Most athletes, fitness trainers and sports people take supplements of some description because they believe they either enhance performance, or health and performance; this much is known from surveys.
Unfortunately, the lure of a performance edge means that clever marketing can promote supplements that either confer no advantage, and may even cause harm or performance inhibition. Here are 10 supplements that, depending on your circumstances, you can rely on for health or performance support. Discuss taking supplements with your doctor as appropriate.
Creatine, an amino acid, occurs naturally in the body. It forms when proteins break down, is stored in muscle, and is used by the energy production and transport system as phosphocreatine. During high-intensity exercise, such as sprinting or explosive weight lifting, phosphocreatine produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the ultimate energy molecule.
Creatine, which is not a banned supplement, is popular with bodybuilders and power athletes who rely on muscle bulk and power. Performance benefits from creatine supplementation can vary widely for individuals, and some users seem to benefit more than others, perhaps because they naturally store less muscle creatine than others. Creatine, used according to recommendations, produces few adverse effects, and has proven benefits for responders.
Athletes and heavy exercisers need more dietary protein than the recommended amounts for sedentary people — as much as 70% more for some athletes. Whey protein is derived from milk solids, and casein is another milk protein. Both are offered in supplement products for weight and muscle maintenance, enhancement, and recovery for athletes who undertake strenuous training.
Some studies have shown that whey is superior compared to other protein supplements, but if you get the required protein from healthy sources of dietary protein, the benefits may only be marginal. In addition, you can buy whey from the supermarket. Brand protein supplements are often more expensive, although they often include other vitamins and minerals.
Soy protein, once thought to be an incomplete protein compared to animal products, is now known to be a complete protein, which means it has all the essential amino acids. Vegetarian and vegan trainers choose soy protein supplements in protein powders similar to those containing whey.
Skim Milk Powder
Skim milk powder is dried, non-fat dairy milk. It includes various amounts of whey and casein proteins, and thus is a cheap and reliable protein powder supplement compared to the proprietary brands of protein supplements. Buy it in bulk at the supermarket.
Iron is a critical mineral for athletes, and indeed for human health in general. Athletes with low iron status perform poorly and are often tired and lack energy. Even so, iron can be toxic if taken in excess as a supplement. If you suspect iron deficiency, your doctor is the person to do tests and decide on a supplement program.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid)
Taking supplementary vitamin C has always been popular among athletes. It's antioxidant properties have been considered useful in combating muscle damage, especially where high intensity and high volume training and competing are involved.
More recent studies, however, suggest that vitamin C in high doses may act as a pro-oxidant and interfere with useful adaptations in the energy production system, especially in endurance athletes. In any case, although dietary sources are best, supplementation with 500 milligrams or less is unlikely to be counter-productive. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) enhances iron absorption. Some athletes, especially women and vegetarian athletes, need to monitor their iron status and consumption. A modest vitamin C supplement may help.
Vegans, who don't eat any animal products, need to get vitamin B12 from supplements or processed foods with added B12. In addition, as we age, we don't absorb vitamin B12 as well from food. Senior or master athletes may benefit from a B12 supplement.
Although you may intend to eat well and optimize your intake of the important dietary factors that contribute to energy and strength for workouts, busy schedules often mean falling short. The solution for many is to take a multivitamin supplement with a good balance of essential vitamins and minerals. You may even be able to choose a brand that emphasizes certain constituents such as folate, B12, iron or vitamin D.
Folate, or folic acid, is an essential vitamin that's abundant in fruits and vegetables. Folate protects cell division, so pregnant women often take folate supplements. Low folate intake also seems to be a factor in cardiovascular disease, and folate supplements may decrease the chance of stroke when diets are inadequate. On the other hand, excessive folic acid consumption as supplements can mask vitamin B12 deficiency, which may result in an overestimate of B12 status in blood tests and a continuation of nerve damage (neuropathy) from low B12 levels.
Adequate folate intake may also protect against alcoholic liver disease.
Vitamin D works with calcium to build strong bones, yet it seems vitamin D also plays a role in the maintenance of muscle strength, and perhaps in protecting against a variety of common chronic diseases. If you don't get much sun exposure, you could be deficient in vitamin D.
Calcium supplements are not on this list, even though they're featured in recommendations for the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis. Recent studies have linked calcium supplements with increased cardiovascular disease. Until this is clarified, see your doctor about calcium supplements.
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Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Jan;87(1):142-9. Oral administration of vitamin C decreases muscle mitochondrial biogenesis and hampers training-induced adaptations in endurance performance. Gomez-Cabrera MC, Domenech E, Romagnoli M, et al.
Eur J Intern Med. 2012 Dec;23(8):745-54. Efficacy of folic acid supplementation in cardiovascular disease prevention: An updated meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Yang HT, Lee M, Hong KS, Ovbiagele B, Saver JL.
Endocr Rev. 2012 Nov 20. The Roles of Vitamin D in Skeletal Muscle: Form, Function, and Metabolism. Girgis CM, Clifton-Bligh RJ, Hamrick MW, Holick MF, Gunton JE.
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