HOW SAFE ARE SUPPLEMENTS?
The fitness industry is booming and so are the sports supplement companies in what seems to be a symbiotic relationship. To get “ripped” or “pumped” for training you need to have X, Y and Z supplements. One leads to another and guess what? Before you can say “Gainzzz” you’ve become muscley (of course) and competition ready, prancing around stage with fake tan doing a routine to your favourite song. Sadly, I’m not describing a drag act.
Until recently I never seemed to connect the dots with supplementation and two other factors:
- Increase or dependence, resulting in addictive behaviour leading to the possible use of more harmful products e.g. steroids.
- How harmful they are to our body.
I scrolled through various medical journals to solve this hunch and what I found was quite concerning. Muscle building supplementation (creatine, whey protein, test boosters and pre-workout) was not only linked specifically to testicular germ cell cancer (Li et al., 2015) but also provided false nutritional information (Cohen, 20014) and increased oestrogen production (up to 90%) from protein powders (Plotan, Elliott, Frizzell, & Connolly, 2014).In addition, research by Deldicque and Francaux (2016) showed mixing multiple supplements say, for example, pre-workout (before), BCAA’s (during) and Protein shakes (after) over a period of time could lead to overdose and cross over effects.
If we are to believe everything we read about how “healthy” supplements are and blindly follow a manufacturers advertising, then we may as well still believe that the world is flat. What is more concerning are the lack of studies on long term effects of supplement use due to it being a relatively new concept. We will have to wait until our generation reaches middle age to truly see its effects. Maughan, Greenhaff, and Hespel (2011) found that only a handful of supplements were thoroughly researched (creatine and caffeine) and that there was a tendency by individuals using supplements not to wait until there was convincing evidence to support either their efficacy or safety.
After looking at supplements in closer detail and being completely supplement free (for around 3 years), I can safely say that the only thing that has affected my “GAINZZZ” is a lack of sleep, stress, running a business and getting glandular fever which led to chronic fatigue syndrome, ironically from overtraining (whilst supplementing heavily with all potions), coincidentally about 3 years ago!
I am totally supplement free now and what’s more is that despite a heck of a lot of injuries in the last 3 years including a knee op and a double shoulder reconstruction in January I feel better than ever. God, I sound like a reformed Heroin addict! Maybe I realised I needed a life outside of the gym and trying to be the best at exercise or competing on social media for who had the apparently “better” physique was pretty sad. I used to literally have a mini breakdown if I didn’t get my mid-morning, afternoon and pre-bedtime protein shake. Not to mention how I couldn’t function without my pre-workout that was basically a credit card of energy that I could never pay off at the end of each month, spiralling more and more into energy debt. I became totally dependent on it to the point I used it not just for training but to get through my day.
Maybe the key to being healthy doesn’t come down to supplements at all. Maybe it is about being comfortable in yourself and eating a naturally healthy diet and not entering the feedback loop of inadequacy that we are bombarded with on social media. “I want to look like him, damn I don’t look like him, damn, I need to take MORE supplements, I need to train harder, maybe I need to try some steroids to get me there, damn I still don’t look like him”. Before you know it, you spiral out of control and at best spend thousands a year on pointless supplements that in the end probably do you more harm than good and at worst develop a penchant for the roid sweeties.
We can only absorb so much protein per day and we can only train for a certain amount of time before it becomes inefficient. If this wasn’t true, you could train for 6 hours a day and get exponentially bigger and fitter in each hour and, by the end of the week, with all the protein you eat become the size of a Rhino. Unfortunately, this is also not true.
I look back now and think “what the hell was I doing?”, or “how haven’t I developed any problems from taking supplements like some people I know?”. The last question goes back to what I mentioned earlier, there just isn’t enough research yet on the long-term effects of sports supplements, so I guess the only answer is, maybe I will?
Deldicque, L., & Francaux, M. (2016). Potential harmful effects of dietary supplements in sports medicine. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 19(6), 439-445. doi:10.1097/mco.0000000000000321
Li, N., Hauser, R., Holford, T., Zhu, Y., Zhang, Y., Bassig, B. A., . . . Zheng, T. (2015). Muscle-building supplement use and increased risk of testicular germ cell cancer in men from Connecticut and Massachusetts. British Journal of Cancer, 112(7), 1247-1250. doi:10.1038/bjc.2015.26
Maughan, R. J., Greenhaff, P. L., & Hespel, P. (2011). Dietary supplements for athletes: emerging trends and recurring themes. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29 Suppl 1, S57-66. doi:10.1080/02640414.2011.587446
Plotan, M., Elliott, C. T., Frizzell, C., & Connolly, L. (2014). Estrogenic endocrine disruptors present in sports supplements. A risk assessment for human health. Food Chemistry, 159, 157-165. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2014.02.153