Posted on October 26, 2014 at 21:52 PM
For all the science we know, it’s hard to improve upon Mother Nature. But we just keep trying, designing supplements to stay young, stay strong and stay sexually vibrant.
The supplement industry hauls in $28 billion a year—about the same as the revenue for McDonald’s last year—and a slice of that is ergogenic aids, or exercise enhancers. They include your cup of morning java to compounds that boost performance in all dimensions to plain old baking soda.
As a former branding executive, way before I became a nutritionist and personal trainer, clearly, the advertisement of exercise enhancers appeals to our emotional side to live longer and keep our youthful activities on our agenda.
Great. I get it. I want to live longer by taking advantage of technology, too. But I also want to know the downside of these supplements—the side you won’t find on the back of a supplement bottle.
I’ll start with coffee. Yes, many, but not all, studies confirm that coffee can give you a boost of endurance, reduce fatigue, and improve sprint performance or some combination of these desirable exercise attributes, according Dietary Supplements: Your Guide to Making the Best Choices, a new 2014 report by the University of California at Berkeley.
Another benefit of drinking coffee: It may also enable people to exercise longer because it helps the body break down fat, not carbs, for use as energy.
Berkeley’s review of baking soda as a supplement is brief. Used in the hope of neutralizing the buildup of lactic acid in blood and muscles during intense exercise, thus prolonging the onset of fatigue and impaired performance, Berkeley quotes an analysis in the Journal of Strength & Condition Research in 2012 that found conflicting evidence. Even if there is some beneficial effect, it’s minimal and probably not worth taking. If you overdo it, that is take more baking soda than your body needs, you might also experience severe bloating and abdominal cramps, not a good thing if you’re a runner or swimmer.
A definite don’t touch this, according to the Berkeley report, is toying around with testosterone boosters because the potential long-term adverse effects can cause testicle shrinkage in men. But that’s not the worst of it, or maybe it is from what I imagine is a man’s point of view. Hormone boosters or anything that may affect them hold the potential to cause blood-clotting disorders, increased aggression, reduced HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and liver or kidney damage in both men and women. Turning to women alone, hormone boosters could cause male pattern baldness and an increased risk of breast cancer, among other unhealthful effects.
Thankfully, the federal government has banned dozens of these compounds because they contain hidden anabolic steroids, or steroid-like substances, that are now regulated as controlled substances. Nonetheless, you’ll still find them, re-framed by marketers as “muscle-building” supplements, says Berkeley. One of the most common ingredients still on the market is DHEA, the steroid that dethroned Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong admitted taking in an antidepressant. Other steroid culprits sold online and in vitamin shops include the herb Tribulus terrestris and the flavonoid chrysin.
Moving to antioxidant supplements, Berkeley says they’re “useless, at best” to improve exercise performance. The theory is that high doses of antioxidant vitamins C and E, for example, counter the increase in cell-damaging free radicals during vigorous exercise.
That statement should definitely draw ink from supplement makers to defend their products as effective. That’s pretty easy for them to do because the supplement industry lacks a federal watchdog to determine safety and efficacy. Nope. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration doesn’t test supplements for safety and efficacy. They’re not classified as drugs.
Berkeley reports that studies have yielded conflicting findings about the effect of antioxidants on exercise performance, with more recent ones pointing to red flags. It quotes a 2009 German study that found that high doses of vitamins C and E in athletes hindered the body’s ability to boost its own antioxidant system.
In fact, there’s “more robust” evidence for negative effects of antioxidants in exercise than for positive effects, according to a letter by Spanish and German researchers in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism in 2012. It concluded that antioxidant supplements are, at best, “useless—for everyone.”
But the light shines bright for one exercise booster, called creatine. According to Berkeley, creatine “holds promise.” It is made from the building blocks of protein and found in meat, poultry and fish. It is also made in the body, mostly in the liver and stored in the muscle. The Berkeley report cites the conclusion of a 2010 review paper from the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which said creatine is the “most effective nutritional supplement to boost muscle mass and strength and increase capacity for high-intensity exercise.”
Although 5 grams of creatine a day in healthy people appears to be safe, there are lingering concerns about the effect of creatine on the kidneys, especially in older people and people with kidney problems.
What to do? Stick with a solid training program and healthy diet. If you choose to go down the supplement road, the small effect some of them may have would be meaningless for recreational athletes or exercisers, but the risks are just as great for both recreational and professional athletes.