August 27, 2013 posted by

How Dangerous Are Supplements, Really?!

How Dangerous Are Supplements, Really?!

A handful of deaths linked in part to over-the-counter performance supplements has led to some public panic about the risk of supplements. Outside magazine current issue sheds some light on the subject in an article titles Are Sports Supplements Killing Us? They report,

Despite the risks to career and health, the U.S. supplement industry is a $28 billion a year operation—and growing. We trust our supplements. They’re all-natural, chemical-free, pure, and clean. Even if they don’t work, they can’t hurt, we say. After all, they’re on the store shelves. So we take creatine before we lift, fuel with carbohydrate drinks on the bike and run, and pound down protein to recover. But do they make a difference? And most importantly: Can they harm us?

Fair enough assumption, I suppose, but let’s face it. “We trust” a lot of things we shouldn’t. And not just seedy corner drug deals and politicians. As you’ve read about (I’m sure, you’re here), we should be skeptical of almost everything, from medication, to running shoes, and food we buy at the corner market. Fact is we live in a world where we need to pay attention and, even then, we can’t be 100% safe. Outside kinda of leaves that part out, but whatever, their article is incomplete regardless.

The supplement industry deserves scrutiny. Historically it’s about as shady as your run-of-the-mill personal injury lawyer. As the article states, DMAA, the substance in question, isn’t even a supplement

“Enter DMAA, a drug originally developed by Eli Lilly to have the same effects as amphetamines without their addictive properties.”

So what’s it doing in an “herbal pre-workout formula”? Here’s where the article, though very interesting and offering a lot of good info, goes off the rails, because it doesn’t really answer its own question. Instead, it goes into a lot of anecdotes about industry unsavory-ness, I suppose in hopes to either elicit a visceral response of terror or hurt supplement sales with its “buyer beware” verdict.

So, anyway, let’s have a look at the supplement industry. I’ve been around it for a long, long time and, for sure, its history is filled with dangerous and irresponsible practices. That said, there have been very few (a virtual zero compared to, say, the drug industry) incidents of injury and so few deaths that you have a better chance of being eaten by a shark than dying of supplement overdose (and you have virtually zero chance of the former, even if you swim with sharks daily). So before we get carried away, supplements have always been statistically very safe.

These days the industry is far more regulated than it’s ever been. There are still no government standards but responsible (ie-almost all of the companies large enough to fear lawsuits) pay outside auditors to ensure their products are safe. It’s currently much harder to get away with both false claims and fraudulent products than it’s ever been and things are only getting stricter. As I said before, it’s historically been one of the safest consumable industries, if not the safest.

The article also touches on the possibility of ineffective products. Yes, there are many of those, but they don’t get examined. Supplements, like foods, are both good and bad and you should be researching what you “eat”. Though they don’t say it, that’s their gist, and I heartily agree.

Everything mentioned in the article: creatine, ephedra, and DMAA are actually effective and have heaps of positive science. The latter two, however, always came with strong evidence that they could be abused. Even then, almost every death associated with both supplements might not be attributed to them because all happened during athletic events where people die regularly. 11 people have died during the London marathon’s history, for example. Shoot, the sport’s founder dropped dead from the only marathon he ever ran! And the final straw for ephedra was a guy working out in a rubber suit on a 100-degree Florida afternoon. I’d bet the ranch if this were a study the control group wouldn’t fare much better.

The facts are that supplement, even with a historically lax industry, are statistically extremely safe. With new regulations and standards coming into place it’s only getting better. The summary, that supplements are a buyer beware market, is absolutely true but isn’t that the case with everything you buy?

When choosing foods, for example, you don’t continue eating something that makes you feel bad. You wouldn’t feel sympathy for someone who forced themselves to drink coffee and complained it gave them a headache. You don’t eat mushrooms if they give you a rash. If you doctor prescribes a medication and you have bad side effects you stop taking it. Buy rain gear that doesn’t repel rain and you return it. So why would supplements have a different common sense rule?

In the BBC piece on the marathoner, her boyfriend stated, “never really got on with it” about the supplement containing DMAA. If that is the case, why in the world would she take it in a situation where she’s pushing her body to its limits? Furthermore, if she’d bothered to read about the supplement in question, Jack3d, she would have found out it targets improvements in anaerobic activity and, being thermogenic, raises core temperature and requires extra hydration, which really doesn’t make sense in a situation where aerobic efficiency and keeping your body hydrated are the physical cruxes you’re encountering.

One might say “how would she know?” and I’d say, if I’m competing in an event where the guy who invented it died during the only one he competed in it’s my responsibility to do some homework. Try and consume a perfectly healthy Paleo meal during the latter stages of an Ironman triathlon might very well kill you, too. But that’s not a problem with lean meat, no salt, and veggies. It’s a problem with you not understanding what your body needs under duress.

The bottom line is that we need to take responsibility for what we put in our bodies. Supplements can be useful tools. Compared to tainted foods, unsafe water, and drug side effects, in fact, they are statistically, by far, the safest thing you can consume. But you still need to do your own homework and use your common sense.

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