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When it comes to sports supplements, play it safe

Blog post | 16 Apr 2018

Feeling inspired by the Commonwealth Games? Great! But if you’re trying to boost your fitness using sports supplements, use caution.

Sports “supps” are often obtained legally and include energy drinks, pills and powders. Some people take them hoping to gain muscle, lose weight, increase athletic performance or improve their health.

Many supplements are banned in competitive sport, many are ineffective, and others may be bad for your health.

According to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA), almost 1 in 5 sports supplements contain banned substances including stimulants and anabolic drugs, also known as steroids.

In some cases, steroids are not listed as an ingredient on the supplement packaging, which makes it very difficult to know what’s going into your body.

Other supplements can contain large amounts of the nutrient protein or the compound creatine (which gives muscles energy). Too much of either of these naturally occurring substances may lead to kidney problems.

You should always talk to your doctor or an accredited practising dietitian before taking any sports supplements, but here’s a look at 3 sports supplements you might want to avoid.

Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS)

The misuse of AAS, such as synthetic testosterone (a male sex hormone), to attempt to boost muscle mass has increased significantly in recent years, according to Andrology Australia. Side effects can include acne, weight gain, aggression, decreased testes size and low sperm count, which can lead to infertility. 

A small study of weightlifters aged 34 to 54 published in the journal of Circulation also nods to a link between AAS use and long-term damage to heart function and atherosclerosis (the build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries, which can block blood supply to the heart). 

Energy beverages

These drinks — often marketed at gym-goers and endurance athletes with the promise of enhancing performance — can contain caffeine, guarana, taurine (an amino acid found naturally in meat and fish), B vitamins, sugars or trace minerals.

Guzzling energy beverages before a fitness event or during training can have serious adverse effects, such as restlessness, irritability, dehydration, and increased heart rate and blood pressure, reports Mayo Clinic Proceedings. (The long-term effects of these drinks on the body have not been established.)

Meanwhile, the level of taurine in most beverages is so low that it’s unlikely to have any beneficial (or adverse) effects – so buying taurine-containing drinks is probably a waste of money. 

Creatine

This substance normally occurs naturally in the body, made from amino acids and used to transfer energy to cells. There is some evidence that creatine supplements can help athletes with short bursts of speed or muscle strength, such as sprinters or weightlifters; if taken as directed for less than 5 years it’s probably low risk.

That said, creatine in high doses is most likely unsafe and could damage the liver, kidneys and heart. Creatine supplements can also cause side effects such as diarrhoea, dizziness, weight gain and dehydration.

Any dose of creatine supplement could be dangerous for people who have kidney disease, or who are at risk of developing kidney disease. If this is you, talk to your doctor before considering creatine. 

The safest option? Supplementing your diet with foods that are naturally rich in creatine, such as lean meats and fish.      

There’s an app for that... 

ASADA’s long-standing advice is that no sports supplement is safe, but if you’re an athlete and believe you need them, consider using ASADA’s Clean Sport app (available on Google Play or the App Store) which lists supplements sold on Australian shelves that have been screened by independent organisations for prohibited (banned) substances. The app also offers a risk analysis for other supplements you might be thinking of taking.

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