Last month, I took a brief look at the history of sport supplements, how athletes used them now, and talked about how supplements can be used inappropriately or without the correct education as to what is being consumed. We're now going to look at a few examples of supplements that, while are not harmful, just maybe promote themselves as being a little bit better than they are in reality.
B vitamin complex
It's not polite to mention specific brands, but these big fizzy tablets can be found in almost every busy person's cupboard. They are usually promoted as giving energy and replacing vitamins after a stressful day or big night out. Now it's true that a deficiency in certain B vitamins can manifest itself as a feeling of weakness, among other symptoms such as depression and dermatitis. Also, B vitamin products are found in the energy pathways of the body, where they act as catalysts to essential chemical reactions. However, they do not actually supply energy, and it is reasonably hard to become truly deficient in these vitamins; unless you are vegetarian (B12) who is not eating a balanced diet. B vitamins taken to excess can cause headaches, nausea and liver damage……which is a little ironic I think, given that many people consider this supplement a standard custom after a hard drinking session; a session which usually brings on the same symptoms as just described! A natural source of these vitamins can be found in whole grains, potatoes and legumes. I'm a realist though, and if you're not eating enough good food, then supplementation is unlikely to do any harm. A study from last year showed that some athletes may be deficient in Vitamin B6 and riboflavin, but suggested that a below average diet may have been the reason as opposed to over-training (1). It can be hard to consume too many vitamins; however more attention is needed nowadays with many food products having extra vitamins and minerals added. Cereals, bread, milk; they're even in the bottled water now. Also, some research is showing that very high intakes of antioxidants (Vit. A, C, beta carotene, Vit. E, etc.) may not be as healthy as was once thought (2,3,4). Further studies are underway to investigate this further, but don't stop eating fruit and veggies just yet, we're talking about amounts that are impossible to consume in whole foods.
Colostrum is a protein rich substance secreted in breast milk. Don't worry though; human supplements are derived from cows. Colostrum is rich in specific proteins such as immunoglobulins (antibodies) and insulin like growth factors. Manufacturers claim that consumption can improve exercise performance, recovery and enhance immunity. The thing is; the reason for colostrum being present in milk is to provide concentrated nutrients for a newborn calf. Newborns have 'leaky' junctions in the gut, enabling rapid absorption of whole proteins, whereas adults do not. The very proteins that provide the selling point for colostrums are simply broken down in the stomach. Now after saying all that, studies are still ongoing, with some labs actually showing results favouring colostrum (5). The mechanism of ergogenesis is unclear however. Currently, there is no consistency of findings, with other research showing no effect at all (6) or having inconsistent control groups to draw definite conclusions from, i.e. different energy intakes between groups (7). Some of the studies showing a benefit used expensive mega-dosages much higher than recommended by the available products. At this stage, colostrum should be considered a high-priced supplement that has not yet had conclusive evidence in its favour.
Nitric oxide stimulators
Nitric oxide (NO2) is released naturally in muscle to increase vasodilation of capillaries allowing for increased local blood flow during exercise. The amino acid arginine is the precursor to NO2 synthesis and thus that is the main ingredient in these supplements. Bodybuilders have jumped on this supplement because it supposedly gives a bigger 'pump' from resistance training. Marketers also promise increased endurance, nutrient delivery and power to draw in the aerobic athlete as well. It is currently one of the biggest selling supplements on the internet thanks to lots of marketing hype and uninformed consumers. As it stands there is virtually no evidence that NO2 stimulators can deliver a performance effect. Any studies that showed positive results used intravenous delivery (8), so unless you want to drag a drip around behind your bike you will need to consume near toxic doses orally to get results. Not to mention that you will also increase sodium and water losses (9). In fact one of the most potent vasodilators besides NO2 in our body is insulin. Insulin is released in response to food, so a good old fashioned high carb pre-workout meal will do more for performance than NO2 stimulators ever will.
Carnitine is promoted as a fat burner, and besides the obvious marketing as a weight loss product, these supplements were also pushed as endurance enhancers; the idea being that if you burnt more fat, you would spare valuable glycogen a little longer.
Carnitine is a product of the amino acids methionine + lysine, which are found in animal products. It is stored in the skeletal and heart muscle where it assists in the transport of long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria for oxidation during moderate intensity exercise. However, carnitine is stored at high concentrations inside muscle cells compared to the outside, so if you aren't deficient, it would be like taking the deepest breath you can and then trying to breath in more air, there's just no room left to cram any more in. Thus if we can't increase the concentration, we can't increase fat oxidation. A study on endurance athletes confirmed this, showing no increase in performance or fat metabolism during a double blind research trial (10). However, a recent study showed that with a venous infusion of carnitine, scientists were able to raise intramuscular carnitine concentrations in normal subjects by 15%, inhibit carbohydrate oxidation and possibly increase fat oxidation (11). So add another bag to your arginine drip………
Whether this study will have any future application remains to be seen.
Contains a variety of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other nutrients. In fact it has so many different things in it that it is marketed as a 'superfood'. Claims such as 'every vitamin known!!!', and 'more protein than red meat' are pretty common. All it takes to sow the seeds of doubt however, is a little maths. A daily serving of bee pollen is about 3 grams. Now even a small serving of meat will contain around 20 grams of amino acids. Obviously the bee pollen can provide no more than 3 grams, and that would mean aminos were the only ingredient. Because of all the stuff crammed in there, the actual amount of any nutrient is hundreds of times less than that which can be obtained in whole foods. Unless you're a bee that is…………
There have been many studies on this supplement, but to date there has been no performance effects shown (12,13,14).
Now I'm sorry if I'm sounding all doom and gloom on the supplement front. It's certainly not the case. Next month we'll cover some tried and tested supplements (including one that is probably already in your pantry) and how to use them to your best advantage. Also, I'll let you know what to look for when you're trying to decide if a supplement is worth taking.
Darren Ellis has a Postgrad Diploma in Exercise Science, specializing in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition and is currently completing an MSc. His passion is nutrition and strength training for improved performance, health and body composition, which he practices with the University of Auckland Exercise Rehab Clinic, Unisports Center for Sports Performance and as a Sports Nutrition intern with Sport and Exercise Science NZ. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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INW Gruppe Ernahrungsbiologie, ETH Zentrum, Zurich, Switzerland.
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Centre for Integrated Systems Biology and Medicine, University of Nottingham Medical School, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham NG7 2UH, United Kingdom.
An acute increase in skeletal muscle carnitine content alters fuel metabolism in resting human skeletal muscle. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 91(12):5013-8, 2006 Dec.
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