Physical Training Sept 2002

Fat Burners: Beneficial or Dangerous?

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

Athletes often look for ways to improve their training and performance, hoping to gain a competitive edge.  Many athletes have turned to supplement use to gain that edge, often supplementing with natural sourced fat burners.  Fat burners have become the dominant supplement sold on the market today and are typically used to increase energy and stamina as well as promote thermogenesis.  Thermogenesis is heat creation within the body, allowing it to burn fat at a fast rate.  Exercise in itself is a powerful stimulant of thermogenesis but there are natural substances that can help promote this process in the body as well.

The variety of fat burning products on the market is staggering.  Typical ingredients include Guarana, Citrus aurantium, Asian ginseng, Cayenne pepper, Coleus forskholii, and Green tea extract.  The herb Ephedra, until recently, had been one of the most popular ingredients in thermogenic supplements.  Ephedra, a central nervous system stimulant, was used as an energy tonic and metabolic enhancer.  While it was not suitable for people with heart problems or high blood pressure, ephedra had proven to be an effective fat burner for many athletes.  Ephedra was recently banned by Health Canada due to possible serious side effects and has been removed from most fat burning products on the market.  Fortunately for the consumer there is a wide array of other thermogenic products to choose from on the market.

Guarana, a wild herb from the Amazon region of South America, is a very popular ingredient in fat burners.  The active constituent of guarana, guaranine, is nearly identical to caffeine and has become popular with athletes looking to improve stamina, increase endurance, and burn fat.  About 500mg of guarana contains approximately 15mg of caffeine.  Guarana also contains the alkaloid compounds theobromine and theophylline, which may help curb appetite and increase weight loss.  Guarana also increases free fatty acid levels in the blood, which are then used as energy by the body.  Athletes have also been using guarana to help rid overworked muscles of lactic acid and to help recover their strength more quickly.  Guarana, like any other caffeinated product, may cause insomnia, anxiety, trembling, and heart palpitations.  While an effective fat burner, guarana is not meant for everyone and should be used with caution.  Athletes who have high blood pressure, heart problems, or hyperthyroidism, for example, should be cautious when taking products that contain guarana or other caffeinated sources.

Citrus aurantium (from bitter orange) has taken over the role once held by ephedra and caffeine.  It provides similar properties but without the associated side effects and has become a staple ingredient in many fat burning products.  Citrus aurantium contains five andrenergic amines including synephrine and tyramine, which stimulate the beta-3 cell receptors, eliciting the breakdown of fat.  The breakdown of fat causes the release of noradrenaline at the beta-3 receptor sites, increasing the rate at which fat is released from the body stores and increasing resting metabolic rate.  Citrus aurantium is a great choice for the athlete looking to improve training and performance without the side effects normally associated with central nervous system stimulants.

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) has been a part of Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years and was traditionally used to improve mental and physical vitality.  The name panax comes from the Greek word for cure-all, panacea, and has become a popular ingredient in fat burners for this reason.  The active constituents of ginseng, the ginsenosides, are believed to increase energy and enhance physical performance.  Studies conducted at the University of Munich found that ginseng ingestion with a 4% ginsenoside extract, had a positive effect on the performance of athletes.  Athletes experienced increased oxygen absorption, recovered faster and had less serum lactate, an indicator of muscle fatigue.  Ginseng is beneficial for fatigue as it spares glycogen (the form of glucose stored in the liver and muscle cells) by increasing the use of fatty acids as an energy source.  It is also known as an adaptogen meaning it better enables the body to cope with stress.  Ginseng is generally safe but may cause over stimulation, especially when combined with caffeine.  Athletes with uncontrolled high blood pressure should not use ginseng as it may raise blood pressure.

Cayenne pepper has been used as a medicine for centuries, and has recently gained attention as a possible fat burning supplement.  Cayenne contains capsaicin, which may help increase metabolic rate and stimulate circulation.  Increasing metabolism will help burn fat faster and enhance energy production.  In general, cayenne helps overcome non-specific lack of energy, fatigue, and sluggishness.  Cayenne has also been shown to help decrease joint pain and inflammation, ultimately increasing mobility.  Capsaicin stimulates the release of various neurotransmitters from the sensory nerves, leading to their depletion.  Without these neurotransmitters, pain signals can no longer be sent.  While this effect is temporary, it may provide the athlete who suffers from joint pain with some benefit.  Cayenne appears to have little side effects and may be used by most athletes safely.

Coleus forskholii is an ancient herb from Ayurvedic medicine that has gained attention lately as a possible fat burner.  An extract called Forskolin present in Coleus has been found to be beneficial in its ability to burn fat.  Forskolin activates adenylate cyclase, which in turn triggers an increase in cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP).  This increase in cAMP turns on the system responsible for the release of fat from its stores.  Forskolin is able to turn on this mechanism without triggering the central nervous system and mimicking adrenaline, and therefore does not have any side effects.  Coleus forskholii is a safe fat burning ingredient that may be used by a wide variety of athletes.

Green tea extract has become a popular ingredient in fat burners.  For centuries, traditional Chinese medicine has recommended green tea for various conditions including body aches and pains, immune enhancement, and as an energizer.  The active constituents in green tea are the polyphenols, particularly the catechin, epigallocatechin gallate.  The polyphenols are believed to be responsible for green tea’s promotion of good health.  Many fat burners add green tea to their product not only for its overall health benefits but also for its natural source of caffeine.  The caffeine in green tea increases metabolic rate, energy levels and stamina.  Green tea is generally a safe product but adverse effects may occur when large quantities are consumed and include insomnia and other symptoms associated with caffeine intake.

Fat burners are the hottest supplements on the market today, whether being used by athletes or non-athletes and can provide many benefits to training and performance, including increased energy and stamina.  A fat burner may not be suitable for all athletes, as different sports require different body types.  In general, athletes involved in sports that require quickness and speed would benefit from a fat burner, while athletes involved in endurance sports that require energy reserves should not attempt to lower their body fat far enough to compromise long-term performance.  Regardless of the activity, fat burners can provide great benefits for the athlete but should be used with caution.  While fat burners are safe for a large portion of the population, they are not meant for everyone.  People suffering form high blood pressure and heart disease for example, should be cautious with a fat burner that contains natural sourced caffeine.  As long as fat burners are used correctly, they can provide many benefits for the athlete.

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 Sept 2002