not.”

To see a clear-headed and eloquent scientist command the attention of such a large listenership is encouraging. But when a respectable neuroscientist starts sanctioning mountains of dietary supplements, I begin to question his ability to evaluate the literature on these poorly regulated concoctions.

This science podcast is brought to you in part by…

I watched many hours of The Huberman Lab, including interviews he conducted, Q&As he did on stage, and solo episodes. Andrew Huberman is indeed really good at explaining what happens to neurotransmitters in the brain and to hormones inside our body when we experience stress, for example. He can boil down complicated neurobiology so that a non-scientist can understand how the human body works. Even though his podcast is firmly rooted in the masculine space of “body optimization” that has grabbed hold of large swaths of the tech sector, Huberman is a lot less “bro-ey” than his fellow influencers. There’s a real gentleness and care to his delivery. The packaging is less aggressive, but the content does not stray far from Silicon Valley’s love affair with the tweaking of healthy human biology.

Right from the start, The Huberman Lab was sponsored by companies offering questionable products from the perspective of science-based medicine. First up is Athletic Greens and their all-in-one daily supplement powder. Huberman says that if you are looking for a single supplement to take and can afford it, you should go with something like Athletic Greens, because it provides you with everything: 75 ingredients in total, including vitamins, minerals, spirulina, chlorella, fruit concentrates, antioxidants, herbal extracts, digestive enzymes, mushroom powder, and two different bacterial strains. The listed price right now is USD 79 for a monthly supply.

This significant expense is predicated on the multivitamin logic: you might as well supplement because what if you are deficient and don’t know it? The problem is that most people do not need a multivitamin. The US Preventive Services Task Force has stated that it recommends against taking beta-carotene and vitamin E supplements to prevent heart disease or cancer, and that the evidence is insufficient to recommend taking any other vitamin supplement without a demonstrated deficiency. Supplementing with vitamins as a form of health insurance can make for expensive urine, as excess water-soluble vitamins are peed out, or it can cause harm if high enough doses of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are consumed.

Huberman highlights the importance of the gut microbiome and that Athletic Greens contains probiotics, but the study of the good bacteria living in and inside us is still in its infancy. Our knowledge of the use of probiotics to treat digestive issues is still riddled with questions, to say nothing of their daily use in healthy people.

The second sponsor of Huberman’s first episode was InsideTracker, a service that offers blood and DNA testing not to specifically diagnose a medical condition but to offer advice on weight control, bone health, cognition, and more, for the price of between USD 249 and 659, depending on the plan. While the Choosing Wisely campaign encourages physicians to avoid routine blood tests in patients with no symptoms—as they are more likely to produce false positive results that lead to unnecessary testing—InsideTracker does the exact opposite.

The Huberman Lab has also been sponsored by Thesis (“it’s been a total game changer”), which offers personalized “smart drugs” after filling out a quiz on their website, and the podcast has partnered with first Thorne Supplements, then Momentous Supplements, companies which Huberman assures us steer clear of the contamination and adulteration often found in supplements.

Indeed, dietary supplements, which are rarely needed in the first place, can be hazardous to our health.

“Rational” supplementation

Dietary supplements are not regulated as strictly as pharmaceutical drugs and can routinely contain ingredients not listed on the bottle or not contain the main listed ingredient, which has been replaced by a cheaper lookalike. Supplements derived from herbs can cause all sorts of harm, including toxicity to the liver. A recent paper highlights rising cases of liver injury caused by these products. Why are these herbal supplements harming the liver?

Some are adulterated with actual drugs; others contain poorly researched ingredients of unknown safety; yet others contain untested combinations of exotic botanical extracts or purified plant chemicals. Plants of course have inspired countless medical drugs, but taking a crude plant extract for medicinal purposes is risky. A plant can contain hundreds of different chemicals, and their amounts vary depending on the season, the climate, the composition of the soil, and the presence of infections. So when I hear Andrew Huberman regularly recommend the herb ashwagandha for its “profound effect on anxiety,” an herb that has a suspected potential for worsening autoimmune conditions and causing miscarriages, and which, like most adaptogens, has been poorly studied, I shake my head. Psychiatric drugs have side effects, yes, and they can be overprescribed, but they do not contain highly variable mixtures of chemicals.

In Huberman’s episode on a “rational approach to supplementation for health and performance,” I heard him endorse ashwagandha to buffer against stressors; a Nigerian shrub named Fadogia agrestis, a flowering plant called tongkat ali, and a Himalayan natural substance called shilajit to increase libido; alpha-GPC to enhance alertness; omega-3 fatty acids to offset depression and help reduce the dosage of anti-depressants; and many more herbs and pills. One of the five sponsors of this episode was an electrolyte drink that contains sodium, potassium, and magnesium, the sort of solution that high-intensity athletes need to replenish elements lost through excessive sweating. Huberman’s pitch? Neurons require sufficient amounts of these three electrolytes to fire action potentials. Scientifically true, but that does not mean that we are all deficient and need an electrolyte drink to ensure our neurons are firing properly.

I had a look at one of the countless supplements Huberman mentions on his show, myo-inositol, a type of sugar that plays different roles in the body and which Huberman says has good evidence for sleep, anxiety, and female fertility. The only trial done in humans for sleep, which Huberman cites, was done in pregnant women, contained different amounts of folic acid between the inositol and placebo groups, and the results were not exactly impressive. A meta-analysis of 4 trials of inositol for anxiety found no significant effect. As for female fertility, two Cochrane reviews concluded that the research was of very low quality.

Thin gruel, but Huberman’s listeners won’t know that when he professes that there is “an enormous number of studies on inositol for the sake of mental health, and for the sake of enhancing various aspects of cellular function, and for the sake of improving sleep.”

The extramural rostrum

The Huberman Lab podcast is predicated on the goal of optimizing your body. This focus will appeal to a section of the worried well contingent, who are not content with not being ill but are looking for expensive ways to refine the inner workings of their body based on cutting-edge research.

If we seek health, our focus should be on well-established changes, like improving our diet, exercising more, and getting enough sleep, not on shovelling down dietary supplements. To Huberman’s credit, he does prioritize behaviour and dietary changes over the consumption of supplements, and he tells his fans to avoid food and caffeine before bedtime to ensure quality sleep. But it is difficult to sustain a long-form podcast—and invite numerous sponsors—when your advice is trimmed down to inexpensive common sense.

The health and wellness podcast space has unspoken rules for success. First, go long so that you’re always in your listeners’ ears, which helps to build trust. Huberman taught his listeners in a 2021 episode that you can maintain alertness for 90 minutes. “It’s no coincidence,” he remarked, “that these podcasts are typically about 90 minutes long.” Not anymore. His episodes now oscillate between 2 and 4.5 hours in length, competing with Joe Rogan as a new form of talk radio that’s always in the background. Longer episodes and large audiences entice many sponsors. His latest episode, released on April 3rd, had six. That’s a lot of money, which creates incentives. Huberman had a Patreon account early on, where listeners could donate money, but he now has his own premium subscription platform, where fan contributions are used in part to “fund human scientific research selected by Dr. Huberman,” no details given.

It saddens me to see such a gifted educator promote poorly supported bro science to so many people, but the appeal of the extramural rostrum, where the academic promotes hype and pseudoscience, cannot be denied. Inside the walls of academia, there are guardrails. On a podcast, however, anything goes, and the credibility of academia goes a long way to lend authority to supplement endorsements.

At a live event in Seattle, Andrew Huberman said that Dr. Oliver Sacks’ autobiography had a profound impact on him. “You know people hated him?” Huberman remarked before grabbing the microphone from the podium and pacing in front of his audience. “The scientific community tried to kick him out. They said horrible things about him.” Then the movie inspired by his work, Awakenings, came out and he received university appointments. “Ha! Then now, they wanted him back.”

You can be a nonconformist like Galileo and Semmelweis, ultimately proven right. Or you can be a nonconformist like Luc Montagnier, the HIV researcher who believed in homeopathy, or Andrew Wakefield of the vaccine-autism lie, ultimately proven wrong. I wonder what kind of nonconformist Andrew Huberman will turn out to be.


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