- Herbal supplements are often marked as being a safe and “natural” way to improve athletic performance.
- But herbal supplements can pose risks, including harm to the liver and heart.
- Here are the athletic supplements to watch out for, according to a researcher.
Taking a “natural” supplement might feel safe, but even herbal supplements may carry risks, according to a researcher. Athletes who take herbal supplements to improve athletic performance and build muscle mass should be cautious of potential harm from these supplements.
“Weight loss and bodybuilding supplements are probably the most concerning” for their potential to cause liver damage, warns Dr. Bill Gurley, principal scientist in the National Center for Natural Products Research.
In addition to liver damage, weight loss and bodybuilding supplements can also lead to heart and blood vessel injuries, he adds.
While Gurley acknowledges that “the majority of dietary supplements are safe,” he emphasizes that the risk of dangerous side effects increases when a product contains multiple herbal compounds or is used in combination with prescribed medication.
Here are the supplements that Gurley suggests athletes should avoid due to the heightened dangers they pose.
Supplements with added caffeine
Supplements promoted for athletic performance often contain added caffeine to boost energy, but this can be problematic.
Gurley explains that while “caffeine is generally safe,” it becomes difficult to gauge the amount of caffeine consumed through athletic supplements.
Ingesting more than one gram of caffeine can result in a “toxic manifestation,” especially if the product contains other compounds that function similarly to caffeine and have cardiovascular stimulant properties.
According to Gurley, “Exercise itself already puts a significant strain on your cardiovascular system. Adding stimulants with known adverse cardiovascular effects creates a detrimental combination.”
Furthermore, excessive caffeine consumption can hinder the ability to recognize overheating and may elevate blood pressure, which can be problematic for individuals taking prescription blood pressure medication.
Consumers should exercise caution when using products containing “natural anabolic steroids,” cautions Gurley. These are ingredients derived from herbs, plants, and other sources that emulate the function of human hormones and steroids, as explained by Medical News Today.
However, it is important to note that products labeled as containing “natural anabolic steroids” often actually contain synthetic anabolic steroids. This is due to the lack of federal regulation in the supplement industry, where companies can produce and sell supplements without government notification.
While synthetic steroids may contribute to increased muscle mass, Gurley warns that their prolonged use can have detrimental effects on the liver.
Black pepper extract
Black pepper extract is typically harmless on its own. However, combining it with other compounds, such as other herbal supplements or prescription medication, can be risky.
Gurley notes that black pepper extract is a common ingredient in many multicomponent supplements as it facilitates the entry of compounds into the bloodstream and enhances their effect.
Nonetheless, this can be dangerous as it may increase the risk of herb-drug interactions.
Yohimbe, derived from the bark of the Yohimbe tree found in central and western Africa, is often promoted for its potential benefits in weight loss, high blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, and athletic performance.
However, it can also be hazardous. Yohimbe contains a chemical called yohimbine, which has been linked to heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, seizures, high blood pressure, and anxiety, according to WebMD.
Gurley strongly advises against using Yohimbe whenever possible.
Supplements with more than one ingredient
Supplements marketed for athletic performance, including herbal supplements, often contain multiple compounds. Gurley comments that these complex combinations found in bodybuilding supplements can lead to unpredictable consequences.
He likens the consumption of these multi-ingredient supplements to opening a “pharmacological Pandora’s box,” as there is an increased risk of dangerous drug interactions.
Individuals should exercise caution when using herbal supplements alongside prescription medication, Gurley advises.
Combining these two can potentially result in unintended and harmful herb-drug interactions. It is crucial to consult with a doctor before trying any new supplements.
Be mindful of where you buy your herbal supplements
Gurley emphasizes the importance of being mindful of the source when purchasing herbal supplements. Some supplement manufacturers may not exercise adequate care in the manufacturing process, leading to contamination and adulteration—where undisclosed compounds are added to the supplement.
Gurley warns, “You’d be surprised at how many weight loss, dietary, and bodybuilding supplements are adulterated with conventional medications.” Such adulterated products increase the risk of liver injury.
To avoid such risks, Gurley recommends purchasing herbal products that are HSP or NSF Sport certified.
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