Sports supplements (also called ergogenic aids) are products used to enhance athletic performance that may include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, or botanicals (plants) — or any concentration, extract, or combination of these.
These products are generally available over the counter without a prescription.
Sports supplements are considered dietary supplements.
Dietary supplements do not require U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval before they come on the market.
Supplement manufacturers do have to follow the FDA’s current good manufacturing practices to ensure quality and safety of their product.
Lots of sports organizations have developed policies on sports supplements.
The National Football League (NFL), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have banned the use of steroids, ephedra, and androstenedione by their athletes, and competitors who use them face fines, ineligibility, and suspension from their sports.
How Some Common Supplements Affect the Body
Whether you hear about sports supplements from your teammates in the locker room or the sales clerk at your local vitamin store, chances are you’re not getting the whole story about how supplements work, if they are really effective, and the risks you take by using them.
Androstenedione and DHEA
Androstenedione (also known as andro) and dehydroepiandrosterone (also known as DHEA) are prohormones or “natural steroids” that can be broken down into testosterone. Andro used to be available over the counter, but now requires a prescription.
When researchers studied these prohormones in adult athletes, DHEA and andro did not increase muscle size, improve strength or enhance performance.
Andro and DHEA can cause hormone imbalances in people who use them.
Both can have the same effects as taking anabolic steroids and may lead to dangerous side effects like testicular cancer, infertility, stroke, and an increased risk of heart disease.
As with anabolic steroids, teens who use andro while they are still growing may not reach their full adult height.
Natural steroid supplements can also cause breast development and shrinking of testicles in guys.
Creatine is already manufactured by the body in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. It also occurs naturally in foods such as meat and fish. Creatine supplements are available over the counter.
People who take creatine usually take it to improve strength, but the long-term and short-term effects of creatine use haven’t been studied in teens and kids.
Research in adults found that creatine is most effective for athletes doing intermittent high-intensity exercise with short recovery intervals, such as sprinting and power lifting.
However, researchers found no effect on athletic performance in nearly a third of athletes studied. Creatine has not been found to increase endurance or improve aerobic performance.
The most common side effects of creatine supplements include weight gain, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and muscle cramps.
People with kidney problems should not use creatine because it may affect kidney function.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that people younger than 18 years old do not use creatine. If you are considering using creatine, talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits, as well as appropriate dosing.
Fat burners (sometimes known as thermogenics) were often made with an herb called ephedra, also known as ephedrine or ma huang, which acts as a stimulant and increases metabolism.
Some athletes use fat burners to lose weight or to increase energy — but ephedra-based products can be one of the most dangerous supplements.
Evidence has shown that it can cause heart problems, stroke, and occasionally even death.
Because athletes and others have died using this supplement, ephedra has been taken off the market. Since the ban, “ephedra-free” products have emerged, but they often contain ingredients with ephedra-like properties, including bitter orange or country mallow. Similar to ephedra, these supplements can cause high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and seizures.
Many of these products also contain caffeine, along with other caffeine sources (such as yerba mate and guarana). This combination may lead to restlessness, anxiety, racing heart, irregular heart beat, and increases the chance of having a life-threatening side effect.
A more uncommon practice that may be used in an attempt to increase performance is Erythropoietin. This substance is produced naturally in the body by the kidneys and is used to regulate red blood cell production. Patients suffering from anemia or chronic renal failure are legally allowed to use this form medically.
Due to medical advances, we can now inject EPO rather than blood doping, which was the common method in the past.
EPO works by increasing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, thus serving as an ergogenic aid. Some studies have shown that athletes have had an 9% increase in VO2 max, 7% increase in power output, and a 5% decrease in max heart rate.
While the benefits of using erythropoeitin are unquestionable, there are serious side affects. After injection, the blood has a higher concentration of red blood cells and a thicker viscosity. This may lead to thromboembolic events that could be fatal.
Will Supplements Make Me a Better Athlete?
Sports supplements haven’t been tested on teens and kids. But studies on adults show that the claims of many supplements are weak at best. Most won’t make you any stronger, and none will make you any faster or more skillful.
Many factors go into your abilities as an athlete — including your diet, how much sleep you get, genetics and heredity, and your training program.
But the fact is that using sports supplements may put you at risk for serious health conditions.
So instead of turning to supplements to improve your performance, concentrate on nutrition and training, including strength and conditioning programs.
What Are Steroids?
Steroids, sometimes referred to as “roids” or “juice” are the same as, or similar to, certain hormones in the body.
The body produces steroids naturally to support such functions as fighting stress and promoting growth and development.
But some people use steroid pills, gels, creams, or injections because they think steroids can improve their sports performance or the way they look.
Anabolic steroids: are artificially produced hormones that are the same as, or similar to, androgens, the male-type sex hormones in the body.
There are more than 100 variations of anabolic steroids.
The most powerful androgen is testosterone (pronounced: tess-TOSS-tuh-rone). Although testosterone is mainly a mature male hormone, girls’ bodies produce smaller amounts.
Testosterone helps build muscle and promotes the masculine traits that guys develop during puberty, such as deepening of the voice and growth of body hair. Testosterone levels can also affect how aggressive a person is.
Another group of steroids, sometimes called steroidal supplements, contains dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and/or androstenedione (also known as andro).
For the most part, steroidal supplements, which used to be found at health food stores or gyms, are now illegal and require a prescription.
DHEA is one of the few exceptions and can still be bought over the counter.
Steroid supplements are weaker forms of androgen. Their effects aren’t well known, but it’s thought that, when taken in large doses, they cause effects similar to other androgens like testosterone.
Here’s what is known about steroidal supplements: Companies that manufacture them often use false claims and very little is known about the long-term effects some of these substances have on the body. That’s one reason why the government took action to protect citizens by passing laws controlling steroid distribution.
How Do Anabolic Steroids Work?
Anabolic steroids stimulate muscle tissue to grow and “bulk up” in response to training by mimicking the effect of naturally produced testosterone on the body.
Anabolic steroids can remain in the body anywhere from a couple of days to about a year. Steroids have become popular because they may improve endurance, strength, and muscle mass. However, research has not shown that steroids improve skill, agility, or athletic performance.
Dangers of Steroids
Anabolic steroids cause many different types of problems. Some of the common side effects are:
• premature balding or hair loss
• weight gain
• mood swings
• problems sleeping
• high blood pressure
• greater chance of injuring muscles and tendons
• jaundice or yellowing of the skin; liver damage
• stunted growth
• increased risk of developing heart disease, blood clots, stroke, and some types of cancer.
Risks for Girls
Specific risks for girls associated with anabolic steroids include:
• increased facial and body hair growth
• development of masculine traits, such as deepening of the voice, and loss of feminine body characteristics, such as shrinking of the breasts
• enlargement of the clitoris
• menstrual cycle changes
Risks for Guys
Specific risks for guys include:
• testicular shrinkage
• pain when urinating
• breast development
• impotence (inability to get an erection)
• reduced sperm count and infertility
Steroids can also have serious psychological side effects. Some users may become aggressive or combative, believe things that aren’t true (delusions), or have extreme feelings of mistrust or fear (paranoia).
And people who use steroids also appear to be at higher risk for using other drugs, such as alcohol or cocaine, often to counteract some of the negative effects of steroids.
Steroids: Stacking and Addiction
Some people “cycle” their steroid doses. This means they take multiple doses of steroids over a period of time, then stop for a period then start up again.
“Stacking” means taking two or more different anabolic steroids.
Other steroid users may “pyramid” their steroids, starting with a low dose and gradually increasing the dose, frequency, or number of anabolic steroids taken, then tapering off to complete a cycle. Users believe that stacking enhances the effects of each individual drug, pyramiding allows the body to get used to high doses of steroids, and steroid-free periods help the body recuperate from the drugs. There is no scientific evidence to support any of these claims.
A lot of people tell themselves they’ll only use steroids for a season or a school year. Unfortunately, steroids can be addictive, making it hard to stop taking them.
And once users stop taking steroids, they can have withdrawal symptoms including loss of appetite, fatigue, restlessness, insomnia, mood swings, and depression.
Strong Alternatives to Steroids
Anabolic steroid use is illegal and banned by professional sports organizations and medical associations. In spite of this, some athletes continue to take steroids because they think it gives them a competitive advantage. As seen in the high-profile cases, if an athlete is caught using steroids, his or her career can be destroyed. And there are serious health consequences.
When it comes right down to it, harming your body or getting disqualified aren’t smart ways to try to improve your athletic performance.
Being a star athlete means working hard and training the healthy way: eating the right foods, practicing, and strength training without the use of drugs.