Ergogenic Aids: Counseling the Athlete



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Numerous ergogenic aids that claim to enhance sports performance are used by amateur and professional athletes. Approximately 50 percent of the general population have reported taking some form of dietary supplements, while 76 to 100 percent of athletes in some sports are reported to use them. Physicians can evaluate these products by examining four factors (method of action, available research, adverse effects, legality) that will help them counsel patients. Common ergogenic aids include anabolic steroids, which increase muscle mass. These illegal supplements are associated with a number of serious adverse effects, some irreversible. Creatine modestly improves athletic performance and appears to be relatively safe. Dehydroepiandrosterone and androstenedione do not improve athletic performance but apparently have similar adverse effects as testosterone and are also banned by some sports organizations. Caffeine has mild benefits and side effects and is banned above certain levels. Products that combine caffeine with other stimulants (e.g., ephedrine) have been linked to fatal events. Protein and carbohydrate supplementation provides modest benefits with no major adverse effects.

Ergogenic aids are substances or devices that enhance energy production, use or recovery and provide athletes with a competitive advantage.

Numerous products claim to bolster strength or endurance in sports. In 1996, approximately 50 percent of the general population reported some supplement use.1 Other surveys have shown that 76 percent of college athletes, and 100 percent of body builders take supplements.2  Americans spent $11.8 billion on supplements in 1997, with a predicted growth rate of 10 to 14 percent in 2000 (Table 1).3

TABLE 1

Supplement Costs*

Product Cost*

Creatine powder

$ 26

Creatine mixture†

60

DHEA

14

Androstenediol

30

Androstenedione

30

HMB

100

Protein powder (50 g daily)

85

Antioxidant formulations

30

Energizing/diet capsules

35

Multivitamins

5 to 20


DHEA = dehydroepiandrosterone; HMB = calcium beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate.

*—Based on a sampling of popular nutrition stores in January 2000 for one month's therapy at lowest usual dose.

†—Phosphagen HP (Experimental and Applied Sciences, Inc., Golden, Colo.).

TABLE 1   Supplement Costs*

View Table

TABLE 1

Supplement Costs*

Product Cost*

Creatine powder

$ 26

Creatine mixture†

60

DHEA

14

Androstenediol

30

Androstenedione

30

HMB

100

Protein powder (50 g daily)

85

Antioxidant formulations

30

Energizing/diet capsules

35

Multivitamins

5 to 20


DHEA = dehydroepiandrosterone; HMB = calcium beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate.

*—Based on a sampling of popular nutrition stores in January 2000 for one month's therapy at lowest usual dose.

†—Phosphagen HP (Experimental and Applied Sciences, Inc., Golden, Colo.).

New products with ergogenic claims appear on the market almost daily. Most are classified as supplements, which means the contents of the product and the claims on the label have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and may not have any scientific basis. The following questions will help the physician and patient determine whether a product is worth taking:

1. What is the physiologic basis or theory for this product's action?

2. Are there any scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals that support or refute the claims that the product makes?

3. Are there any side effects, especially any potentially serious adverse effects?

4. Is the product legal?4

This article reviews some of the more popular supplements and provides some basic information on others.

Anabolic Steroids

Action

Anabolic steroids are testosterone derivatives with three mechanisms of action. First, anticatabolic effects reverse the actions of glucocorticoids and help metabolize ingested proteins, converting a negative nitrogen balance into a positive one. Second, anabolic effects directly induce skeletal muscle synthesis. Third, there is a “steroid rush”—a state of euphoria and decreased fatigue that allows the athlete to train harder and longer.5

Research

Many early studies used physiologic doses, or doses only two to three times these amounts, and provided mixed results. More recent reviews,5 controlling for various measurement methods, have concluded that anabolic steroids do indeed cause increased strength and muscle mass. A randomized, double-blind, 10-week study6 of 40 men examined the effect of supraphysiologic testosterone doses. The participants were divided into four groups: those given a placebo with or without weight training, and those given 600-mg testosterone enanthate with or without weight training. Diet and training times were controlled. Fat-free mass, muscle size and strength increased more than placebo in both groups taking testosterone than in the groups taking placebo. The subjects in the exercise plus testosterone group had a 9 percent increase in mass and 23 percent increase in bench-press strength, compared with 3 percent and 9 percent, respectively, in the subjects in the exercise plus placebo group.6 These doses were comparable with the doses that many athletes who use steroids take.

Adverse Effects

Anabolic steroids have many adverse effects, most related to the unwanted androgenic effects. Some of the adverse effects are potentially serious and irreversible (Table 2).

TABLE 2

Reported Side Effects of Anabolic Steroids

Reversible side effects

Sexual effects

Increased or decreased libido

Decreased sperm production

Scrotal pain

Gynecomastia

Cutaneous effects

Acne

Hirsutism

Edema

Psychiatric effects

Euphoria

Nervousness

Aggression

Personality disorders

Other

Increased tramsaminases

Nausea

Increased urination

Serious and irreversible side effects

Hypertension from mineralocorticoid effects

Dysplastic changes in collagen fibrils, resulting in severe tendon ruptures

Liver tumors (hepatocellular carcinoma, hepatic adenoma, hepatic cholangiocarcinoma)

Psychosis (i.e., “steroid rage”)

Irreversible hirsutism, clitoral hypertrophy and deepening of voice in women

Premature closure of growth plates, causing shorter stature in adolescents

TABLE 2   Reported Side Effects of Anabolic Steroids

View Table

TABLE 2

Reported Side Effects of Anabolic Steroids

Reversible side effects

Sexual effects

Increased or decreased libido

Decreased sperm production

Scrotal pain

Gynecomastia

Cutaneous effects

Acne

Hirsutism

Edema

Psychiatric effects

Euphoria

Nervousness

Aggression

Personality disorders

Other

Increased tramsaminases

Nausea

Increased urination

Serious and irreversible side effects

Hypertension from mineralocorticoid effects

Dysplastic changes in collagen fibrils, resulting in severe tendon ruptures

Liver tumors (hepatocellular carcinoma, hepatic adenoma, hepatic cholangiocarcinoma)

Psychosis (i.e., “steroid rage”)

Irreversible hirsutism, clitoral hypertrophy and deepening of voice in women

Premature closure of growth plates, causing shorter stature in adolescents

Legality

Anabolic steroids such as testosterone and its derivatives are prescription medications with clearly defined indications. Procuring and using them without a prescription is illegal. Most sports organizations have rules that ban the use of anabolic steroids for any reason.

Creatine

Action

During brief, high intensity exercise, adenosine diphosphate is rephosphorylated to adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by muscle phosphocreatine stores. As muscle phosphocreatine stores become depleted, performance decreases. Oral creatine supplementation can increase muscle phosphocreatine stores by 6 to 8 percent. Increasing the available muscle stores of phosphocreatine causes faster regeneration of ATP, allowing decreased rest time between activities and increased energy for repeated bouts of exercise. Increased muscle creatine also buffers the lactic acid produced during exercise, delaying muscle fatigue and soreness. As with any ergogenic aid, increased motivation can spring from expected or perceived benefits, causing increased effort (placebo effect).

Research

Creatine research shows generally positive results. A short-term, double-blind, placebo-controlled study7 examined the effects of 28 days of creatine supplementation on 25 football players. Diet and exercise were tightly controlled, and strength and body composition were measured. Body weight, dual-energy radiograph absorptiometry-scanned body mass, fat-free and bone-free mass, and bench-press strength all increased in the athletes taking creatine. Overall lifting volume (sum of all lifts) was increased by 41 percent in this group. A five-week study8 of 42 football players also showed gains in strength and mass. Another report9 of 19 women who took supplements for 10 weeks also described increases in strength and mass. Some researchers10,11 have seen strength gains with as little as five to seven days of supplementation.10,11 Studies12 examining the effects of creatine in older individuals (60 to 82 years of age) have found no effect on body composition or strength. Investigations7,13 of the benefits on short-term sprint performance have shown increases in endurance time. A summary of 31 studies14 on sprint performance showed that supplemental creatine is associated with some improvement in athletic performance in laboratory settings, but most findings indicated no benefit on the field.

A typical regimen for creatine supplementation uses a loading dosage of 20 g daily, divided in four doses, for five to seven days, followed by a maintenance dosage of 5 g daily. Creatine monohydrate is not dehydrating, and may be safer.

Adverse Effects

Weight gain is the most consistent adverse effect reported. In studies that investigated side effects, no other adverse effects were found, including no changes in electrolyte concentrations, muscle cramps or strains.7 Researchers15 examined the renal function of patients who had been using creatine for as long as five years and found no detrimental effects.15 Some studies have shown improved cholesterol profiles in persons taking creatine.7 It must be noted, however, that most research to date has examined creatine use of three months or less, leaving questions about long-term use unanswered.

Legality

Creatine is legal for use in amateur and professional sports.

Dehydroepiandrosterone and Androstenedione

Action

Both of these supplements are precursors in the gonadal steroid pathway (Figure 1). Increasing supplies of precursors theoretically cause a physiologic increase in testosterone synthesis.

Steroid Synthesis Pathway

FIGURE 1.

Pathway for testosterone synthesis. (DHEA = dehydroepiandrosterone)

View Large

Steroid Synthesis Pathway


FIGURE 1.

Pathway for testosterone synthesis. (DHEA = dehydroepiandrosterone)

Steroid Synthesis Pathway


FIGURE 1.

Pathway for testosterone synthesis. (DHEA = dehydroepiandrosterone)

Research

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) has been studied for its replacement role in older men and women. These studies16,17 found testosterone levels increased in women, but were unchanged in men, with no changes in body composition noted. No published studies of its ergogenic benefit in younger athletes exist. One eight-week study18 evaluated androstenedione supplementation in 30 men, aged 19 to 29 years, during resistance training. No differences in muscle size, strength or overall body composition were noted. One study19 has shown transient increases in serum testosterone levels but no ergogenic benefit has been demonstrated.

Adverse Effects

No long-term studies of adverse effects are available. If these precursors could successfully increase testosterone production, they would likely cause the many adverse effects associated with anabolic steroids.

Legality

DHEA is banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Androstenedione is banned by the IOC, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Football League.

Caffeine

Action

Caffeine enhances the contractility of skeletal and cardiac muscle, and helps metabolize fat, thereby sparing muscle glycogen stores. It is also a central nervous system stimulant, which can aid in activities that require concentration.

Research

Many small studies20,21 using randomized, double-blind design have associated caffeine use with increased endurance times. The smallest dose linked to positive results was 250 mg (approximately 3.0 to 3.5 mg per kg).22 Other studies have used doses of 6 to 9 mg per kg.

Adverse Effects

Ergogenic doses of caffeine may cause restlessness, nervousness, insomnia, tremors, hyperesthesia and diuresis. Caffeine use has no adverse effects on body temperature or sweating.23

Legality

Caffeine is part of a regular diet for most people and is legal to a certain level. The legal urine level for athletes is 12 μg per mL (IOC standards) or 15 μg per mL (NCAA standards). The ergogenic dose is approximately one half of this—250 to 500 mg (three cups of coffee or six to eight sodas). Many athletes take caffeine in pill form.

Caffeine and Ephedrine Combination

Action

Sympathomimetics such as ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, phenylpropanolamine and herbal ephedrine (ma huang) are used for their stimulant properties. This combination is found in many “energizing” and diet supplements and is used to increase subjective energy, decrease appetite and increase metabolism without exercise.24

Research

A double-blind study24 of eight patients showed prolonged time to exhaustion and decreased perception of exertion with a caffeine and ephedrine combination. Studies24,25 of sympathomimetics alone have not shown benefit.

Adverse Effects

The combined adverse effects of these stimulants include restlessness, nervousness, tachycardia, arrhythmias and hypertension. As of August 1998, at least 17 deaths have been linked to use of these products in combination.26

Legality

Use of ephedrine products and elevated levels of urinary caffeine, as noted above, are banned by the IOC.

Protein

Action

Protein and its constituent, amino acids, are the building blocks of muscle. Protein supplements are used by some athletes to enhance muscle repair and growth. Inadequate protein intake does cause a negative nitrogen balance, which slows muscle growth and causes fatigue.

Research

Athletes in training have increased protein needs. A study27 examining the protein requirements of experienced resistance-training athletes found that those consuming the recommended daily allowance for protein (0.8 g per kg daily) had a negative nitrogen balance. The protein intake required for a zero balance was 1.4 g per kg daily, with a recommended intake of 1.8 g per kg daily. Another study28 using novice resistance-training athletes found their requirements to be 1.6 to 1.7 g per kg daily. Both studies found that protein intakes in excess of these recommendations did not provide additional gains in strength or mass.

Adverse Effects

In an athlete with normal renal function, there are no notable adverse effects to increased protein consumption. It may be more healthy, however, to avoid acquiring protein from foods that also contain increased amounts of fat and cholesterol.

Legality

Protein supplements are legal.

Carbohydrates

Action

While fat stores constitute the largest reservoir of stored energy, carbohydrates are the body's main source of rapidly available energy. It has been suggested that taking proper quantities of carbohydrates at the right time could improve athletic performance by ensuring adequate energy stores are available when necessary.

Research

Loading, or increasing the carbohydrate content of the diet for several days before an event, has been promoted as a means to prolong exercise endurance. One study29 evaluated its impact on continuous, short-term events of less than one hour and found no benefit, because muscle glycogen content was not depleted at the end of the exercise.

A meal prior to exercise will ensure that muscle and liver glycogen stores are maximized. Studies30,31 investigating a meal two to four hours prior to exercise have shown positive effect, regardless of the “glycemic index” of the foods ingested. Evaluation of six endurance athletes ingesting carbohydrates only 45 minutes prior to a two-hour exercise test revealed no benefit.32

Replenishment with carbohydrate-containing fluids during an endurance event may help to delay fatigue. Thirty marathon runners in a double-blind study33 described decreased subjective exertion when ingesting 60 g per hour of a liquid carbohydrate solution during a two and one-half hour run. Another study34 found that ingesting a carbohydrate-electrolyte drink during one hour of high-intensity exercise improved performance in 19 bicyclists. Many studies have demonstrated similar results. One study35 that evaluated solid versus liquid carbohydrate replenishment showed no difference, as long as adequate water intake was maintained. Eating a mixture of carbohydrates and protein within two hours after an activity has also been associated with benefits, including replenishment of depleted muscle and liver glycogen stores and decreased muscle catabolism. A study36 of nine weight lifters showed increased levels of plasma growth hormone and insulin when athletes ingested protein and carbohydrate immediately and two hours after exercise, which would theoretically provide a physiologic environment favorable for muscle growth. Another placebo-controlled study37 of endurance athletes ingesting a carbohydrate-containing solution after exercise reported increased glycogen resynthesis.

Adverse Effects

Theoretic disadvantages have been reported with carbohydrate supplementation. Increased insulin levels after carbohydrate consumption were shown to significantly decrease blood glucose levels in some athletes, though not all athletes seem to be subjectively sensitive to these decreased levels.38 Fructose-containing solutions have been associated with adverse gastrointestinal effects in some studies.39

Legality

Carbohydrate supplements are legal.

Many other dietary supplements have been advertised for their purported ergogenic properties, and the list grows each year. Table 3 provides a brief summary of the most common agents that physicians may hear about from their patients who are athletes. When counseling patients about ergogenic aids, it is important that the physician be knowledgeable about the topic. The intervention that carries the most impact is ensuring optimal dietary habits. Supplying adequate energy intake, carbohydrates and protein in the diet, and timing these to be efficiently used by the body, will provide the most effective and safe results.36,40

TABLE 3

Ergogenic Aids: A Summary of An Assessment of the Current Literature

Ergogenic aid Action Research on ergogenic effects Side effects Legality

Alcohol

Decreases anxiety

No benefits

Significant

Banned for shooting events

Amphetamines

Improve concentration, decrease fatigue and appetite

Mixed, some positive

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Anabolic steroids

Increase strength, lean muscle mass and motivation

Positive

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Androstenediol

Same as steroids

Limited, refutes

Unknown

Banned by IOC

Androstenedione

Same as steroids

Refutes, no benefits

Significant

Banned by IOC, NCAA

Antioxidants

Decrease muscle breakdown

Mixed, no clear benefits

Mild at high doses

Legal

Arginine, ornithine, lysine

Stimulate growth hormone release

No benefit

None at doses used

Legal

Aspartates

Increase free fatty acid use, sparing muscle glycogen

Mixed, some positive benefits

Mild at high doses

Legal

Aspirin

Decreases pain with muscle fatigue and muscle breakdown

No benefit

Mild

Legal

Avena sativa

Increases steroid production

Limited, refutes

None

Legal

Bee pollen

Increases strength and endurance

Refutes, no benefits

Allergic reaction

Legal

Beta blockers

Decrease anxiety

Positive effect on fine motor control, negative effect on aerobic capacity

Significant

Banned by IOC

Beta2 agonists

Increase lean muscle mass

Mixed, no benefit from inhaled formulations

Mild

Banned by IOC, legal when prescribed

Blood doping

Increases aerobic capacity

Supports

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Boron

Increases endogenous steroid production

Refutes, no benefit

Mild at high doses

Legal

Branched chain amino acids

Decrease mental fatigue

Mixed, negative

Mild at high doses

Legal

Caffeine

Increases muscle contractility and aerobic endurance, enhances fat metabolism

Supports

Mild

Legal to urine level of 12 to 15 μg per mL

Calcium

Increases muscle contractility, enhances glycogen metabolism

Refutes, no benefit

Mild at high doses

Legal

Carbohydrates

Increase endurance, decrease fatigue

Supports

Mild at high doses

Legal

Carnitine

Increases fat metabolism

Refutes

None

Legal

Choline

Increases endurance

Mixed, inconclusive

None

Legal

Chromium

Increases lean mass

Refutes, no benefit unless prior deficiency

Safe to 400 μg daily, potentially dangerous above this level

Legal

Chrysin

Inhibits aromatase, increases endogenous steroids

Limited, refutes

None

Legal

Cocaine

Stimulates CNS, delays fatigue

Mixed

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone)

Delays fatigue, acts as antioxidant

Refutes, no benefit

None

Legal

Coenzyme Q12

Increases aerobic capacity, speeds muscle repair

Refutes, no benefit

None

Legal

Creatine

Increases muscle energy, endurance, strength and lean muscle mass

Supports, insufficient data on long-term use

Mild

Legal

DHEA

Increases endogenous steroid production

No benefit in healthy athletes

Potentially dangerous

Banned by IOC, some other organizations

Diuretics

Decrease body mass

Limited benefit

Potentially dangerous

Banned by IOC

Ephedrine, other sympathomimetics

Stimulate CNS, increase energy, delay fatigue, stimulate weight loss

No benefit

Potentially dangerous

Banned by IOC, some other organizations

Ephedrine plus caffeine

Increases energy, stimulates weight loss

Supports

Potentially dangerous, fatal at high doses

Banned by IOC, some other organizations

Erythropoietin

Increases aerobic capacity

Supports

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Fat supplements

Increase endurance

Refutes

Mild

Legal

Fluids

Increase endurance

Supports

Mild

Legal

Folic acid

Increases aerobic capacity

Refutes

None

Legal

GHB

Stimulates growth hormone release and muscle growth

Limited, refutes

Significant, dose-related; abuse potential

Illegal

Ginseng

Increases endurance, enhances muscle recovery

Limited, refutes, no benefit

Mild, abuse syndrome reported

Legal

Glucosamine

Serves as NSAID alternative, enhances recovery

Limited, may have limited NSAID abilities

None

Legal

Glutamine

Boosts immunity and growth hormone levels

May boost immunity, no other benefits

None

Legal

Glycerol

Improves hydration and endurance

Limited, supports

Mild

Legal (oral)

Guarana (herbal caffeine)

Same as caffeine

HMB

Decreases muscle breakdown, enhances recovery

Limited, some strength benefits

None

Legal

Human growth hormone

Anabolic effect on muscle growth, increases fat metabolism

Refutes, limited ergogenic benefits

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Inosine

Enhances energy production, improves aerobic capacity

Refutes, no benefit

Mild

Legal

Iron

Increases aerobic capacity

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

Mild, toxic at high doses

Legal

Leucine

Decreases muscle breakdown and spare muscle glycogen stores

Limited, no ergogenic effect

None

Legal

Ma huang (herbal ephedrine)

Same as ephedrine

Magnesium

Enhances muscle growth

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

Mild at high doses

Legal

Marijuana

Decreases anxiety

Refutes, negative effect

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Multivitamins

Increases energy, endurance and aerobic capacity, enhances recovery

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

None at RDA, some toxicities at high doses

Legal

Narcotics

Increase endurance by suppressing pain, decrease anxiety

Mixed, negative

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Niacin

Increases energy and endurance

No benefit unless a preexisting deficiency

Mild at high doses

Legal

Oxygen

Increases aerobic capacity, enhances recovery

No benefit if given before or after activity

Mild

Legal

Phosphates

Increase ATP production, energy and muscle endurance

Mixed, negative

Mild at high doses

Legal

Phytosterols

Stimulates release of endogenous steroids and growth hormone

Refutes, no benefit

Little data, allergic reaction possible

Legal

Protein

Optimizes muscular growth and repair

Supports, increased need for protein with activity

None unless underlying medical condition

Legal

Pycnogenol

Boosts antioxidant levels, enhances recovery

Supports, dietary sources offer same benefit

None

Legal

Pyruvate

Increases lean body mass

Limited research, benefit only in specific cases

None

Legal

D-Ribose

Increases cellular ATP and muscle power

No human research

None known

Legal

Selenium

Enhances antioxidant functions

Limited, no benefit

Mild at high doses

Legal

Sodium bicarbonate

Buffers lactic acid production, delays fatigue

Supports

Mild, dangerous at high doses

Legal

Strychnine

Unknown

No research on ergogenic benefits

Significant, dangerous

Legal

Tribulus terrestris

Increases endogenous steroid production

Refutes

Potentially dangerous at high doses

Legal

Tryptophan

Decreases pain perception, increases endurance

Mixed, no benefit in trained athletes

Mild, potentially dangerous

Legal

Vanadyl sulfate

Increases glycogen synthesis, enhances muscle recovery

Refutes, no benefit in healthy individuals

Mild

Legal

Vitamin B1 (thiamin)

Enhances energy production, increases aerobic capacity, improves concentration

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

None

Legal

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)

Increases aerobic endurance

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

None

Legal

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Enhances muscle growth, decreases anxiety

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

Mild at high doses

Legal

Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin)

Enhances muscle growth

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

None

Legal

Vitamin B15 (dimethylglycine)

Increases muscle energy production

Mixed, negative

None proven, but concerns raised

Legal

Vitamin C

Acts as antioxidant, increases aerobic capacity and energy production

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

Mild at high doses

Legal

Vitamin E

Acts as antioxidant, improves aerobic capacity

Mixed, some positive

Mild

Legal

Yohimbine

Increases endogenous steroid production

Refutes, no benefit

Mild

Legal

Zinc

Enhances muscle growth, increases aerobic capacity

Limited, negative

Mild

Legal


IOC = International Olympic Committee; NCAA = National Collegiate Athletic Association; CNS = central nervous system; DHEA = dehydroepiandrosterone; GHB = gamma-hydroxybutyrate; NSAID = nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug; HMB = calcium beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate; RDA = recommended daily allowance; ATP = adenosine triphosphate.

*—References are available from the author.

TABLE 3   Ergogenic Aids: A Summary of An Assessment of the Current Literature

View Table

TABLE 3

Ergogenic Aids: A Summary of An Assessment of the Current Literature

Ergogenic aid Action Research on ergogenic effects Side effects Legality

Alcohol

Decreases anxiety

No benefits

Significant

Banned for shooting events

Amphetamines

Improve concentration, decrease fatigue and appetite

Mixed, some positive

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Anabolic steroids

Increase strength, lean muscle mass and motivation

Positive

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Androstenediol

Same as steroids

Limited, refutes

Unknown

Banned by IOC

Androstenedione

Same as steroids

Refutes, no benefits

Significant

Banned by IOC, NCAA

Antioxidants

Decrease muscle breakdown

Mixed, no clear benefits

Mild at high doses

Legal

Arginine, ornithine, lysine

Stimulate growth hormone release

No benefit

None at doses used

Legal

Aspartates

Increase free fatty acid use, sparing muscle glycogen

Mixed, some positive benefits

Mild at high doses

Legal

Aspirin

Decreases pain with muscle fatigue and muscle breakdown

No benefit

Mild

Legal

Avena sativa

Increases steroid production

Limited, refutes

None

Legal

Bee pollen

Increases strength and endurance

Refutes, no benefits

Allergic reaction

Legal

Beta blockers

Decrease anxiety

Positive effect on fine motor control, negative effect on aerobic capacity

Significant

Banned by IOC

Beta2 agonists

Increase lean muscle mass

Mixed, no benefit from inhaled formulations

Mild

Banned by IOC, legal when prescribed

Blood doping

Increases aerobic capacity

Supports

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Boron

Increases endogenous steroid production

Refutes, no benefit

Mild at high doses

Legal

Branched chain amino acids

Decrease mental fatigue

Mixed, negative

Mild at high doses

Legal

Caffeine

Increases muscle contractility and aerobic endurance, enhances fat metabolism

Supports

Mild

Legal to urine level of 12 to 15 μg per mL

Calcium

Increases muscle contractility, enhances glycogen metabolism

Refutes, no benefit

Mild at high doses

Legal

Carbohydrates

Increase endurance, decrease fatigue

Supports

Mild at high doses

Legal

Carnitine

Increases fat metabolism

Refutes

None

Legal

Choline

Increases endurance

Mixed, inconclusive

None

Legal

Chromium

Increases lean mass

Refutes, no benefit unless prior deficiency

Safe to 400 μg daily, potentially dangerous above this level

Legal

Chrysin

Inhibits aromatase, increases endogenous steroids

Limited, refutes

None

Legal

Cocaine

Stimulates CNS, delays fatigue

Mixed

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone)

Delays fatigue, acts as antioxidant

Refutes, no benefit

None

Legal

Coenzyme Q12

Increases aerobic capacity, speeds muscle repair

Refutes, no benefit

None

Legal

Creatine

Increases muscle energy, endurance, strength and lean muscle mass

Supports, insufficient data on long-term use

Mild

Legal

DHEA

Increases endogenous steroid production

No benefit in healthy athletes

Potentially dangerous

Banned by IOC, some other organizations

Diuretics

Decrease body mass

Limited benefit

Potentially dangerous

Banned by IOC

Ephedrine, other sympathomimetics

Stimulate CNS, increase energy, delay fatigue, stimulate weight loss

No benefit

Potentially dangerous

Banned by IOC, some other organizations

Ephedrine plus caffeine

Increases energy, stimulates weight loss

Supports

Potentially dangerous, fatal at high doses

Banned by IOC, some other organizations

Erythropoietin

Increases aerobic capacity

Supports

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Fat supplements

Increase endurance

Refutes

Mild

Legal

Fluids

Increase endurance

Supports

Mild

Legal

Folic acid

Increases aerobic capacity

Refutes

None

Legal

GHB

Stimulates growth hormone release and muscle growth

Limited, refutes

Significant, dose-related; abuse potential

Illegal

Ginseng

Increases endurance, enhances muscle recovery

Limited, refutes, no benefit

Mild, abuse syndrome reported

Legal

Glucosamine

Serves as NSAID alternative, enhances recovery

Limited, may have limited NSAID abilities

None

Legal

Glutamine

Boosts immunity and growth hormone levels

May boost immunity, no other benefits

None

Legal

Glycerol

Improves hydration and endurance

Limited, supports

Mild

Legal (oral)

Guarana (herbal caffeine)

Same as caffeine

HMB

Decreases muscle breakdown, enhances recovery

Limited, some strength benefits

None

Legal

Human growth hormone

Anabolic effect on muscle growth, increases fat metabolism

Refutes, limited ergogenic benefits

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Inosine

Enhances energy production, improves aerobic capacity

Refutes, no benefit

Mild

Legal

Iron

Increases aerobic capacity

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

Mild, toxic at high doses

Legal

Leucine

Decreases muscle breakdown and spare muscle glycogen stores

Limited, no ergogenic effect

None

Legal

Ma huang (herbal ephedrine)

Same as ephedrine

Magnesium

Enhances muscle growth

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

Mild at high doses

Legal

Marijuana

Decreases anxiety

Refutes, negative effect

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Multivitamins

Increases energy, endurance and aerobic capacity, enhances recovery

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

None at RDA, some toxicities at high doses

Legal

Narcotics

Increase endurance by suppressing pain, decrease anxiety

Mixed, negative

Significant, dangerous

Illegal

Niacin

Increases energy and endurance

No benefit unless a preexisting deficiency

Mild at high doses

Legal

Oxygen

Increases aerobic capacity, enhances recovery

No benefit if given before or after activity

Mild

Legal

Phosphates

Increase ATP production, energy and muscle endurance

Mixed, negative

Mild at high doses

Legal

Phytosterols

Stimulates release of endogenous steroids and growth hormone

Refutes, no benefit

Little data, allergic reaction possible

Legal

Protein

Optimizes muscular growth and repair

Supports, increased need for protein with activity

None unless underlying medical condition

Legal

Pycnogenol

Boosts antioxidant levels, enhances recovery

Supports, dietary sources offer same benefit

None

Legal

Pyruvate

Increases lean body mass

Limited research, benefit only in specific cases

None

Legal

D-Ribose

Increases cellular ATP and muscle power

No human research

None known

Legal

Selenium

Enhances antioxidant functions

Limited, no benefit

Mild at high doses

Legal

Sodium bicarbonate

Buffers lactic acid production, delays fatigue

Supports

Mild, dangerous at high doses

Legal

Strychnine

Unknown

No research on ergogenic benefits

Significant, dangerous

Legal

Tribulus terrestris

Increases endogenous steroid production

Refutes

Potentially dangerous at high doses

Legal

Tryptophan

Decreases pain perception, increases endurance

Mixed, no benefit in trained athletes

Mild, potentially dangerous

Legal

Vanadyl sulfate

Increases glycogen synthesis, enhances muscle recovery

Refutes, no benefit in healthy individuals

Mild

Legal

Vitamin B1 (thiamin)

Enhances energy production, increases aerobic capacity, improves concentration

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

None

Legal

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)

Increases aerobic endurance

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

None

Legal

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Enhances muscle growth, decreases anxiety

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

Mild at high doses

Legal

Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin)

Enhances muscle growth

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

None

Legal

Vitamin B15 (dimethylglycine)

Increases muscle energy production

Mixed, negative

None proven, but concerns raised

Legal

Vitamin C

Acts as antioxidant, increases aerobic capacity and energy production

No benefit unless preexisting deficiency

Mild at high doses

Legal

Vitamin E

Acts as antioxidant, improves aerobic capacity

Mixed, some positive

Mild

Legal

Yohimbine

Increases endogenous steroid production

Refutes, no benefit

Mild

Legal

Zinc

Enhances muscle growth, increases aerobic capacity

Limited, negative

Mild

Legal


IOC = International Olympic Committee; NCAA = National Collegiate Athletic Association; CNS = central nervous system; DHEA = dehydroepiandrosterone; GHB = gamma-hydroxybutyrate; NSAID = nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug; HMB = calcium beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate; RDA = recommended daily allowance; ATP = adenosine triphosphate.

*—References are available from the author.

If a patient asks about a specific ergogenic aid, he or she should be told what is known and unknown about the product based on current research, including the side effect profile. The danger is that once athletes start using a commercial supplement, they will continue to use more, eventually trying something that may not be safe. Many athletes feel pressured to use supplements to maintain a competitive advantage over their supplement-using peers. If physicians can guide athletes away from disproven and dangerous supplements, while maintaining open and honest lines of communication, then more serious health risks may be prevented.

The Author

DALE M. AHRENDT, M.D., is a staff physician in the Division of Adolescent Medicine, San Antonio Military Pediatric Center, San Antonio, Tex. A graduate of the University of South Dakota School of Medicine, Sioux Falls, Dr. Ahrendt completed a residency in pediatrics at Wilford Hall United States Air Force Medical Center in San Antonio. He completed a fellowship in adolescent medicine at the Naval Medical Center San Diego.

Address correspondence to Dale M. Ahrendt, M.D., Department of Pediatrics, 2200 Berquist Dr., Ste. 1, Lackland AFB, TX 78236-5300 (e-mail: drdalea@aol.com). Reprints are not available from the author.

The author thanks Christopher Dillon, M.D., and Kevin Ronan, M.D., for their assistance in the preparation of the manuscript.

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the author and do not reflect the opinion of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

 

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