Using supplements | Are they placebos?

For the amount of money some people spend on supplements, you could have a lifetime Addaero subscription!

It seems ever since exercise was invented by Homo erectus over a million years ago, supplements have been around to give their users a boost. In 2014, Americans directly spent more than $13 billion on supplements. And the supplement industry rakes in about $32 billion each year in revenues. To put that number in perspective, that’s just $68 billion less than what Dr. Evil held the whole world ransom for.

You could spend months reading about what supplements to take or if you should take them at all. What I’ll try to do in this post is briefly summarize what works, what doesn’t work, and what you should be aware of if you’re getting your supplement on.

If I’m going to take any sort of ergogenic aid, whether it’s an aspirin or some good old fashioned red blood cells, I want to know if it works. You should too. And the only place to really find this out is the research.

So, what does the overwhelming majority of scientific research tell us about supplements? Almost all of them are placebos. But that doesn’t mean they don’t work. The placebo effect is real! But it does mean that most supplements don’t actually do what they say they do.

Instead of having a physiological effect, most have a psychological effect. In other words, they work through the power of suggestion. If you think it will work, it will. This effect is studied extensively in exercise science. In a classic experiment many years ago on the effectiveness of “anabolic steroids,” a group of college athletes were given a sugar pill that they had been told was a steroid. After several weeks of taking the sugar pill that they thought was a steroid, they improved their 1-rep maxes significantly more than a control group that did the same training but had not been given any pills.

So should you or your clients be shelling out some extra cash on supplements that may or may not actually have a physiological effect? That depends on your goals!

If your top secret blend of pre-workout inspires you to get to the gym consistently, why not take it? If your “anabolic steroid” makes you train a little harder, where’s the harm in a little psychological boost? However, if you’re a coach doling out placebos, there may be some ethical concerns; use your best judgment.

But not all supplements are placebos. Some actually have a real physiological effect on your body. A brief rundown of some of the more popular ones:

Caffeine: there’s a reason it’s the most widely used stimulant in the world. Since it stimulates your sympathetic nervous system (the branch that sympathizes with you, or helps you out when you need to fight someone or take flight), caffeine may mobilize more fatty acids that can be used to improve endurance performance. There’s some evidence that caffeine can improve performance in shorter term, higher intensity events as well.

Creatine: this only works in events in which you are exhausting your stores of immediate energy. Creatine works by increasing the availability of the energy you use in explosive muscular contractions. This can delay fatigue. So instead of five reps of back squat, you can do six; instead of falling apart for the last ten seconds of a 400-meter sprint, you can keep it together for five more seconds.

Growth hormone, prohormones, anabolic steroids, & insulin: these mimic testosterone and get nutrients into muscles to significantly increase muscle building following strength training. But the costs far outweigh the benefits. A few scary google image searches will show you why.

Blood doping: by increasing the amount of red blood cells you have, either from the old fashioned blood draw, freeze, infuse protocol or the newer erythropoietin/EPO injection, you can exercise harder and longer.

Some vasodilators like beet root juice and viagra: if you drink a ton of it, beet root juice can increase blood flow to working muscles and may improve endurance performance. Viagra has been used at higher altitudes to increase blood flow in the lungs, to get more oxygen. Viagra was originally designed for this in individuals with pulmonary hypertension, but researchers discovered it produced an interesting and very lucrative side effect.

Speaking of side effects, all of these supplements have them. To get the metabolic benefits of caffeine, you need to drink a ton of it. Like, three or four mugfulls. You can’t win a race if you have to pull over to pee every fifteen minutes. Creatine pulls a lot of water into your muscle cells. This causes uncomfortable bloating and sometimes debilitating cramping. Blood doping works quite well, but it could kill you, and you will definitely lose friends when you admit to doing it on Oprah.

Even more disturbing than many of the side effects, we really have no idea what is in in our supplements. This is because, thanks to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, supplements are considered safe until they are proven otherwise. This is not good. When tested, supplements are frequently found with contaminants like bacteria, heavy metals, prescription drugs, toxic plant materials, controlled substances, and compounds similar to meth amphetamine. And many times the supplements don’t even contain what they say on the label!

So what should you do? How can you make the most out of all your hard work without spending lots of money or taking unnecessary risks?

Do what works for you! Since every athlete is an individual and will respond differently to a substance or training stimulus, the best thing to do is record the data that tells you whether or not something is working. Combined with your purpose and your plan, you will be on your way to training your absolute best.

Have a specific question about supplements? Ask us on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments section below!

photo credit: Noodles and Beef/Flickr