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The Skinny on Supplementation: Part 2 - Performance/Sports Supplements

As the general public’s interest in fitness, nutrition, and living a healthy lifestyle has increased over the last two decades, so has the market for supplements, whether vitamins, minerals, or herbal supplements.  There’s a supplement for everything these days – weight loss, joint pain, hair loss, anxiety, sleeplessness, athletic performance, thyroid health, anti-aging, and just about any ache, pain, or illness.  But which ones really work?  It’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused when considering supplementation.  For many supplements, there are countless options and conflicting information about effectiveness.  It’s important to do your homework and make decisions about which supplements are right for you depending on your priorities and your budget.  Part 2 of this article focuses on performance and sports supplementation – supplements that may increase your strength, endurance, and performance in the gym, and may help you to gain muscle mass and achieve your fitness goals.

Depending on your age, level of physical activity, and other factors, there also may be times in your life when your daily needs will change, so supplementation can help address those needs.  Intense physical activity and weight lifting over long periods of time can compromise your immune system because your body can be put in a weakened state when recovering from hard training.

For just about every supplement, you will find reports and reviews that highlight the benefits and praise its effectiveness, and ones that argue that the supplement is entirely ineffective and a complete waste of money.  That’s why it is important for you to do some research and experimentation to see what works for you.  If you are interested in trying out a supplement, try to give it 4-6 weeks of consistent use before determining whether or not it is effective for you (unless it is giving you adverse side effects, of course).  Below is some general information about some of the performance/sports supplements that I feel may be beneficial to consider for anyone who competes in bodybuilding, athletic sports, or trains intensely on a regular basis.  I don’t necessarily recommend taking all of the supplements described below, but I believe that these are worth evaluating in the context of your personal needs and your budget.

Proteins and Amino Acids

Protein is made of amino acids.  Amino acids are the basic building blocks of muscle.  Therefore, protein is an essential ingredient for muscle building.  You can't build muscle without protein!  In general, most bodybuilders will try to take in about 1-2 grams of protein per pound of body weight throughout the day.  So someone who weighs 180 pounds would want to consume between 180 and 360 grams of protein every day.  Since this can represent a great deal of food, protein powders can be a convenient way to supplement a diet with high-quality protein.  There are several forms of protein, including whey, soy, egg, and casein.  Some protein powders are designed to be consumed at certain times of the day in order to maximize the benefits of supplementation.  For example, whey protein is digested quickly and is a popular post-workout supplement for shakes.  Casein digests very slowly and is better to take before bedtime since the body will be fasting for several hours.

Bodybuilders may also benefit from supplementing amino acids because they are thought to aide in muscle repair, growth, and development.  Among the most popular amino acid supplements for bodybuilders and athletes include arginine, glutamine, and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs).  These amino acids can be taken in pill or powder form throughout the day, with meals or shakes, and/or at certain times when supplementation may be most beneficial (pre/post workout).  A good option for supplementing these amino acids is to use a protein powder that is rich in these particular ones (check the amino acid profile on the side of the container).

The primary function of L-arginine is to rid the body of ammonia, which helps to detoxify the liver.  Arginine helps the body process both creatine (described below) and nitrogen, a chemical needed for muscle metabolism.  Some research suggests that arginine may help reduce body fat and speed up weight loss.  L-arginine is also thought to help heal and repair damaged tissues and therefore may be beneficial to athletes and bodybuilders.

L-arginine also changes into nitric oxide in your body, which is a free form gas used to communicate with other cells.  Nitric oxide can help increase blood flow and improve communication between nerve cells, deliver more nutrients to muscles, helping muscles become larger when subject to stress, and improving overall strength and performance.  When muscles contract, nitric oxide is released and settles under the smooth muscle cells, creating a “pump.”  Nitric oxide supplements are extremely popular with bodybuilders and athletes.  Many nitric oxide supplements on the market today claim to significantly increase the pump that results from weightlifting and maintain it for a much longer period of time after training.

BCAAs are the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine.  They are popular amino acids with bodybuilders and athletes for their anti-catabolic properties and possible glycogen sparing benefits.  BCAAs are metabolized in the muscle (versus the liver), which allows the amino acids to be used either to build new proteins or be burned as fuel to create energy if the body needs it.  Supplementing with BCAAs before or during a workout has been thought to improve performance and delay the onset of fatigue.  BCAAs also operate as anabolic agents allowing the body to burn fat and not muscle, and they are often taken during contest preparation to help preserve muscle and lean body mass, and to increase energy during workouts. 

Taurine, tyrosine, and carnitine are sometimes supplemented by bodybuilders as well, especially during contest preparation.  Taurine is quite popular in energy drinks, and some studies suggest that taurine and caffeine act together to improve energy and performance, although findings about the benefits of taurine are quite variable.  There is also some information suggesting that taurine may aide in the digestion of fat and fat-soluble vitamins.  L-tyrosine is thought to help control appetite and elevate mood.  L-carnitine is made in the body from the amino acids lysine and methionine.  It is thought to increase the use of fat as an energy source by transporting fatty acids into the mitochondria, where they are burned to release energy.  It is also taken as a supplement to improve energy and overall mental well-being.

Muscle Growth and Recovery

Creatine is one of the most popular sports supplements on the market.  We acquire creatine naturally through consuming meats, fish, dairy products, egg whites, nuts, and seeds.  Although the human body has a way of storing very high amounts of creatine to enhance recovery and muscle power, it is quite challenging to consume enough food to provide the same amount of creatine that using supplements will, especially for athletes and bodybuilders.  Creatine supplements are usually taken in cycles of 4-6 weeks on and 2-4 weeks off.

Creatine is a non-protein amino acid that helps increase muscle volume and may help boost exercise performance when training intensely.  Creatine’s main benefit is its ability to aid in the production of energy.  When adenosine triphosphate (ATP) loses one of its phosphate molecules and becomes adenosine diphosphate (ADP), it must be converted back to ATP in order for the molecule to be able to produce energy again.  In our body, creatine is mostly stored as creatine phosphate, and it can donate its phosphate to the ADP which renews the ATP molecule to produce more energy.  Some studies suggest that creatine may also boost levels of human growth hormone occurring in the body.  Creatine has also been thought to assist muscles in recovery from sports and bodybuilding activities by speeding muscle repair and easing pain and soreness. 

Glutamine is an incredibly popular amino acid supplement that is thought to aide in muscle recovery.  Glutamine can be found in beans, meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, protein powders, and as a supplement on its own, usually in pill form or as a tasteless powder that can be added to protein shakes, oatmeal, and other food.  It is the most abundant amino acid in the body.  Some research suggests that after intensely working out, glutamine levels in the body are reduced by as much as 50%.  Since the body relies on glutamine as cellular fuel for the immune system, supplementing with glutamine may help minimize the breakdown of muscle tissue and improve protein metabolism.  Glutamine is also thought to boost the immune system, helping to prevent illness during heavy periods of training and physical activity.

Joint and Immune System Health

Glucosamine is a well-known and widely popular nutritional supplement taken by bodybuilders, powerlifters, and people suffering from arthritis and joint pain.  Glucosamine is made from glucose and glutamine – it’s a compound found in the human body that helps repair cartilage and other tissues.  Our natural production of glucosamine slows considerably as we age, so it can be beneficial to supplement.  People who suffer from osteoarthritis lose cartilage which cushions the joints, causing joint pain. It is believed that glucosamine joint supplements may help prevent the joints from further deterioration, and also repair joints and help produce more of the fluid that lubricates them. 

Glucosamine is often supplemented by bodybuilders, power lifters, and other athletes in combination with chondroitin and methylsulfonylmethane (MSM).  Chondroitin is derived from shark cartilage and is believed to enhance the shock-absorbing properties of collagen and block enzymes that break down cartilage.  MSM has been studied for effectiveness in inhibiting pain impulses along nerve fibers, reducing inflammation, increasing blood supply, reducing muscle spasms, and softening scar tissue.  MSM supports healthy, active lifestyles and is thought to benefit multiple structures and functions within the body.

Zinc Magnesium Aspartate (ZMA) is a combination of essential dietary vitamins and minerals – zinc, magnesium, and Vitamin B6 – that are often depleted in the body by high levels of physical activity and exertion.  The addition of vitamin B6 to the ZMA supplement further increases the absorption and utilization of both zinc and magnesium.  Exercise can lead to the loss of vitamins and minerals through blood sugar fluctuations and increased urination (if water intake is high), making ZMA supplementation particularly beneficial for bodybuilders.  In addition, a lot of people believe that if taken before bedtime, ZMA can promote deeper, more restful sleep, which is when maximum healing, and muscle growth takes place.  Most people taking ZMA report that they fall asleep easier, sleep more deeply, and wake up more refreshed.

Do Your Homework and Make Decisions that Meet Your Needs

As you can see, the options for nutritional/dietary supplementation are seemingly countless – what I have described above is jus the tip of the iceberg.  There are countless studies and reports available documenting the effects of all of the supplements described above in great detail.  Be sure to do you homework and select your supplements carefully, with your lifestyle and nutritional priorities in mind.

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