Vegan Biohacking: 8 Common Deficiencies And How To Biohack Them For Better Health
Firstly, I have to be completely transparent and tell all of you – especially the vegans reading this – that I’m not vegan. Although I have observed a vegan diet during a couple of short spurts twice in my life, I’m definitely not now, and I don’t see myself doing it again.
However, if you’re reading this and you are vegan, this is not an place where I’m going to be shitting on veganism and telling you that you should rethink your habits, and start eating meat – far from it. If remaining vegan is something that makes you happy, there’s nothing I would ever do to try and change your mind – mostly because you’re taking money out of the industrial meat system, which is not only evil for what it does to animals, but also creates a product that’s filled with added hormones, antibiotics, veterinary drugs, and in some cases, even heavy metals – none of which is good for the human body.
And although with all the research I’ve done, and taking the evolution of human biology into account, I don’t personally believe being vegan is the best option for overall health, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to offer options for every dietary habit to ensure overall optimal health.
In any case, I’m not going to get any more into the politics, ethics, or any of that here. This is designed to be an empowering piece of material for those of you who choose a diet that is either primarily vegetarian or vegan, so you can learn about some of the vitamins, minerals, and compounds you’re likely lacking in your diet, why they’re important, and what you can do to supplement, or get more of them into your body as naturally as possible.
Number one is creatine. Creatine is an extremely important molecule for energy production, and is essential for the body to produce ATP, which is your cellular energy source. Creatine is so important that I did an entire podcast episode on it – and if you want to learn more, check out episode number 36, titled “The Ultimate Energy Producing Molecule” for more.
Without enough creatine, you’re likely not producing enough ATP, which means your body is not creating enough energy for your muscles to conduct the processes they need to. And if you do any kind of exercise, you’re likely missing out on benefits in strength and endurance, due to a lack of creatine. And most studies show that both vegans and vegetarians almost without fail have a deficiency in creatine, which is likely affecting your daily performance if you follow that dietary lifestyle.
Most people also only focus on the physical benefits of creatine, and not about the mental and cognitive performance benefits that creatine has on the human body. In studies on vegetarians who were given supplementary creatine, it was shown that creatine resulted in an increase in memory performance, processing speed, and overall cognition – basically, making your brain work better overall. There’s even one study that suggested creatin could possibly increase overall IQ of those who primarily subsist on a plant-based diet, though there has since been some contradicting evidence against that claim. However, regardless of whether it makes you smarter or not, it definitely makes your brain perform more optimally.
Creatine is produced naturally by the body endogenously – meaning we produce it ourselves – however, only on average one gram of it per day. And if you’re doing anything more than just lazing around like a slob all day, you need more than that to function at your best. And the rest, you have to get from outside sources. Unfortunately for vegans and vegetarians, creatine is only found in animal products, especially in meat. However, it’s extremely easy to find vegan-friendly creatine powder to supplement with, to give your body and brain a boost of this essential compound.
I will link in the shownotes some sources of vegan creatine I trust, so seek that out if you’re looking to get more of it into your diet. Personally, I take 5 grams of creatine per day, and it’s one of the few supplements I take every day without cycling off or giving myself a rest as I do with many other supplements on the weekend. For the most part, I will take 2.5 grams in the morning, and another 2.5 grams immediately before a workout, for a total of 5 grams per day. This is the easiest guideline to follow, and is what most people seem to recommend for creatine intake.
In my episode on creatine I also share some more biohacks to make your creatine intake more powerful, so seek that out out if you wanna hear that. Again, it’s episode number 36 titled “The Ultimate Energy Producing Supplement”.
2. VITAMIN B12
Number two is the vitamin cobalamin, more commonly known as vitamin B12. This is one of the vitamins that most vegetarians or vegans are aware of when it comes to possible deficiencies, and is one of the easiest to supplement. And it’s extremely important – as vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient for the human body to function, and is found in almost no plant foods whatsoever, if you’re observing a vegetarian or vegan diet, you need to ensure you’re supplementing.
Not having enough vitamin B12 in your diet can cause a host of immediate issues in terms of your general health and wellbeing, all of which have innumerable and considerable scientific evidence to support. In the short term, you’re likely going to experience a reduction in overall brain function, cognitive speed, and memory, as well as overall fatigue, weakness, and lethargy.
However, a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause much more serious conditions in the long run, that are more essential to ensure you’re protecting yourself from. For example, a lack of vitamin B12 has been linked to an increase in Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, psychiatric disorders, megaloblastic anemia, and brain disease, as well as even neurological disorders in babies that have been breast-fed by a deficient mother. All of these things are scary as hell, meaning you need to ensure your vitamin B12 levels are topped up and optimal to take the best care of your current and future health.
The easiest way to get more vitamin B12 in your diet is by supplementation, as there are a ton of B12 supplements that are vegan or vegetarian friendly. In most cases, you won’t even have to find a specific B12 supplement, as a general multivitamin should do, as many of them contain your total daily needs, or at least close to it.
However, there are a couple of vegan friendly foods you can source more B12 from, if you’re looking at doing it more naturally, which is always the option I recommend.
Firstly, the soya product tempeh naturally contains a small amount of vitamin B12, which to my understanding has been created during the fermentation process of creating tempeh. However, I wouldn’t recommend this as the ideal alternative, because I generally don’t recommend soy products to anyone, regardless of whether they’re vegan, vegetarian, or not. I won’t go into this in a ton of detail here as it could make up an entire post, though this is mostly because when speaking from an ancestral point of view our biology isn’t really designed to process soy products, as well as the fact that evidence is pointing to the fact that industrially-produced soy products could be just as harmful to the human body as industrially-produced meat, so I tend to avoid it for that reason as well.
By far the best natural option for vegans to get vitamin B12, and the one I recommend most often, is from nori seaweed, the stuff that the paper-like green rolls you find wrapping sushi is usually made from. Nori seaweed contains the highest natural bioavailable amounts of vitamin B12 that is suitable for vegans, though you also have to be aware of the kind of nori you’re eating. For example, studies have shown that some of the natural vitamin B12 may be destroyed when nori seaweed is dried via conventional means, so the best option is either completely raw, or nori that’s been freeze-dried.
Raw nori seaweed is great in salads and other similar dishes, and also contains a ton of other mineral and nutrient content, so is something I recommend to people of all dietary observations. There’s also evidence showing that seaweed may lower the risk of heart disease, and other illness due to its protective antioxidant content, meaning there are even more great reasons to get it into your body.
Next on our list – and possibly one of the most important of all – is DHA.
You’ve likely heard about how important omega-3 fatty acids are for your health, and DHA is one of these omega-3 fatty acids. And while DHA has been linked to helping the body fight off cancer, autoimmune conditions, and heart disease, its most important role by far is in taking care of your brain, and your overall cognitive health.
A lack of DHA has been linked to lower brain development, overall brain function, focus, the development of the brain in a foetus, increased likelihood of suffering from ADHD, and an increase in basically all degenerative brain diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and many more. In short, if you want to take care of your brain not only so it’s performing its best on a daily basis, but so that you lower your risk of your brain falling apart in old age, you need to be getting enough DHA in your diet.
The big screaming red flag here is that in a study on British vegans and vegetarians, it was shown that these subjects had on average had DHA levels that were 59% lower than people who regularly ate meat and fish. And for brain health in old age especially, this is far from ideal, to say the least.
So obviously, you should be getting more DHA into your diet. And this is an issue as the major sources of DHA are in seafood, red meat, and dairy foods – and while I don’t recommend dairy to anyone, the fact that both vegetarians and vegans don’t have diets that contain seafood or meat means you need to be looking at other sources.
To start with, you can boost your DHA levels by eating more of things like flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds, or even from flax milk, if that’s an easier way for you to get it into your system. This is because these foods are high in ALA, which can be converted into DHA in your body. However, one thing to consider is this this conversion is extremely inefficient, with studies showing that less than 10% of the ALA will actually be converted into DHA, so if this is your only source of getting DHA, you’re still likely going to be deficient.
By far the best source of natural DHA for vegans and vegetarians is from microalgae, and can be supplemented via many different types of algae oil that can be bought quite easily online. This is by far my most recommended way of vegans and vegetarians to get DHA, and is something you should all be doing if you observe this lifestyle.
I will link to studies on DHA in vegetarians and vegans in the shownotes, as well as to sources of algae oil supplements I recommend to boost your body’s natural DHA levels.
One thing to note here is that while there are a ton of things in this article that are quite easy to supplement – like B12 for example – it’s more common that vegans and vegetarians are supplementing with B12, but not with DHA. And because of all the extremely important benefits to brain health, I highly recommend you ensure your DHA levels are being topped up every day, alongside all the basic nutrients and vitamins you may already be taking.
4. VITAMIN D3
Let’s move on to another one of the most commonly deficient vitamins in not only vegetarians and vegans, but also meat eaters, which is vitamin D3.
Vitamin D3 is found in high amounts mostly in oily fish, though is basically non-existent in vegetables and fruits. Vitamin D2 however is found in certain fruits and vegetables – especially in some mushrooms – but it’s not as potent as D3.
A deficiency in vitamin D is linked to a ton of detrimental conditions in the human body, including a higher risk of cancer, depression, heart disease, brain disease, multiple sclerosis, and many more, though is most commonly known as something that negatively effects our muscles and bones. Especially in old age, those deficient in vitamin D are at a higher risk of osteoporosis, reduced muscle strength, and wasting of the muscles.
While on average vegetarian and vegans have usually somewhere around a 50% higher deficiency in vitamin D3 than meat eaters, it’s extremely common in meat eaters as well due to modern life. And that’s because the best source of natural vitamin D comes from that magical ball of fire in the sky that gives all life to us humans – yep, our closest star, the sun.
Because humans are spending so much more time indoors, and under junk light, there are a ton of people walking around with a vitamin D deficiency, that can be easily solved by getting more natural sunlight. And while it’s less damaging for meat eaters as they get some D3 from animal food sources, vegans and vegetarians should be doing more to get good natural light on their skin, ideally every day.
The recommended dose is somewhere around 20 minutes of direct sunlight a day on around 50% of your body, though this will all depend also on your skin tone. Those with darker complexions will need more natural sunlight to get the right amount of vitamin D, which is something to keep in mind.
As I’ve said numerous times on the Bio Alchemy podcast as well, it also doesn’t count if you’re getting sunlight on your skin while you’re behind glass. For example, if you are basking in the sun in your office, but there’s glass between you and the sun, you’re not getting the full spectrum of natural light, due to glass’ effect of blocking some of the natural wavelengths of light. It needs to be direct, natural sunlight, with nothing between you and the sun.
Another thing to consider is that if you live close to either poles – as I do in Iceland for most of the year – you’re not going to be getting even close to the right amount of sunlight in winter, due to how little natural light there is. For these people who are also vegan and vegetarian, one of the only ways to mitigate this is to get this light from a photobiomodulation device, like those that are manufactured by companies like Joovv and Red Light Rising. I will link to both of these companies in the shownotes, though keep in mind these devices are not on the cheap side, though should be considered if you live in countries like the Nordic nations where you get very little natural light during winter.
Regardless of whether you’re vegan or not, this is not something you have to worry about if you lead an active life and get lots of time outdoors in the sun, like most people in my home country of Australia. If you don’t live a life that’s mostly indoors, D3 is not something you’ll likely be lacking in any way.
5. AMINO ACIDS
The next thing I’m going to talk about are amino acids in general, which is a huge section that I could dedicate an entire week of podcast episodes to. But for the sake of keeping this post under seventy five thousand words, I’m going to keep this as short as I can and lump them all in together. However, keep in mind that this is literally only scratching the surface, and is by far only the cliffnotes version.
Essential amino acids are called essential, because the human body needs them to function. They have names like tryptophan, tyrosine, pheylalanine, methionine, and a ton of others, and are responsible for just about every function you can think of in the human body – from taking care of your joints and bones, creating the compounds that make you feel happy, synthesizing antioxidants, growing and maintaining muscle, controlling metabolism, and so much more. Again, I could talk about just this in one post and not even cover the basics, so just trust me when I say that you need these to not just perform optimally, but perform at all.
Studies show that while many people today have some kind of amino acid deficiency, vegans on average have by far have the highest levels of amino acid deficiency, when compared to those who eat meat, fish, or even vegetarians.
It’s hard to over-state how important amino acids are, and the kinds of things you could be suffering from now, or in the future, if you’re not getting enough of any one of these essential amino acids. Suffice it to say, you’re likely going to live a shorter, unhealthier, unhappier life if you’re not getting them in the right amounts.
There’s no easy way to ensure you’re getting all of these amino acids overall in the right levels in the human body apart from supplementation, especially if you’re following a primarily vegan diet. Though I recommend amino acid supplementation to almost everyone, regardless of the diet they observe.
I will link in the shownotes to several recommended amino acid supplements in the shownotes, though if you can afford it I recommend going for the more expensive option produced by Thorne, as they’re more often my most trusted source for purity and quality.
Next up, selenium. Selenium is extremely important for both men and women, for several reasons.
Firstly, it’s essential for proper thyroid function, and if deficient, can cause a host of problems in the human body. A thyroid that’s not properly active can result in things like muscle cramping, general weakness, constipation, fatigue, memory problems, skin issues, as well as a trouble maintaining your weight, especially in women.
But more seriously, a lack of selenium can cause an increase of disease in general due to selenium’s antioxidant properties, as well as more injury and illness because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Lower selenium levels has been linked to a higher risk of all-cause mortality, meaning if you’re taking in less of it, you have a higher risk of dying of just about everything as a result.
If you’re ever intending on having children, you need adequate selenium as well. A lack of selenium has been linked to infertility, and reproductive problems. In men, lower selenium levels is also likely to result in lower sperm count and testosterone levels, meaning it’s essential to get more of it.
And yes, you guessed it – vegans are more likely to have lower selenium levels, due to less meat and fish intake, which are almost of the highest natural sources of selenium.
However, the good news here is that the natural food that contains the highest amount of selenium on Earth comes from Brazil nuts, which are of course both a vegetarian and vegan food, so this is an extremely easy way to get enough of it into your diet. Depending on the quality, you may only need as little as three Brazil nuts a day to get enough selenium to meet your daily requirements, which is easy for everyone to do.
You have to keep in mind though that the selenium that Brazil nuts create comes from the soil they’re grown in, so the lower the natural selenium content of the soil, or the lower-quality the product, the less selenium that will be in them. This means you should be buying the highest-quality Brazil nuts you can – ideally from an organic source where the company growing them is taking care of the soil they’re growing in – though that means they’re likely going to be expensive. And as Brazil nuts are already some of the most expensive nuts you can buy, may make it a struggle for some people.
Despite this, the fact you only need to eat around three a day to keep your selenium levels optimal, means hopefully it won’t break the bank for you.
Idone is essential for all stages of life, from when you’re nothing more than a sperm and an egg, all the way until the end of your life. Lacking in this micronutrient can mean a host of problems (especially in children and developing humans), but most seriously being the under-development or disease of the brain. And in pregnant women, not enough iodine can cause an increased likelihood in the death of a child before coming to term, meaning it’s extremely important.
While iodine is found naturally in plants, it’s in nowhere near as high levels as in animal foods. One study in American subjects showed that 80% of vegans were likely to have a deficiency in iodine, when compared to only 9% in people who ate an omnivorous diet.
The first thing to keep in mind here is that although you can get more iodine in plain, iodised table salt, I don’t recommend this for anyone. Iodised table salt should be considered the most industrial, mass-produced, and worst form of salt you can buy, which has been heavily processed and had most of the natural microminerals in salt stripped out of it. I won’t go into in detail here, but the only salt I recommend anyone use is pink Himalayan salt or lava salt, because it’s the least likely to contain microplastics (that just about every other salt on Earth is likely to contain), as well as having the highest mineral content.
The best natural source of iodine I can recommend for vegans is again, seaweed, that I’ve already spoken about. Seaweed naturally leeches iodine from seawater during its life, and is what I recommend above all you should be eating not only for iodine, but the other amazing benefits seaweed has for the human body.
Lastly, we have carnosine, which is an important antioxidant found almost exclusively in meat and dairy products. And as I said before while I don’t recommend dairy products for anyone, the fact that both vegans and vegetarians don’t eat meat, means they’re extremely likely to be deficient in carnosine.
Carnosine is most important in our body for muscle and brain function, especially in people who are higher operators in the physical or mental fields. So if you’re working out a lot, or doing a ton of mental activity like studying, or learning a skill, you should be maintaining normal, or even slightly elevated levels of carnosine in your body.
Most importantly for me though, studies show that carnosine is important for overall longevity, so if you want to live the longest, healthiest life possible, ensuring you’re not deficient is more important than remembering your Mum’s birthday. And as with basically everything in this article, vegetarians and vegans are much more likely to be deficient in carnosine than omnivores.
The good news here is that carnosine can be manufactured by your body, via the amino acids histidine and beta-alanine. The best way for vegans to ensure this is happening is by supplementing with beta-alanine, which can not only help with the problem of not having enough carnosine, but will positively effect your overall muscle mass, endurance, and athletic performance.
There are a ton of good vegan beta-alanine supplements available online, and I will of course link to a couple of them in the shownotes for all of you vegan and vegetarian listeners out there to check out.
In closing, I do wanna say that although vegans and vegetarians are more likely to be deficient in the compounds, minerals, and amino acids I’ve mentioned in this article, it doesn’t mean you are by default. And it also doesn’t mean as a meat eater, you’re by default not deficient in these as well. However, in my opinion these are the most important things vegans or vegetarians should be focusing on to maintain the most optimal overall health, wellbeing, and cognitive performance.
Vegans, just a reminder again that this is not in any way me trying to convince you to become an omnivore, or to integrate meat into your diet. While I don’t necessarily believe it’s the best choice for overall health, the fact that you’re serving to take money out of the industrial meat system is something I’ll support. And while I personally can afford to purchase the highest-quality animal products, and even wild sources of meat that aren’t contaminated with poison, chemicals, and pathogens, this isn’t possible for everyone. And in people who can only afford low-quality or processed meat, I don’t recommend this at all either.
If you are reading this and you are a meat eater, don’t be a dick and use this article as a way of pointing out to vegans that they’re deficient, or as ammo for why someone shouldn’t be a vegan. Chances are you’re probably deficient in something too, and unless you’re buying the highest quality meat on the planet, you’re eating hormones, antibiotics, poisons, and toxins, that are contained within basically all mass-produced meat.
All I’m saying is we should all be respecting each other’s choices, and using real data and education to ensure whatever we choose, we’re living as optimally and healthily within that lifestyle as we can.