Monday, 6 October 2008

Ginseng, the Orienteering's "magic pill"?

Last week I had a course on Clinical Nutrition. It was centered in the nutrition to those who are in a weak condition and in the methods to give the necessary energy to them in order to survive. During the course, I had some interesting talks with the teacher, a famous Phd portuguese nutricionist (who also teaches nutrition to the portuguese doctors in the post-graduation in sport medicine), about nutritional supplements in sport.

I have read some things about this theme once I'm really interested at it. I'm not a doctor (nor even close to be one..3 more years to come) so what follows are just suggestions from a non-specialist.

Athletes have been always searching for the "magic pill". In fact, the industry of the ergogenic aids has "boomed" in the last years. An ergogenic aid is any training technique, mechanical device, nutritional practice, pharmacological method, or psychological technique that can improve exercise performance capacity and/or enhance training adaptations. Of course all doping methods are not included in this theme!!!
So, which are the most famous?
- pH modification with Sodium Bicarbonate or sodium citrate
- phosphate
- caffeíne
- Q10 coenzime
- Creatine
- L-carnitine
- CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)
- Glutamine
- Branched chain amino acids
- N-acetil-cisteine
- C / E Vitamin
- HMB (Hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrato
- Cooper, Iron, Magnesium, Complex B Vitamins
- Ginseng
- bovine colostrum
- Capsaicine

I have some friends who take almost all of them (some of them take 5 or 6 pills a day), but are they really necessary? Or is it just the pressure of an industry who wants to make money? Are the improvements made by them a result of the powerful placebo effect?

The studies that have been made until now don't show any relevant benefits of using them, but have shown lot's of secundary effects.

Athlete's (including me, some time ago!) consume lots of magnesium, sodium and potassium in the famous pill Miostenil in order to recover from though efforts. Some studies have shown that there isn't any benefit of this intake and that in a long term usage, it may lead to serious renal calcules. Of course some brands claim that you can run out of potassium and sodium and enter a state of hyponatremia, but this situation is really rare (unless you drink 400ml of simple water during a competition and not before or after). A balance between this two extremes is the best solution.

All kinds of vitamins (in Centrum, for example or at Stress tabs where there are some concentrations of 1000% the daily recommended dose) are useless if you don't have a deficit. Extra vitamins don't put you ahead. In the other hand, some studies have shown that a long term usage of extra vitamin E may cause lung cancer.

Now, there is one that is a good new to all orienteerers!! Ginseng! It is proved that it dilates the cerebral arteries and increases concentration in long term efforts. It's widely used by students in order to increase concentration. Maybe a solution to those mistakes in the last controls. Due to it's characteristics it is not a good option to hipertense people, but more studies are needed.

Then you have all those ergogenic aids that have a structured theory behind but don't work in the real world. L-carnitine is supposed to make you loose weight by increasing the usage of fat but some studies have shown that it enters circulation but doesn't get to the mitochondrial membrane where it has it's effects - Useless! CLA's seem to make animal models loose lots of weight but in human's only some people loose that desired weight while others are not affected.

Another myth is that if you consume lots of proteins your muscles will grow more. This is a proved myth. Almost all of us in developed countries ingest more than the 10% protein intake that is recommended - it's enought even for an athlete. If you consume much more than that, your body won't use it and will turn it into urea that is excreted in the urine. Abuse of protein supplementation is the worst thing you can do, once it will decrease the blood ph too (and an athlete doesn't want it).

Basically, the ergogenic aids that could give you a little help are: caffeine (to medium or long term exercises), creatine (short term exercises, not to orienteering, of course!!), HMB (in the post-exercise recovery, the one that has shown more proved results), BCAA's (in muscle sparing) and vitamins and minerals (only if you have an alimentary deficit).

Resuming it all, If you have a healthy and balanced diet, you won't need any supplement. If you have a decompensated intake of any nutrient, then a supplement may help you in a short term usage. The ergogenic aids just may help you a little bit; the idea that you can be a running machine just with the "magic pill" is a myth.

This theme could go on and on, but here are just some facts of the main ergogenic aids that are commonly used. If you want to know more, just type the name of it at any search engine and you will find lots and lots of information (the most of it, is made by those who sell them, so be careful)As my teacher ended her presentation, be careful with FASHIONS and MIXTURES!

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