A supplement is something that completes or makes an addition, such as a dietary supplement or nutritional supplement. Sports supplementation can be anything from an energy drink to anabolic steroids which enhance performance. The question of whether a supplementation for elite athletes is legally or morally correct is one that has been debated for centuries.
The moral issue in question is whether or not athletes who compete on the same sports field shouldn’t be allowed the same advantages. Many answer that it is not the supplementation which is in question, but rather the overall performance of the athlete and if the athlete chooses to use performance enhancing products in order to give themselves an edge over other athletes then it is the choice of the athlete.
Others consider sports supplementation and dietary supplements, but not necessarily anabolic steroids, as something that are useful to improving performance. Some use vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs or botanicals or any combination of these which they feel may help them in their performance. Many of these dietary supplements do not require the FDA approval before they come on the market so athletes must be aware of the company from which they purchased the supplements to ensure the quality they desire.
Many of the sports organizations today have developed policies on how athletes can use sports supplementation in order to enhance their performance. For instance, the NFL, NCAA and IOC have banned the use of steroids, ephedra and androstenedione by athletes and competitors. Those found using them can be suspended, face fines or found ineligible.
Athletes are encouraged by their coaches and physicians to only take supplementation which is prescribed by the primary care physician because of the significant side effects which can occur. For instance, DHEA and androstenedione are pro-hormones or natural steroids that are broken down into testosterone. When researchers have studied the effect of these pro-hormones on adult athletes they found no increase in muscle size, strength or performance.
Most experts believe that when taken in large doses they can cause some similar effects to stronger anabolic steroids but the side effects of these natural steroids supplements are not known. What is known is that they cause hormonal imbalances in the people who use them which can lead to testicular cancer, infertility, stroke and an increased risk of heart disease. Natural steroid supplementation can also cause breast development and testicular shrinking in men.
Creatine is another sports supplement which is already manufactured by the body inside the liver, kidneys and pancreas. It is also found in meat and fish and available over the counter. At this time researchers have found that teenagers make up a large portion of the users. (1)
People use creatine to improve strength of the long and short term effects of the supplements have not been studied in teenagers and children. It has been found effective in athletes who are doing intermittent high intensity exercises as short recovery intervals such as sprinting and power lifting. But researchers have also found that it does not improve performance in nearly one third of the athletes studied.
The most common side effects found with creatine are weight gain, diarrhea, abdominal pain and muscle cramping. (2)
Fat burners, also known as thermogenics, are another sports supplement used by athletes to lower their weight and increase their metabolism. Many of these have been made with the herb, ephedra, known to be one of the most dangerous supplements on the market. Researchers have found that it causes heart problems, stroke and even death in users. Because of the significant side effects the ephedra has been taken off the market but since then “ephedra free” products have been manufactured but often contain ingredients that are similar to ephedra and cause the same side effects. (3)
The demand for sports supplementation is growing quickly with both professional athletes and the general consumers who are trying to enhance physical performance, improved muscle mass and strength and increase endurance. Because of the massive demand for the products the market is very vulnerable to exploitation.
For example, the FDA issued a warning letter to American Cellular Laboratories when it identified eight products marketed by the company which contains anabolic steroids. Although the products are marketed as dietary supplements they are unapproved and misbranded drugs. The agency had received five reports of adverse effects in men taking these dietary supplements, among them serious liver injury. Acute liver injury is generally known to be a possible side effect of using products which contain anabolic steroids.
Part of the volatility in the supplement industry, including sports supplementation, is the difficulty in regulating the products and ingredients that are entering the market. Although there are a high number of beneficial nutritional supplements available there are also a number of popular supplements that have little to no evidence to back up their claims and may also contain ingredients which are harmful to consumers health.
It’s difficult to wade through the information about sports supplements to determine which ones are legitimate and which aren’t. Consumers should watch out for companies who promised a quick fix, published claims that are too good to be true, draw simple conclusions from a complex study or make recommendations based on a single study. Look for products that have a USP label on the products in that are eligible for the Consumer Labs Seal of Approval. Products which are made by nationally known food and drug companies usually have tight manufacturing and controls in place in order to ensure the highest quality product will reach the market.
Whether an athlete does or does not need sports supplementation in order to achieve their goals is a question that only the athlete can answer. People must take into account any underlying medical conditions they may already suffer from, their goals and performance level, as well as a potential side effects and risks from the sports supplements may wish to use. Only by weighing the risk benefit ratio and understanding that the worst-case scenario can happen to them in an athlete adequately make a decision and live with the consequences.
(1) American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeon: Creatine Supplements
(2) University of Maryland Medical Center: Creatine
(3) Drugs.com: Ephedra
Clinical Sports Medicine: Medication and Supplement USe by Athletes
American Family Physician: Supplements and Sports
Brown University Health Education: Nutrition Supplements
Boston College: Do you know what your sports supplement is?
Council for REsponsible Nutrition: Guidelines for YOung Athletes: Responsible Use of Sports Nutrition Supplements