Physical Training July 2002

An Athlete’s Guide to Nutraceuticals

By Jen Barber
Copyright © Jen Barber 2002. All rights reserved.

Athletes used to rely on training and good nutrition to provide maximum results.  Now to maintain a competitive edge, athletes are turning to nutraceuticals.  Nutraceuticals are dietary supplements that provide health benefits.  In this case, nutraceuticals are used to enhance athletic performance and improve training.  The use of nutraceuticals for athletes has become a billion dollar industry with health stores and gyms selling hundreds of different supplements.  There are supplements that claim to improve strength and stamina, help build lean muscle, and help burn fat.  The nutraceutical industry is ever changing, one week a supplement will be all the rage and the next week it will have faded into obscurity.  That particular supplement is not necessarily ineffective, just that the buying public has moved on to the “next big thing”.  How does an athlete know which supplements are worthwhile to take and which ones are all hype?  This article will introduce the athlete to a variety of different supplements including fat burners, Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), Whey protein, Creatine, Glutamine, Tribulus terrestris, Beta-hydroxy Beta-methylbutyrate (HMB), Methoxy Isoflavone, and Cordyceps.

The number one supplements sold to athletes are the fat burners, which have remained one of the hottest supplements on the market over the last few years.  Fat burners can serve a variety of functions including increasing metabolic rate and energy levels, suppressing appetite, and reducing excess water levels.  Athletes typically use fat burners to improve energy levels to enhance training and performance.  There are numerous ingredients and ingredient combinations contained in fat burners.  Natural sourced Caffeine (Guarana and/or Kola Nut), Citrus aurantium (bitter orange), and Cayenne pepper are popular ingredients used to increase metabolism and energy.  Chromium and Garcinia cambogia are popular appetite suppressants, while Dandelion root is a common diuretic.  Fat burners, while providing benefit for many people, are also the most abused supplements on the market.  Exceeding the recommended dosage is a common practice by many people in the hopes of obtaining quicker and more profound results.  This practice poses a danger to many people and can have serious consequences.  The recent ban of the herb ephedra by Health Canada is a prime example.  Athletes had used Ephedra, a popular ingredient in fat burners, safely for many years.  The abuse of this supplement in recent years has caused serious side effects in many people, which prompted Health Canada to ban this product from the market.  Fat burners that are used correctly can be an excellent addition to a work out regime.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) is another supplement often labeled as a fat burner.  CLA experienced a peak in the market many months ago but has since dropped off dramatically with athletes.  CLA appears to reduce the body’s ability to store fat and increase the body’s use of fat for energy.  Another benefit of this supplement is that once CLA soaks into muscle cells, it can trigger an increase in muscle mass.  These results when published caused a surge in CLA sales for a short time.  While it is still an effective choice for many athletes, it no longer receives the popularity that it once did.  These trends are typical of the fat burner category.  Consumers often purchase these types of products expecting instantaneous results.  When these quick results are not seen, they move on to the next product.  Fat burning supplements when used correctly, take time to work and can provide many benefits.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) include Omega 3 and 6, which play an important role in the functioning of the human body.  Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in flax and salmon oil, while Omega 6 fatty acids can be found in borage and evening primrose oil.  A balanced intake of these two EFAs is essential for healthy cellular function and optimal athletic performance.  Research has shown that EFAs can improve stamina and endurance, decrease recovery time and inflammation after exercise, and improve amino acid utilization to help build and maintain lean muscle mass.  Many athletes include EFAs as a staple in their diet to receive these benefits.  Regardless if someone is an athlete or not, anyone can receive benefit from EFAs.
Whey protein is an extremely popular source of protein sold on the market today.  It is an excellent source of the branched chain amino acids, which are important to athletes as they are metabolized directly into muscle tissue.  Other amino acids are metabolized into the liver and are not readily available to muscle tissue.  Whey protein is a complete protein containing all the essential amino acids with a high biological value.  Biological value is a measure of protein quality, measuring the amount of protein that is retained from the absorbed protein for maintenance and growth.  This means that the absorbed whey protein is retained in the body and not quickly excreted.  This will benefit the athlete by allowing them to use the components of whey protein to aid muscle recovery after a workout and promote skeletal muscle growth.  Whey protein is always an excellent choice whether it is being used to promote muscle growth or used as a high protein meal replacement.  It is a great starting point for many athletes looking to enhance their workout and can improve the effectiveness of many other supplements, including creatine.

Creatine is another supplement that is extremely popular with athletes.  It is found naturally in the body, concentrated in the skeletal muscle, and is essential for the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cellular fuel that runs the body.   ATP stored in the muscle is the only fuel available for energy and the only fuel source capable of generating 100% muscle contraction.  Muscle contraction by stored ATP is the most effective for building strength and once it has been depleted, other fuel sources will dominate and muscle contraction will decline.  Vigorous exercise will deplete muscles of their natural creatine supply.  Creatine supplementation reenergizes tired muscles, allowing the athlete to work out harder for a longer period of time, increasing muscle and strength.  Taking 30 to 40 grams of mixed sugars with each dose will enhance muscle uptake of creatine.  The sugars stimulate insulin, which is essential to push creatine through the cell membranes.  Creatine is a product that should be cycled and not taken on a continuous basis.  It has maintained a consistent popularity and still remains a top choice for athletes looking to build lean muscle.

Glutamine is the most abundant free amino acid found in the muscles of the body and is readily available when needed for the synthesis of skeletal muscle proteins.  This amino acid helps to build and maintain muscle, and therefore supplemental glutamine is useful for athletes.  L-Glutamine is the natural form of the amino acid glutamine and over the last few years has remained one of the top sports supplements sold on the market.  L-Glutamine can naturally boost the level of human growth hormone and has gained a lot of recognition as a supplement used to enhance muscle recovery.

Tribulus terrestris (Puncturevine) is a supplement that has been growing in popularity over the last few years.  Traditionally, it was used by men to improve libido but recently has gained recognition as a muscle builder.  Tribulus terrestris is believed to enhance testosterone levels by increasing luteinizing hormone levels.  Increasing testosterone levels may promote protein synthesis and positive nitrogen balance.  The benefits for the athlete are muscle cell growth, increased body strength, and faster recovery.  The popularity of Tribulus terrestris has been on a consistent upward trend and will likely remain so over the next few years.

Beta-hydroxy Beta-methylbutyrate (HMB) is a supplement that was once quite popular with athletes but has now faded into obscurity.  HMB is a metabolite of the normal breakdown of the amino acid leucine and can enhance the effects of vigorous exercise by building muscle and reducing body fat.  Studies have shown a pronounced effect on decreasing protein breakdown while increasing nitrogen retention by the body.  This results in an increase in lean muscle mass and strength.   Its demise on the market may be due to the fact that results will only be seen with regular exercise.  If an athlete is not maintaining a regular routine of vigorous exercise, it is unlikely that there would have been many noticeable results.  Its continued sales on the market seem to be from competitive athletes but only time will tell how this supplement will do in the future.

Methoxy Isoflavone, another supplement that was popular for a short time but has now faded, is a non-hormonal member of the isoflavone family.  It appears to be highly anabolic (increases protein synthesis) with no androgenic effects.  Methoxy Isoflavone has also been identified to partially suppress the catabolic hormone, cortisone, while improving nitrogen retention by the body.  This appealed to athletes looking to gain more lean muscle.  The decline of Methoxy Isoflavone may be due to incorrect dosing on the product label.  Athletes who have seen success with this supplement claim to have taken a much higher dosage than what was recommended on the product label.  While the long term effects of this higher dosing is unknown, there does not appear to be any short-term effects.  Until more is known about Methoxy Isoflavone, it will likely remain in obscurity.
Cordyceps is an ancient Chinese herb traditionally used to combat fatigue and promote vitality.  It has been gaining more media attention in recent weeks and will very likely be the “next big thing”.  Cordyceps may improve athletic performance by opening up the breathing passages, allowing more oxygen into the body.  Oxygen is essential for energy production, and if an athlete can increase energy, training and performance may be enhanced.  The most significant results that have been seen from the use of Cordyceps is the story of eight Chinese women runners, who in 1993 set world records in nearly every competition at their national games in Beijing, the same year that they incorporated cordyceps into their diet.  Cordyceps is on an upward trend and as athletes see more positive results, it will become a mainstream supplement. Caterpillar Fungus (Cordyceps sinensis)Cordyceps sinensis
the caterpillar fungus.

The caterpillar fungus is a traditional medicine that has been widely used as a tonic and/or medicine by the Chinese for hundreds of years. The use of this fungus was relatively unknown in this country until it was credited for the success of Chinese women athletes at the National Games in Beijing, in 1993. Three Chinese track runners set new world records during the Games at three different distances, 10,000 m, 15,000 m and 30,000 m. Their coach, Ma Zunren, attributed the runner’s success to intensive training as well as a stress-relieving tonic prepared from the caterpillar fungus. 

From "Fun Facts About Fungi" at U. Michigan.

Nutraceutical use by athletes has turned into a billion dollar industry that is consistently growing.  An athlete looking to improve training and performance, should research a supplement before taking it to ensure it will provide the appropriate benefit.  Competitive athletes should look into whether any of these supplements are on the banned list for their sport.  Choosing the correct supplement can be a daunting task as there are numerous options available within even one type of supplement.  Companies that stand behind their product by offering quality assurance and product testing are usually a good choice.  Nutraceuticals for athletes are heavily advertised and tend to follow the fads in the industry.  The athlete should choose the product based on its quality and effectiveness, not necessarily on what an advertisement states.  The use of nutraceuticals to improve athletic performance will likely remain in the forefront of the supplement industry for many years to come.

Jen Barber holds a BSc. in Environmental Science from the University of Guelph and has been managing a health food store for the last 3 years. She plans to begin a Masters program in Nutrition in the September.
Physical Training July 2002