Thursday, March 30, 2006

Steroids in Supplements!

Can over-the-counter supplements lead to a positive drug tests in athletes?

Looking for the competitive edge in sports is natural. The desire to win is what leads many athletes to start taking banned substances in order to improve their ability to train harder and increase their performance. Those athletes who respect the governing rules of amateur sport on doping and choose not to take any products on the banned substance list may still be at risk of having a positive drug test!

Recent research in to the area of contaminated over-the-counter (OTC) sports supplements has shown some disturbing results. In a study by Baume et al (2006), they looked at 103 OTC supplements in 4 categories (37 prohormones, 42 creatine, 12 "mental enhancers", and 12 branched chain amino acids (BCAA)) for the presence of major anabolic steroid parent compounds, stimulants and traces of testosterone, nandrolone and their precursors. The category of prohormone supplements is in fact on the banned substance list of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the findings related to this category will be discussed later in this article.

Of the 103 supplements tested, 18% were found to contain anabolic steroid precursor contaminants not present on the label. Fourteen of the 37 prohormones were contaminated, as well as three of the 12 "mental enhancers" and one of the 42 creatine supplements contained contaminants.

Of all of the above mentioned findings, the most significant to the amateur athlete is the contaminated creatine supplement. After the presence of 19-norandrosterone and 19-noretiocholanolone contaminants were discovered in the creatine supplement, it was administered to volunteers to see what the results of a urine sample would be if one was taking the supplement. At the manufacturer's recommended daily intake of 5.25g/day, this led to the excretion of Nandrolone in the urine (19-norandrosterone and 19-noretiocholanolone convert into nandrolone in the body). The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the IOC has set a maximum allowable limit of 2ng/mL of nandrolone in the urine. In this study, after only 3 days of supplementation, the levels excreted in the urine reached this 2ng/mL level. The authors hypothesized that if an athlete was on the creatine supplement for a longer duration, or taking more then the recommended dosage, a positive drug test could be possible. These are very interesting results since nandrolone was the source of numerous positive drug tests back in the year 2000. Many elite athletes tested above the 2 ng/mL level and were banned from sport while always maintaining their innocence. Here are just a few of the athletes who tested positive for nandrolone:

Linford Christie, Britain, sprinter
Merlene Ottey, Jamaica, sprinter
Doug Walker, Britain, sprinter
Mark Richardson, Britain, swimmer
Petr Korda, Czech, tennis player
Djamel Bouras, France, judo player
Spencer Smith, Britain, triathlete
Igor Shalimov, Russia, footballer
Christophe Dugarry, France, rugby player

Baume et al did a similar analysis on the supplements labelled as prohormones. A prohormone is chemical compound that has a structure very similar to actual hormones in the body and is in fact a precursor to natural hormones. These prohormones usually have limited effect on their own until they are converted in the body to their respected hormone.

As previously mentioned, all prohormone supplements are banned by the IOC and after the signing of the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004 by U.S. President Bush, the supplements are supposed to be on the list of controlled substances. However of the 37 prohormone supplements tested in this study, 3 contained metandienone - an anabolic steroid more commonly known as Dianabol! This steroid has in fact been used by professional body builders and athletes for decades after its introduction in the United States in the 1950's. Therapeutic doses, based on recommendations from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (1996), are in the range of 5-10mg/day. At a manufacturer's recommended dosage of 40mg/day of prohormone supplement, it resulted in Dianabol intake levels equal to 22-26 mg/day! These high amounts of Dianabol can actually be harmful to the consumer and with long-term use may lead to numerous adverse side-effects such as acne, high blood pressure, gynaecomastia, cardiovascular disease, liver dysfunction as well as psychological and psychiatric disorders.

The IOC and WADA are aware of the possibility of contaminated supplements and are now pushing for more strict international laws to regulate the contents of OTC supplements. More and more research is being done in an effort to identify reputable manufacturers of supplements as these findings are disturbing to any amateur athlete that is trying to stay clean and compete for the love of sport.


Baume N, Mahler N, Kamber M, Mangin P, Saugy M. Research of stimulants and anabolic steroids in dietary supplements. Scand J Med Sci Sports 2006 16: 41-48.

Geyer H, Bredehoft M, Mareck U, Parr M, Schanzer W. High doses of the anabolic steroid metandienone found in dietary supplements. Euro J Sport Sci. 2003: 1(3): 1-5

Friday, March 24, 2006

Can Creatine Supplementation Increase Athletic Performance?

Creatine supplmentation has been in the public eye since Linford Christie won the 100m gold medal at the 1992 Olympics games and I still keep hearing conflicting reports as to the effectiveness of its use in sports performance. In the following article I will try to summarize the research literature on creatine to hopefully clear up some of the issues surrounding its use.

What is Creatine?

Creatine is a naturally occuring nitrogenous organic acid in the human body and is essential for anaerobic muscular contractions. Simply put, creatine is stored in your muscles and is necessary for fast and powerful muscular contractions of short duration. Your body can naturaly regenerate creatine that gets used during anaerobic (short bursts) of exercise. The body can regenerate over half of the used creatine stores within 30 seconds after exercise and over 90% of used creatine after 5 minutes. However, when you use these creatine stores for repetitive exercise (such as lifting weights, sprinting, jumping) the body cannot regenerate all of the creatine in time and you start to get fatigued and are forced to stop. This is why you cannot sprint at the same intensity in the 100m as you would in the 400m or 800m! This is where creatine supplementation was designed to work.

How Does Creatine Supplementation Work?

By orally ingesting creatine, you can increase the amount of creatine stored in your body. It has been found that some people respond better to creatine supplementation then others and it is related to the amount already stored in the body. Think of it like a gas tank in your car, if the tank is full you can't add more fuel, however if the tank is only half full, you can top it up. Creatine is naturally found in red meats and those who eat a lot of red meat usually have higher levels of stored creatine and therefore do not always have as dramatic results by taking creatine supplements.

By topping off the creatine stores in your muscles, it has been found that you have a higher power output and it takes a longer time to fully fatigue the muscles. This can be beneficial during training for all power athletes (football, track and field, speed skating, weight-lifting...) who use this power system regularly.

Are There Different Kinds of Creatine Supplementation?

There are several different types of creatine available on the market. The most common are creatine monohydrate, creatine citrate, creatine phosphate and many brands include creatine in a sports drink powder. Of all of the above mentioned types of creatine, one type has been shown to help prolong fatigue better then others during high-intensity, short duration activity. Creatine Phosphate has been shown to help buffer the blood against the hydrogen ions (a waste product from anaerobic exercise that increase the blood acidity and gives you that muscle burning sensation). This increased buffering capacity allows for a longer time until total fatigue during continuous, maximum physical exertion. However, creatine phosphate was not compared to other forms of creatine to examine time to exhaustion with repetitive bursts of exercise, and may not show any increased benefits with that type of activity.

What to Expect?
  • Most manufacturers of creatine suggest adding pure creatine powder to some form of sports drink to help with its absorption into the body.
  • Many companies also suggest that you go on a 'loading phase' where you ingest 5g of creatine 3-6 times a day for the first 4-7 days. This helps increase the muscles' creatine stores more rapidly.
  • Expect an initial weight gain when you start creatine supplementation because to store creatine in the muscle, it needs to be stored with water molecules. This will result in more water being stored in your body and thereby increases your body weight.
  • With more water being stored in your body, you may become dehydrated, and it is important to ingest more water then usual thoughout the day.
  • Finally, remember that not everyone has the same results after creatine supplementation. It depends largely on the amount already stored in your muscles and the type of exercise you do.

In Summary:

  1. The oral ingestion of creatine supplementation can increase the amount of creatine stored in your muscles.
  2. Mixing creatine powders with a sports drink helps increase the absorption rate into the body.
  3. Dehydration is a common complaint so drink lots of water
  4. Creatine supplmentation can improve anaerobic (short bursts at maximal capacity) performance.
  5. Not all athletes respond the same to creatine supplementation

Friday, March 17, 2006

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)

What Are They?

BCAA are three essential amino acids in the human body, known as Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. They are called essential because we are unable to synthesize them in our bodies and therefore must be ingested in our diet. These BCAA are found in protein rich foods and it is relatively easy to meet the daily recommended intake through a regular diet.
So how does supplementing additional BCAA in the diet help with sports performance? Lets have a look at their role in the body.

How Do They Work?

During prolonged aerobic exercise, the body starts to deplete muscle glycogen stores and burns Free Fatty Acids (FFA) and even protein for energy. In addition to depleting muscle energy stores, prolonged exercise also affects the nervous system and the body begins to suffer from central fatigue which makes you want to stop exercising. One mechanism of central fatigue is by the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a central nervous system depressor, meaning that you lose the drive to keep going and you just can't keep your muscles working. Serotonin is formed by the attachment of free-Tryptophan to a protein carrier in the brain. Tryptophan is the amino acid found in high concentration in protein rich foods such as turkey and it is this same reaction of free-trytophan forming serotonin that gives you the sense of fatigue after you eat those big turkey dinners over the holidays.

This is where BCAA is theorized to come in to play. With the decrease in FFA, the body can start burning BCAA and thereby decreasing their concentration in the blood. This can have a negative effect on sport performance as BCAA compete with tryptophan for the binding site on the protein molecule that leads to the formation of serotonin. You can see that if the blood has low levels of BCAA, there is no competition with tryptophan to bind to the protein carrier and that results in a large production of serotonin and therefore central fatigue. By supplementing BCAA in the diet, it is hypothesized that it will maintain a higher level of BCAA in the blood during prolonged exercise and decrease the amount of serotonin being produced resulting in less central fatigue.

Does it Really Work?

The research is still conflicting on the issue of BCAA and increased aerobic performance. Several studies have shown it to increase mental awareness following soccer games and a 30km race. It has also been shown to decrease the time to cycle 40 km by an average of 6 minutes versus a placebo of only a 1 minute decrease. Finally, BCAA supplementation showed no improvement on a group of runners completing a marathon. However, in the same study, if they looked at slow versus fast runners, the slower runners had a decrease in their marathon time with BCAA leading to the hypothesis that elite runners may have higher level of BCAA in the blood to start with and therefore did not benefit from oral supplementation as much as those who may have lower levels.


  1. BCAA are essential amino acids in humans and must be ingested through the diet.
  2. Tryptophan binding to protein carriers in the brain lead to the formation of serotonin, a central nervous system depressant leading to central fatigue.
  3. BCAA in the blood compete with free-tryptophan for binding to the protein carriers, potentially decreasing the amount of serotonin production during prolonged aerobic exercise.
  4. Several studies have shown a positive effect of BCAA supplementation on prolonged aerobic performance but there is still no solid consensus on its effectiveness.
  5. BCAA supplementation may be beneficial to performance and there has not been any research that shows it to have a negative effect on aerobic performance.