Sports supplements: necessary of nonsense?

Nutrition for athletes has always been a topic of special interest to me. My first serious writing was in 1991, an article called “Orthomolecular Nutrition in Sport”, but I went overboard and it was more than 300 pages.

Nutrition is one of the most complex topics I encountered, for several reasons.

1. your body is different from mine in many aspects, not only from the outside, but also on the inside: the biochemistry. There are two aspects here:

A. quality: your superfood might be my poison, the same substance that one person needs, might be acting like a poison to others. An example: peanuts are an excellent source of nutrients, unless you have a peanut allergy.

B. quantity: what is too much for me might not be enough for you. The individual needs of an athlete greatly differ. The 500 mg capsule might not be enough for the 130 kg 30-year old male weightlifter, but too much for the 15 years old 45 kg female gymnast.

2. every piece of food you put into your mouth is composed of hundreds of different chemical compounds, and each of these might affect the biochemical pathways in your body. Some have a positive or stimulating effect, others have an inhibiting or negative effect whereas many are neutral or have no effect. A simple piece of raw ginger contains 425 different chemical compounds and we only know the effect of a handful of these compounds, many are still unknown.

All of this is not static, but changes over different time zones:  day-night rhythms, nutrition timing, development, training and exercise, cultural influences, food choice, body-composition, etc.

I tried to simplify this by a priority-pyramid. The lowest level consists of eating an adequate meal a few times a day (2-5 meals), avoiding processed and synthetic foods, even though needs and habits are different. It seems easier to change someone’s religion than to change his/her dietary habits.

For the second level we are going to look what is missing in the nutrition (deficiencies)  by the testing blood and urine. We look at e.g. at clinical chemistry and hematology (standard blood testing) but also at minerals and trace elements, vitamins and vitaminoids, essential fatty acids, amino acids, organic acids, and some specific individual parameters.  Why? It does not make sense to take magnesium supplements (while you have enough magnesium in your body) and at the same time have an undiagnosed iron deficiency. You can take as much magnesium as you want, you will still be anemic and tired.

I call these the primary supplements. the ones that you can be deficient of and that might be  a bottleneck in the biochemistry for your performance.

Only when the first two levels are adequately managed, we start using secondary supplements which might directly or indirectly affect performance in positive way, but you cannot be deficient on, like creatine, glucosamine of ginseng. I have been using this approach since 1988.

Now the market for sport supplements is a messy one.

Two main problems are:

1. contamination of supplements with banned substances, so athletes might test positive in doping-tests

2. poor quality of the supplements which in most cases means that there is much less of the substance in the capsule, tablet or fluid, than the label indicates. Sometimes the label states a capsule contains 100 mg, while lab testing shows it only contains 16 mg (but you paid for the 100 mg!)

Also the science behind many supplements is flimsy, to say the least. There is not much hard evidence that things might work in real life, and it is individual as well.

Having studied this for the last 40 years, I decided the following approach:

1. try to find the individual deficiencies or bottle-necks by testing, like described above.

2. start an exploration for (secondary) supplements that work generically for my athletes, or basically that work for the majority.

Three conditions have to be met.

1. the supplements should be effective, confirmed either by scientific evidence or by empirical evidence, and have enough experience to make sure they work.

2. the supplements should be safe and having very low risk for negative side effects in the short and the long term

3. the supplements should be legal in sport, which means not being on the banned list of WADA (forgetting that this list has no scientific, medical, practical basis, it is just there  because they can. Anything the athletes take is suspect and will sooner or later be on this list, no matter how useless or ridiculous)

I always convince athletes to take the optimal dosage, since many athletes tend to think: more is better, which of course is not true.

Believe it or not, I found some very powerful supplements, backed up by science, supported by experience. Some of them are quite exotic but I guess you must have heard of them and otherwise you can find them on the internet. The products will be checked in a laboratory.

Many athletes think that by taking a supplement they will directly perform better, run faster, lift a heavier weight or score more points in the game. But this is hardly the case. Most of the supplements that I use now, are designed to keep the athletes healthy, to stimulate the immune system, to cope better with stress, to improve the adaptation processes to training, to prevent injuries, and to ensure general health. The sick or injured athlete does not perform well.

I would like to thank the athletes for the invaluable help, they listened, gave me feedback and sometimes more or less function as Guinea-pigs. Disclaimer: no athletes were harmed in the process.

  1. Heuberger, J.A.A.C; Cohen, A.F: Review of WADA prohibited substances; limited evidence for performance enhancing effects; Sports Medicine, 2019 (49), pg.525-539.

5 Comments

  1. Juan

    Henk,
    What are some of the most common primary deficiencies that you tend to see in your athletes? Obviously this is age, background history and location related but anything in general? Second, do you have a list of your preferred secondary supplements and why so? Thanks again for everything that you do!

    1. Hello Juan, the most common deficiencies I see now are: the Omega-3 fatty acid range (high-Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio), magnesium, manganese(?), vitamin D. The use of secondary supplements is more an art than a science. Although they generally have a generic effect, its use is dependent on the sport, the individual responses (empirical) and timing (intergration with the demands of the trainingprogram and targeted adaptation). Even more than with the primary supplements, the quality is often compromised and of high importance. That is why I prefer not to buy from the sports supplement industry with its “ripped”, “fueled” and “boosters”, but control the production and quality myself.

    1. Hello Nimrod. Yes, even though a the limits for blood test for vitamine C are very low (meaning you will not easily see a deficiency,) I believe thet at least 1 gram of vitamine C can make a difference in chronic diseases and solve lot of health problems in the long-term. For athletes important for: stimulation the immune system and the production of collagenous tissues. In stressful periods: heavy training, frequent competing, travelling…more than 1 gram.

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