Athletes can be sitting ducks for an endless list of scams aimed at them: protein supplements, vitamin or mineral supplements, steroid replacers, "muscle-building" powders, electrolyte pills, and many other so-called ergogenic aids. Some athletes take dangerous, illegal drugs to try to gain a competitive edge. Others use sodium bicarbonate, caffeine, or other products. The term ergogenic implies that such products have special work-enhancing powers, but no food or supplement is really ergogenic.
An athlete who takes a nutrient supplement to improve performance can not be sure that it will deliver on its verbal promises. Supplements are not required to be tested for safety or effectiveness because they are a special case.
FDA does not regulate supplements as it regulates drugs. FDA could question claims made by a drug manufacturer that their product “rams the body into turbo charge” or that it “deposits slabs of muscle bulk,” yet such claims for supplements shout from the pages of magazines that appeal to athletes. If the products were drugs, FDA would require clinical evidence of those turbo-charged bodies and muscle slabs and would also require proof of safety.
Someone considering using illegally obtained drugs such as steroids should be aware that illegal drugs can contain anything, even poisons, because no one tests them. Among the most dangerous products sold to athletes are steroid drugs, other hormones, amphetamines, cocaine, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, barbiturates, diuretics, and even veterinary drugs.
Of the hormones, anabolic steroids are made naturally by the testes and adrenal cortex in men and by the adrenal cortex in women. The steroid drugs some athletes take are synthetic varieties that combine that masculinizing effects of male hormones and growth stimulation of the adrenal steroids. In the body, the steroids produce accelerated muscle bulking in response to exercise in both men and women. Injections of these hormones produce muscle size and strength far beyond that attainable by training alone, but at the price of great risks to health as demonstrated by the following:
While not a steroid, growth hormone can induce huge body size and it is less readily detected than steroids in drug tests. A syndrome resulting from its abuse includes a widening jawline, a widened nose, a protruding brow, buck teeth, weakened heart walls, and an increased likelihood of death before the age of 50 years, a condition known at acromegaly. Athletes who have faced the consequences of hormone abuse, even some for whom the drugs made careers in sports possible, have come forward to warn young athletes away from growth hormones. The say that the price of using drugs is too dear, even for the rewards of success in sports.
Growth hormone “stimulators,” such as amino acid ornithine and arginine, are useless in the form sold to athletes. In laboratory studies, huge doses of these amino acids do stimulate growth hormone release, but the effective dose would be dangerous to an athlete. There are safe ways to maximize growth production, however. One is rest. Growth hormone is released during sleep, so getting enough rest is important. Exercise itself also triggers the release of growth hormone during the period of sleep that follows, so adequate training in also effective. These steps, unlike single amino acid supplements, are safe and effective in evoking the body’s release of growth hormone.
Extracted herb and insect sterols are hawked as legal substitutes for steroid drugs. Sellers falsely claim that these substances contain hormones or that they enhance the body’s natural ability to make anabolic hormones. In some cases, the substances may actually contain some amount of a plant or insect sterol but even so, the body can not convert herbal or insect compounds to human anabolic steroids. None of these products has any proven anabolic activity, nor can they strengthen muscles, but they may contain natural toxins. Don't make the mistake of equating “natural” with “harmless.”
It bears repeating that amino acid supplements can be dangerous. They are never needed by healthy athletes. Advertisers point to research that identifies the branched-chain amino acids as a source of fuel for the exercising body. What the advertisers leave out is that compared with glucose and fatty acids, branched-chain amino acids provide only minuscule amounts of fuel and that when amino acids are needed, the muscles have plenty on hand. The person concerned about branched-chain amino acids should know that a diet too low in carbohydrate or calories seems to activate or assist an enzyme that breaks down branched-chain amino acids for energy. In the presence of sufficient energy and adequate carbohydrate fuel, the enzyme shuts down its activity, and limits the amount of branched-chain amino acid breakdown, conserving the body’s protein. The athlete who wants the benefits conferred by amino acids needs no supplements, but only needs to make the diet adequate in carbohydrate and in total energy.
The overwhelming majority or potions for athletes are frauds. The placebo effect works strongly in athletes. When you hear reports of a performance boost from a new concoction, give it time. Chances are that the affect was simply the power of the mind over the body. Incidentally, don’t discount that power, since it is formidable. You can use it by visualizing yourself as a winner in your sport. You don't have to rely on magic for an extra edge because you already have a real one -- your mind.
If you have a questions about a fitness product, book, or program, write to:
The American College of Sports Medicine
PO Box 1440
Indianapolis, IN 46204
In Canada, write to:
The Canadian Sport Medicine and Science Council of Canada
1600 James Naismith Drive
Gloucester, Ontario, K1B 5N4