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What are sports supplements?

Sports supplements are substances taken to replace or enhance the athletic performance or health of an individual. These may include vitamins, amino acids, herbs, minerals or herbal products. These kind of products are usually available to purchase or use without a prescription from a doctor.

Neither dietary supplements nor performance-enhancing substances can compensate for a person’s genetic predisposition, years of training or a balanced diet. The ethical decision whether to use performance-enhancing substances are often a personal or sporting decision. It is imperative that any athletes or sports professionals considering the use of performance-enhancing substances, should ensure that they are safe, legal and of course effective.

Performance-enhancing supplements can be divided into three groups divided:

  • Supplements that are tested and scientifically proven to help improve performance.
  • Supplements that have shown some kind of benefit when used, but are not conclusively proven
  • Supplements that are ineffective and could be dangerous for the person’s health

 

Creatine

In 1998 ‘creatine’ was classified as a performance enhancing dietary supplement, which was natural and free of side effects by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The International Society of Sports Nutrition also evaluated the substance and found it to have positive effects on the body in particular for the muscles and the brain. Creatine is the substance most commonly used by athletes for ergogenic purposes.

Creatine is an organic acid occurring in the body consisting of the three amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. It is made naturally in the liver, kidneys and pancreas, these three amino acids are then synthesised through creatine kinase (with assistance of ATP) into phosphocreatine also known as creatine phosphate.

Creatine phosphate is an important source of energy as it is easily and rapidly mobilised for use by the brain and skeletal muscles. It is also used for the regeneration of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is essential for the contraction that occurs in th muscle cells. The daily recommended creatine consumption is between 2-4 grams and is usually completely covered by the food consumed in a day. The additional intake of creatine supplements over this limit, results in the increased formation of creatine phosphate which in turn causes an increase in muscle mass, strength, explosive power and improved muscle repair.

There are various forms of creatine-containing dietary supplements on the market. The most commonly used is the water-soluble creatine monohydrate. In addition there are also creatine salts (creatine pyruvate and creatine citrate). They are somewhat more soluble than the monohydrate solution, but have the same level of potency. By combining creatine with simple carbohydrates (glucose) the absorption capabilities improve.

Pros:

Increases muscle mass, explosive power, short bursts of energy, legal in most professional sports

Cons:

Side effects such as weight gain, cramps, nausea and diarrhoea. Liver or kidney damage is also possible

Caffeine

Caffeine is a fluid that has certain diuretic properties and can help to mobilize fat and restore some muscle glycogen stores. Its main functional benefit however is its stimulating effect on the nervous system, which can help to improve brain function when exercising or participating in sporting activities

Caffeine loading is allowed in most professional sports to improve performance but only to a limited extent: If more than 15 ml is found in a urine sample, there it is likely to be classified as doping. At moderate intake, caffeine is neither a diuretic nor does it disturb the functions of the body’s minerals.

Pros:

Improved cognitive function, increased adrenaline and fat mobilisation

Cons:

Side effects such as weight gain, cramps, nausea and diarrhoea. Liver or kidney damage is also possible

Sports drinks, sport gels or sports bars

These three are usually used by most sports professionals and gym goers as they usually do not contain any ingredient that is deemed illegal. These are usually used to restore lost energy and provide essential electrolytes and hydration to the body to ensure performance levels do not drop.

These products should only be used when it is clear what ingredients they are composed of and when they should best be used.[/vc_column_text]

Pros:

Easy to obtain, fast acting, good source of energy and hydration

 

Cons:

Provides no long term performance enhancing benefit

Sodium

Sodium bicarbonate (also known as baking soda) is a fine white powder derived from a reaction between sodium chloride, ammonia and carbon dioxide. Due to its alkaline properties, it is often could be described as a buffer in the blood due to its role in acid-base balance and the prevention of fatigue play.

It is often used in sports where the athletes perform short to mid duration bursts e.g. 400m, 800m, football etc. However, if taken in larger doses, this supplement can unfortunately cause gastrointestinal side effects.[/vc_column_text]

Pros:

Can relieve heartburn and indigestion, reduce blood or urine acidity, reduces build-up of lactic acid

Cons:

Can cause diarrhoea, nausea, and bloating, excessive salt intake

 

Protein supplements

These are the most popular sports supplements used, especially for bodybuilding and by weight trainers. In fact, any sporting activity especially in the power and high-performance range requires more active metabolism and an increased protein intake as the muscle tissues are likely to undergo more strain and tears.

The protein supplement amount may vary depending on the type of sport and the load structure although this additional demand can be met by a nutritious, balanced diet also. However, a timed intake of this supplement type can vastly improve the muscle cell recovery rate in many athletes, as well as improve the muscle growth and maintenance.

Examples of protein supplements include:

Lactalbumin

Lactalbumin refers to the protein fraction in milk (share about 14-24%) and obtained from whey and is therefore most commonly known as “whey protein”. In comparison with the other protein sources, lactalbumin is digested quite rapidly.

In its purest form it is provided as ‘whey isolate’ which consists of around 90% protein. This is usually because it has been stripped of its base components such as water and lactose through advanced filtration leaving behind the protein in one of its purest forms. Because of this, whey isolate is usually much more expensive than the average protein supplement.

Casein

Casein is part of the family of phosphoproteins and is at an average 76-86% of the protein found in cow’s milk. It is also found mainly in dairy products such as cottage cheese.

Unfortunately, those with lactose intolerance would be unable to use this protein supplement. Casein supplements are usually more expensive than its counterparts which is why most sport professionals eat its food alternative instead.

Egg protein

Egg protein is still regarded mainly in power sports circles as one of the most effective natural protein supplements. This protein source is used particularly in a diet phase or directly before a competition.

A whole egg has a very high biological value (what percentage of a nutrient source is utilized by the body) at 100 whilst egg white is at 88 somewhat lower. This protein supplement is however very low in fat.

The disadvantage of this egg protein supplement is that similarly to casein and whey isolate, it is relatively expensive.

Multicomponent protein

The term “multicomponent protein” is understood to generally mean a mixture of various protein fractions. It is mainly used during a diet phase as a meal replacement. Most milk proteins (albumin and casein), soy proteins and egg proteins are used in this all round protein supplement.

The cheaper versions generally contain proteins obtained from peas, wheat or potatoes; protein sources with typical low biological value. The digestibility of these multi-component protein supplements are usually inferior compared to casein, although they are much less costly.

Possibly effective supplements

(L)-Glutamine

Glutamine is one of the 21 proteinogenic amino acids, which are used to build proteins in the body and is the most abundant protein building block (over 60% of skeletal muscle is glutamine). Since the body can synthesize this amino acid itself, it is classified as a non-essential amino acid. In stressful situations however, eg. in a competition or an injury, glutamine levels are significantly depleted, and it may take up to a week for the levels to go back to normal.

When the stress hormone cortisol is secreted, it boosts the metabolisation effects of the amino acids glutamine and alanine providing more energy. Even with a carbohydrate deficiency, the body derives energy from glutamine and alanine to form new glucose through the process of gluconeogenesis. L-glutamine is the supplement form taken and is used in place of actual muscle protein for energy.

Glutamine has been said to help accelerate recovery after an intense workout but due to the high level already produced in the body, it is often difficult to judge its actual effectiveness. Side effects of glutamine include possible adverse effects on the renal and hepatic function. When looking to use l-glutamine, power and high performance athletes are advised to do so under medical supervision.[/vc_column_text]

Pros:

Natural amino acid, can help to lessen muscle and joint pain, used to treat digestive tract problems

 

Cons:

Differing results and benefits, most effective when taken intravenously, already synthesised in large quantities in the body

β-Hydroxy-methyl-butyrate (HMB)

This substance is a by-product of leucine and is mainly used to prevent the breakdown of muscle proteins and also accelerate muscle growth. Studies show that the main benefit of HMB is the prevention of muscle protein breakdown, but has not been found to be very effective in prompting muscle protein production in the body. It is therefore used as anti-catabolic agent most useful for weight trainers and athletes on calorie controlled diets as well as sports professionals prone to muscle injuries. Side effects are not known for HMB.

This sports supplement is usually taken in 2-3g dosages each day, as this supplement is known to be much more potent than leucine at preventing muscle protein degradation, each daily dosage can be seen as equivalent to 25-50g of leucine.[/vc_column_text]

Pros:

Reduces muscle damage, no known adverse effects

 

Cons:

Level of benefits may vary, not as useful for less intensive sports

Glucosamine and Chondroitin sulphate

These two supplements are usually taken in conjunction with each other and are very popular with those participating in sports with high level joint movement and impact e.g. skiers, tennis players, footballers and basketball players.

Glucosamine is a naturally produced amino sugar and an important building block for the cartilage, synovial fluid and connective tissue in the body and is naturally produced by the body. Chondroitin sulphate is also naturally produced by the chondroblast macromolecule and works to strengthen the resilience of the cartilage and surrounding joint structure.

Chondroitin sulphate is medicinally and nutritionally used in the treatment of degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis) in the hip, knee or fingers. Similarly it is often combined with glucosamine to form a type of dietary supplement, ingested to promote a healthy cartilage and to help prevent osteoporosis and possible joint degradation (chondro-protection).

The application of these sports supplements are based on the idea that as they are already “incorporated” into the cartilages, they can help to lessen or prevent further long term damage if taken regularly. These supplements have also been said to provide anti-inflammatory properties for joint pains and swellings.

Pros:

Well tolerated with very limited adverse effects, anti-inflammatory properties

 

Cons:

Studies have shown limited analgesic effect and varied cartilage benefit

Ineffective supplements

There are various supplements that are touted to be very effective at enhancing performance, increasing brain and muscle function and even provide the user more energy. Unfortunately due to the large supplements market many of these said supplements have no basis to their claims and do not provide any real benefit to the user. The most famous example of these is the L-carnitine.

L-Carnitine

L-Carnitine is a non-essential amino acid compound, which occurs in the body. It is from the amino acids lysine and methionine which are synthesized in the liver. To these may still have vitamin C, niacin, vitamin B6 and iron needed.

The average body stock of carnitine is 20 g, with most of it being found in the skeletal muscle. The daily requirement is made up of the endogenous synthesis of about 16-20 mg / day from the liver, kidneys and the brain as well as approximately 200 mg / day from food together.

Meat is the main source of carnitine whilst plants provide little to no levels of carnitine. For this reason, there are usually lower concentrations of this compound in vegetarians.

The physiological effects of L-carnitine have been documented since 1959 noting its connection to long chain fatty acids from the cell exterior in the mitochondrial transport of cells to be metabolised by the β-oxidation and converted to energy. Without L-carnitine, the process of acquiring energy from fats would grind to a halt.

For this reason, many believe that the additional supplementation of L-carnitine could increase the fatty acid metabolisation and thereby improve performance. Most manufacturers of such dietary supplements praise it as a fat burner, which is intended to reinforce a fat burning and facilitate weight loss.

Neutral and independent studies have shown however that additional supplementation provides no performance-enhancing effect.  This is because the amount of trans fatty acids that can be metabolised from the carnitine naturally made in the body is already at its highest level as l-carnitine is recycled naturally in the body, therefore the addition of ingested carnitine will make little to no difference and fat burning will not increase.

Other ineffective supplements

 There are still a large amount of other substances whose that may be added under this category. Either due to non provision of conclusive clinical results or simply due to a higher rate of adverse effects on the body compared to positive benefits.  Some of these being:

  • Bee pollen
  • Coenzyme Q10
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
  • Medium chain fatty acids (MCT)
  • Pyruvate
  • Vanadium
  • Ginseng
  • Inosine
  • Dihydroxyacetone
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