It has been a long time since I gave my first presentation about sports nutrition, as a matter of fact is is 31 years ago: Orthomolecular nutrition in sport. I even remember the exact date, October 6 1984, because of the uproar it caused amongst coaches, doctors and dieticians. Supplements for healthy athletes….”you must be kidding us, Mr.Kraaijenhof….”
In the beginning of the 1990’s I decided to write an article about nutrition in sports, but when I finished it was 400 pages and it was published as a course.
Ever since it has been my focus of attention, although I did not write much about it. It is mainly the progress in the field of molecular biology that proved us right. The criticism wasn’t really that sports nutrition might not work, but the point was we did not yet know why and how it worked.
Now many molecular and cellular pathways , translation and transcription factors have been unraveled, so we gradually came to a better understanding of the effects of nutrition and supplements, although it’s still work in progress.
Nutrition might be one of the most complex subjects there is, since it is about the thousands of different bioactive chemical compounds entering our body every day, interaction with the myriad of dynamical biochemical processes in our body. Some of these bioactive compounds have a stimulating effect, some of them are neutral, while others inhibit certain biochemical processes. Find your way in that labyrinth.
An example: we know that adequate protein uptake contributes to increase in muscle mass (if you train properly as well). Later one figured out that some proteins might be more effective than others. In later stage the effect of BCAA (branched chain amino acid valine, isoleucine and leucine) on this was established as well. Now we realize that is mainly the effect of leucine, which acts as a stimulator on mTOR (mammalian Target Of Rapamycin), arguably the most important transcription factor related to anabolic processes. Finally we start to see why and how supplements work (or not).
So by knowing which intracellular factors are responsible for specific biochemical effects, we can now try to specifically target those factors with nutrition and supplementation.
One of my “hobbies” is to study the effects of herbal compounds on human functioning. Herbs have been used as long as mankind to change and improve human functioning. It is all around you, unless, you are not drinking the herbal concoctions like coffee, tea, beer, wine, cocoa, (I realize you don’t smoke cigarettes, cannabis , opium, nor do you use cocaine or heroin). The use of herbs is so ingrained into our society that we barely notice it. One of my own favorite articles was called “Power from herbs”, a summary and explanation of the best herbs to be used in sports as an effective, legal, and safe way to support sports performances.
Still there are some problems left: The biggest problems here are contamination of herbal products with medication, anti-inflammatory herbs spiked with NSAIDs or herbs contaminated with illegal stimulants like geranamine or ephedrine, which may lead to positive doping tests. Mostly by unscrupulous, criminal and/or ignorant producers. Look at the milk powder affair in China which killed hundreds of baby’s by receiving purposely contaminated milk.
The other problem is the exaggerating of the effectiveness of nutritional supplements by the marketing of the producers. And of course athletes who want to believe in “magic”. Or at the other hand the denial of its positive effects and the exaggerating of the side-effects by scientists and doctors, who are mainly educated (read brainwashed or paid) by the powerful pharmaceutical industry.
We have to make a rational and well-balanced decision, taking information from all angles about which supplements to use, why to use them, when and how to use them, also in conjunction with which kind of training.
But as in many fields, if you don’t know what you are doing, don’t do it.