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Adult Performance Supplements: Are They Safe?

Have you ever tried a performance supplement? If you drink coffee or soda, the answer is “yes,” according to Steven Erickson, MD, a sports medicine specialist with Banner – University Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. “In my practice,” Dr. Erickson explained, “I work with a lot of college athletes and young adults, and the most common supplement that people take – and forget about – is caffeine.”

The category of performance supplements is wide; in addition to caffeine, others you may have heard of include creatine, protein, multivitamins, ginseng, glutamine and iron, and the list goes on. These supplements come in many forms: powders, drinks, pills, dissolvable capsules and energy bars.

Side effects of performance supplements

Just like with anything you consume – food, liquids and medications – there are possible side effects associated with performance supplements. “Side effects and their severity range depending on many factors including your age, gender and overall health,” said Dr. Erickson. Possible side effects of some of the more widely used supplements include:

  • Caffeine: As a stimulant, caffeine’s possible short-term side effects include dehydration, nausea, muscle tremor, palpitations and headache. According to the National Institutes of Health, a safe amount of caffeine is 400 to 500 milligrams a day. Consuming more can reduce your physical performance, disturb your sleep and cause irritability and anxiety.
  • Creatine: Side effects of creatine include gastrointestinal upset, muscle cramps, weight gain as a result of water retention, lower extremity swelling and acute renal failure.
  • Iron: Common side effects of iron supplements are constipation and diarrhea. With larger doses, it can even cause nausea or vomiting.
  • Protein: Consuming too much protein can cause gastrointestinal upset, bloating, fatigue and headache. According to Dr. Erickson, protein is typically the safest performance supplement when taken correctly.

Questions to ask your doctor before you start

As with any new medication you put into your body, you should consult with your doctor before you start taking performance supplements. “When one of my patients inquires about performance supplements, the first question I ask is ‘are you doing everything else you should be doing, like eating healthy, getting enough quality sleep, drinking at least 8 cups of water daily?’,” said Dr. Erickson.

Dr. Erickson advises you ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is there evidence to support that this supplement will benefit my performance?
  2. Will this supplement affect other conditions I have or interact with my other medications?
  3. Do the risks of adverse side effects outweigh the potential benefits?
  4. What size dose should I take and for how long?

“There’s no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ performance supplement,” Dr. Erickson explained. “Just like with any medication, you should educate yourself about what you’re putting in your body.” Dr. Erickson also noted that there are many supplements where the adverse effects outweigh the benefits.

The bottom line: Safety and efficacy of performance supplements

To answer whether adult performance supplements are safe and effective, we must first define what is meant by “safe” and “effective,” according to Dr. Erickson. “This is complicated – what may work for one person may not for someone else,” said Dr. Erickson, “and how we determine if something is safe to consume usually requires it to be deemed so by an overseeing entity, like the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), but performance supplements aren’t currently evaluated or regulated by the FDA.”

Dr. Erickson also noted that because they’re unregulated, some supplements are frequently contaminated or tainted with stimulants or testosterone precursors which can have significant adverse health effects. Just one more reason it’s critical to consult with your doctor before you start taking any new supplements.

Interested in learning more about performance supplements? Consult a Banner Health sports medicine specialist for more information about whether they are right for you.

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