Supplementation by athletes can be a minefield to navigate for the unwary. Our Sports Naturopath Kate Smyth explains some of the issues with supplementation for athletes and how best to choose quality options. Whilst there may be significant value in taking additional nutrients, most of us share the view that it should always be a ‘food first’ policy. Maintaining a balanced nutrientdense diet, is the key foundation for sports performance regardless of level of competition.

Foods ingested in their natural format contain a package of bioavailable nutrients that help the body absorb key nutrients in ratios that are more easily assimilated than many supplements, and no volume of supplements can make-up for a poor diet.  Athletes undertaking regular hard training sessions, may however benefit from taking supplements to maintain nutrient sufficiency and to maintain optimal health.

Supplementation by athletes should ideally focus on only high quality supplements are more likely to contain nutrients in beneficial ratios and bioavailable forms. Unfortunately supplements may not contain all the active ingredients and compounds found in nature. Poor quality (and often cheaper) supplements may contain artificial forms of nutrients that are more difficult for the body to absorb. Retail products may also be formulated in doses below the therapeutic range required for health benefits.  Storage and manufacturing processes of some supplements may also be questionable. Investigations of cheaper  supplements such as fish oil may be rancid!

Supplementation by athletes does have its place. It just isn’t practical to expect anyone to eat 2 buckets of spinach a day! Some nutrients are difficult to obtain purely from food sources when an athlete has high demands, digestion issues, illness, dietary restrictions or nutrient depletion. Iron, iodine, vitamin C and vitamin B12 are just some of the nutrients that fall into this category.

A 2015 study showed up to 70% of athletes use some form of supplement. This study by Outram and Stewart (2015) also revealed between 10-15% of supplements contained banned substances and over 80% did not contain what the label said. Competing athletes are typically aware of known banned substances but some are unaware of the considerable risk of accidental or inadvertent doping through using supplements.

If you are taking supplements and likely to be drug tested either in or out of competition in the future, the general guidelines below may be helpful. Some athletes are currently not in competition but still need to be aware there is no guarantee that taking “at risk” supplements will be out of your system when testing and competition resumes.

Avoid imports
Imported supplements purchased online may sometimes appear to be cheaper but come at a huge cost to your sporting career. There are a number of issues to consider.  Product quality can be difficult to ascertain due to being produced under different standards and labelling laws from those imposed on us from the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) in Australia.  All ingredients may not be listed on the label of an imported product and this may put athletes at significant risk of testing positive to a banned substance. In the USA, dietary supplements are classified as a subcategory of food, exempting manufacturers from providing pre-market evidence of product safety and efficacy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot inspect supplements until after the products have entered the marketplace and some disreputable manufacturers have spiked products with drugs such as anabolic steroids and amphetamines.

Practical example of supplementation by athletes– an athlete has digestion issues and purchases a popular probiotic supplement online from the USA. The probiotic supplement declares ingredients on the label and the athlete assume that it is safe. The US manufacturer is not however obliged to disclose all the extra binders or “excipients” in the probiotic capsule including  colostrum. The athlete then takes this probiotic thinking it was “safe”. The colostrum happened to be contaminated with insulin growth like factors and although they were not aware of the issue, they tested positive in a drug test.

Know your banned substances
Always check labels and know the banned substance list for your specific sport both in and out of competition. The list of banned drugs and substances can be found on the ASADA website and substances can be checked here. If you are likely to be competing internationally, it would be wise to also look at the WADA guidelines here.  Just because the substance does not appear on the prohibited list, does not mean it is 100% ok to ingest. The rules change frequently and supplements and other over the counter drugs may have different names from what appears on the list. Substances such as Bupropion, caffeine, nicotine and phenylephrine are included in the WADA 2020 Monitoring Program and their status may change at any time. If in doubt, avoid the substance.

Health foods and natural products
Some health food products and herbal medicines should still be avoided even if they are not on the banned list if you are unable to be assured of their purity and quality. For example, maca powder taken to support hormone function, energy and sports performance is one natural food product that is at risk of contamination. Tribulus is another product to be weary of. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) states “these products do not appear on the WADA list and are thus not specifically banned. However, they are often found in multi-ingredient products that contain banned ingredients or are at high risk of being contaminated. Therefore, they are not recommended for use.” See the AIS Supplement Group D list here .

Supplementation by athletes -Consider certified  
Common sports supplements such as magnesium, probiotics, vitamin C, protein powders, creatinine etc. are now being batch tested and certified. Human and Supplement Testing Australia (HASTA) is an Australian commercial product testing organisation for WADA and has a certification scheme. Certifying a product involves not just multiple batch testing, but verification of the manufacturing quality controls that are in place and site inspections. If a product has been “HASTA Certified” it means that every batch has been tested for over 200 WADA prohibited substances.

Informed Sport also conduct supplementation testing on international sports nutrition brands. You can read more about the Informed Sport certification process here and HASTA process here 

The same supplements should not be more expensive than usual just because they are batch tested.

Are there any guarantees?
No. Supplements screened by Hasta and Informed Sport cannot offer a 100% guarantee that an athlete will not test positive, but they are significantly less risky than other supplements.   As batch testing is very expensive, limited supplements are available despite some manufacturers having large product ranges. If you have purchased a Hasta certified product, always check your supplement bottle has been batch tested. If your supplement does not come with a Hasta certificate, you are unable to safely assume it has been batch tested.

Are certified products better quality?
Unfortunately no. Companies that can afford to undertake the rigorous and expensive certification process may have some products included. Smaller companies that produce high quality products, may not be on the list. Just because a product is certified,  does not mean they are suitable for you.  Athletes still need to choose supplements with bioavailable forms of nutrients and take sufficient amounts to reach therapeutic levels and health benefits. There are Hasta certified products from reputable companies that I recommend frequently but it may be difficult for an athlete to choose suitable options if they just scroll through the list of supplement options.

Therefore, if you are a competing athlete, we suggest always checking with a qualified practitioner before self-prescribing any supplement, even if it appears to be batch tested or packaged as ‘food grade’ at the health food shop. Batch tested supplements are available through the Athlete Sanctuary.

We hope you found this information useful.  If you would like further guidance with your supplementation protocol or health concerns, please get in touch with our Sports Naturopath Kate Smyth here.

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