An ergogenic aid is a supplement that can help improve the athletic performance in a person. These aids often make claims to improve everything from strength & speed to overall performance. Some of these products have been used for years and seem to have evidence supporting their claims while others are new and are generally unknown. We break down these products in this post to try and inform you what you can expect from each of them to save you from an expensive and time consuming trial and error process.
Creatine is a naturally occurring substance in the body that is made up from the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and L-methionine which are all found in protein. As long as a person is getting enough dietary protein then supplementing with creatine should not be necessary but may be if a person is a vegetarian because meat is a main contributor of protein to most people. Once in the body, creatine is converted into phosphocreatine, which is a type of stored energy in muscles.
Here is what studies have shown about creatine and athletic performance:
- Beneficial for short bursts of high-intensity exercise of the repetitive type, such as basketball and football.
- May be beneficial for increasing muscle and bone mass during weight training.
- Not beneficial for endurance activities.
Males tend to benefit more from creatine supplementation than women. Many believe this is because men have lower levels of creatine in muscle tissues than women naturally do. Creatine seems to be safe for most healthy athletes but here are some things to note about creatine.
- There is concern of excessive creatine consumption can cause kidney injury.
- Creatine turns into formaldehyde after being metabolized, which is a toxic substance.
- Creatine increases your DHT levels (dihydrotestosterone) which can cause adverse side effects, such as balding.
HMB (short for beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyric acid)
This is another naturally occurring substance in the human body formed from the breakdown of the amino acid leucine, which is found in high concentrations in muscles. It is thought that HMB works by slowing down the signal to break down muscle in your body. This may help with weight training because it reduces the amount of muscle you break down while lifting and may prevent muscle damage during prolonged exercise but there seems to be no hard scientific research to back this.
HMB differs from creatine in that it is not essential to our diets but can be found in small amounts in certain fruits and catfish. HMB is often confused with gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), which can have strong sedation effects and is used for sleep apnea. Do not use HMB if you are a child, pregnant or nursing, or suffer from severe liver or kidney disease.
Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCT’s)
Unlike other types of fats which must be broken down in the intestines and then made into a different type of fat to be transported in the blood, medium chain triglycerides are absorbed intact and taken to the liver, where they are used directly for energy. They provide a concentrated source of energy, as an alternative to carbohydrates which are often used by athletes for “carb loading”.
Some people notice some abdominal bloating after taking MCT, which may interfere with sports performance.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s)
Valine, isoleucine and leucine are the Branched-Chain Amino Acids and are named because of their branch-chain molecular structure. Valine improves energy metabolism, protein synthesis, and helps maintain muscle strength during times of high intensity physical stress. Isoleucine’s main purpose is that of an antioxidant. Leucine helps in the regulation of protein turnover and energy metabolism. It also helps inhibit the breakdown of muscle protein that occurs after high stress, like valine does. BCAA’s are found in our muscle tissues in high amounts but are not manufactured from our bodies so must be obtained through diet. Because BCAA’s are used up in greater quantities during both strength and endurance training people supplement with them to fuel their athletic performances.
People use Branched-chain amino acids to:
- Build muscle
- Improve sports performance
- Minimize the effects of overtraining
Any food containing protein will have some BCAA’s in them but here are some good sources:
- Red meat (Best)
- Dairy protein (Best)
- Whey protein powder
Branched chain amino acids are believed to be quite safe but can interfere with Parkinson’s medications.
Pyruvate (Dihydroxyacetone Pyruvate, DHAP)
Pyruvate is believed to reduce body fat and enhance energy because pyruvate supplies the body with pyruvic acid, which is a natural compound involved in energy metabolism. Preliminary research seems to backup that it can be beneficial for weight loss and endurance exercised, but more research must be done before we can be sure. It can be made by the body without supplementation, unlike many of the enhancers listed previously. Apples are the best natural source of pyruvate but it is known to cause upset stomach and diarrhea. It should not be taken by children, women who are pregnant or nursing, and people with liver or kidney disease.
Hormone Boosting Supplements
This group of hormones is believed to increase testosterone. They should only be used if they are prescribed by a qualified health professional, as the long term effects of these hormone supplements are not known.
Androstenedione is a hormone that is produced naturally by the adrenal glands, ovaries, and testes. Androstenedione is converted from DHEA. It goes on to become the hormones testosterone and estrogen.
People use androstenedione to build muscle and increase strength because it is believed to increase testosterone levels. However, being a hormone, they affect the body’s hormonal balance, which can cause unpredictable side effects. In addition, one study found that androstenedione increases estrogen levels.
The long-term effects of using androstenedione are not known.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone that is made naturally by the adrenal glands. It is used to make the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen.
People use DHEA for osteoporosis prevention, failure of the adrenal glands, and for the autoimmune disease lupus. It may also improve sexual function in men and women and help with depression. Athlete’s use DHEA because they believe that like phosphatidylserine, DHEA will suppress cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone that naturally increases with heavy exercise and causes muscle breakdown.
The body makes its own DHEA. DHEA production in the body peaks early in life and then begins to decline in adulthood. By the age of 60, we are producing as little as 5% of the DHEA we produced when we were 20.
The DHEA supplements you buy in the store are not natural. They are manufactured synthetically from soybeans.
Although DHEA appears to be safe when taken short-term in therapeutic doses, the long term effects are not known. There is some concern that DHEA may decrease the levels of HDL (the “good” cholesterol), and cause acne and male pattern hair growth in women.