Can Young Athletes Trust Supplements?

Supplement sales are soaring as more and more of us seek to improve our health through pills containing vitamins, minerals, and herbal preparations. Many of these tout extraordinary claims, from strong & big muscles & feats of strength, to the relief of joint pain & years added to our lives. But, surely good research has been done for these products to be promoted on chemists shelves?

Supplements - The Youth Academy

Though taken to improve diet quality, supplements fall outside food regulation by Food Standards Australia New Zealand and are instead considered a form of medication regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration...

That's correct, supplements are classified as medications...

As most supplements contain nothing more than vitamins, minerals or "natural" ingredients, they are typically classed as low-risk under the TGA's two-tiered system for medicine regulation. Products with this low-risk designation receive less rigorous checking, requiring the manufacturer to certify that pre-approved ingredients have been used and that quality manufacturing processes are in place. Perhaps most significantly, manufacturers are not required to provide evidence that these products actually work

In a system that relies so heavily on the honesty of the manufacturer, this translates to two clear concerns for consumers: 1) there is no certainty that the ingredients labelled on the supplement jar are actually what it contains, and 2) even so, since no evidence is required for the claims on the label, the supplement may be completely ineffective.

It's also worth considering that natural ingredients and "low-risk" designation does not necessarily mean the product is harmless. As an extreme, albeit true, example, improper preparation of green tea extract can result in liver damage requiring a liver transplant. In the case of online supplements, these are unlikely to have undergone any testing by the TGA, and products have been found to contain harmful and illicit substances, including contamination with toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic

Bottle - The Youth Academy

Dangers of dodgy products aside, supplements can have side effects or interact other medications with undesirable outcomes. For instance, the plant extract, St. John's Wort, reduces the effectiveness of the blood thinner Warfarin... whilst using Ginkgo alongside Warfarin can increase the risk of excessive bleeding

Of course, there are cases where supplements are not only useful but indicated. Classic examples are the use of iron supplements to correct iron deficiency anemia, or the use of folate supplements in women to prevent neural tube defects in pregnancy. However, we believe the decision to supplement should be made in consultation with an appropriate health professional

Unfortunately, pharmacists are not a reliable place to obtain this information and many can be relatively uninformed when it comes to supplement use

Furthermore, as the claims made on labels cannot be trusted, prior to taking any supplement its important to receive evidence from trusted sources. If you're comfortable in your ability to appreciate scientific literature, typing a few key words such as the supplement and its suggested effect into google scholar is a good way to receive an indication of its effectiveness. However, academic journals aside, we understand the temptation of Dr. Google, and encourage the use of information that provides a balanced view with reference to scientific evidence, whilst being wary of wellness sites and blogs

For the vast majority of current supplement users, supplements are completely unnecessary, and good health is much more likely to occur through an improvement in dietary quality. However, for those choosing to take supplements, the best option in most cases is a standard multi-vitamin which can provide the added assurance of meeting vitamin and mineral requirements with a reduced risk of overdoing any particular nutrient as these are typically found in low concentrations.

At The Academy, we believe firmly in the importance of a quality diet, above and beyond any supplement. However, equally, we understand the need to equip our young athletes and their families with the knowledge required to make informed decisions about supplements

Nick Maier