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Pre-Workout and Related Supplements: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Working out can be an intense challenge. Moreover, having enough energy to get yourself into the gym can be an even greater obstacle. Whether it be the crack of dawn before work or a late afternoon grind, you may find yourself gravitating towards caffeine or pre-workout supplements to energize you and provide that edge needed to focus and optimize performance.

If you find yourself reaching for some sort of stimulant prior to working out you are certainly not alone, especially considering that U.S. retail sales of vitamin & nutritional supplements for 2017 was over 36 billion dollars. Undoubtedly, a significant portion of that expenditure was allocated towards pre-workout and related supplements. But what is actually in these products and what is their impact on health?

Many pre-workout supplements contain substances such as caffeine, taurine, β-alanine, and creatine. These stimulants can cause additional cardiovascular stress when combined with exercise. Safe daily consumption of caffeine is generally limited to about 320 mg/day (even less for pregnancy and certain cardiovascular conditions), which can be achieved through 2-3 cups of coffee. Most Americans consume some sort of daily caffeine in their normal regimen. The problem is that often times those taking pre-workout do not consider the amount of additional caffeine they consume throughout the day. This leads to caffeine intake beyond that which is recommended, and can lead to heart arrhythmias and vascular constriction, amongst other cardiovascular consequences.

As if the dangers of excessive caffeine are not enough, historically there have been other components found in certain pre-workout supplements that are even more alarming. Such was the case in 2012 when a U.S. soldier in peak physical condition died after taking a supplement called, “Jack3d” from a GNC store. The traumatic story can be found here. Another U.S. soldier died the same year from using a similar product that was purchased on the military base at their convenience store.

Both of these products contained a molecule called 1,3-dimethylamine (DMAA). This molecule is structurally similar to various amphetamines, and when it was used in conjunction with exercise the cardiac stress lead to death. Since these events, DMAA specifically has been banned from products. The scary part is that there is a loophole to nearly everything.

In the context of the supplemental market, regulations are very liberal, providing avenues for deception in marking products. One way this is done is through “proprietary blends, or formulas.” By using this terminology, companies can keep the contents of their product a secret as it is under trademark protection. From a consumer standpoint, people think they are getting some new innovative formula that will take them to the next level of athletic performance. Sadly, they may be doing the exact opposite.

In chemistry, even the slightest alteration of a molecule can have profound effects. And from a legal standpoint, companies can put out products with novel molecules far more quickly than regulations can keep up. In this case, the unknown can be quite scary, and often times nothing can be done until evident ramifications are found. This has not only led to deaths in years past, but also the exacerbation of many medical conditions such as an enlarged heart.

So, you’ll have to decide for yourself, are the potential gains worth the potential consequences? One thing you can do for yourself is make an informed decision. If you decide to take a pre-workout or related supplement, avoid things that list “proprietary blends or formulas.” Also, monitor the amount of caffeine in your daily routine as these supplements can increase your intake to unsafe levels. Lastly, choose products that contain well-researched ingredients and are, at the minimum, generally recognized as safe.

Never forget that if your energy levels are low, there may be dietary changes you can make to feel more energized naturally. Getting adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods as a part of a balanced diet is always a good starting point.

Think you could benefit from some tips or suggestions for improving your dietary intake? Schedule an appointment today with the nutrition expert, a registered dietitian!

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