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Natural Supplements Could be Harmful to Athletes

By Jiri Kaloc

A lot of amateur athletes consider nutritional supplements risk free. A new study highlights that some nutritional supplements, including various plant and natural extracts, may pose a serious health risk. Let’s take a look at what you should be careful about as a cyclist.

Natural supplements are often not regulated

Nutritional substances such as caffeine, creatine, energy gels, beetroot juice or proteins are very popular in cycling and a variety of other sports as a way to enhance performance and gain a competitive edge. Most of these things sound natural and safe but the issue is that they are not regulated. This means that in the form of a supplement, you cannot always be sure what exactly you’re taking in.

Beetroot juice
Beetroot is one of the best sources of nitrates, compounds that are broken down by saliva to form nitric oxide in the body. © Profimedia

Caffeine is the most common example

Caffeine is one of the most frequently used supplements in sports, especially in cycling. That’s probably because we have a lot of research showing its benefits. The new study warns that when “more is better” is applied to caffeine use in sports, it may result in side effects that outweigh the performance benefits.

“Caffeine is a prime example of a natural substance that is considered safe. While caffeine improves performance, particularly aerobic capacity in endurance athletes, its abuse may lead to fast heart rate (tachycardia), heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias), high blood pressure, and in some cases sudden cardiac death,” said first author Dr Paolo Emilio Adami of World Athletics.

Combining multiple supplements is increasing the risk

Not everyone is trying to consume as much caffeine as possible. But almost everyone uses more than just caffeine. And this poses another risk. Many elite athletes consume a combination of several supplements every day.

“In many cases, sportspeople use a mix or cocktail of substances to improve their performance and the interaction between them can also be extremely dangerous. All doping substances are risky and their use as medications should only be allowed when prescribed by a physician to treat a medical condition when no therapeutic alternatives are available, and following the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) requirements. Based on the dose, the duration of use, and the interaction with other substances, the health consequences can vary and in some cases be lethal. From a cardiovascular perspective, they can cause sudden cardiac death and arrhythmias, atherosclerosis and heart attack, high blood pressure, heart failure, and blood clots,” warns Dr Adami.

Get advice from professionals

The study says that most athletes get nutritional advice from coaches, fellow athletes, family members or friends. This can lead to issues as unqualified people can easily overlook problematic dosing or combination of supplements. It’s always a good idea to consult a professional nutritionist or even your doctor depending on what supplement you’re considering.

“Athletes should be aware that natural supplements and substances are not necessarily safe and should only be used if recommended by professional nutritionists. It is fundamental to use products from well-established manufacturers with known and internationally approved good quality standards,” recommends Dr Adami.

Key takeaways for cyclists that use nutritional supplements

  • A natural supplement is not necessarily always a safe supplement
  • Get professional advice, especially if you are considering more than one supplement
  • Choose supplements produced by established manufacturers with known quality standards
  • You are personally responsible for any substances you consume