Can supplements make you a better athlete?

Michael Huckabee, Ph.D.

Michael Huckabee, Ph.D.

Know your ferritin level? Blood tests measuring serum ferritin levels are popular among high school athletes and others who hear that this is an indicator of exercise performance. Ferritin is a protein that stores iron for the body. Since iron is a vital ingredient carrying oxygen to all body tissues including muscles, proponents think boosting iron stores will increase oxygen supply, leading to stronger muscles and more endurance.


Some believe athletes have a higher risk of iron loss due to excessive sweating and urination, gastrointestinal blood loss due to over exertion, and in runners, foot strike hemolysis (which refers to a potential destruction of blood cells due to the constant pounding of feet on pavement). Athletes, especially women, should be periodically screened for conditions related to iron status, often by the common hemoglobin test (similar to the pricked ear lobe test given when donating blood).


Obtaining a ferritin level is a more specific blood test, but in otherwise healthy individuals we are not sure what constitutes a low ferritin level, or what iron supplements should be prescribed if it’s too low.


So athletes may take matters into their own hands with easily available iron tablets. A study published in the 1990s stoked this trend, citing improved performance (measured by time-to-exhaustion) in subjects with low serum ferritin levels who were treated with iron. However, that study also showed an unexplained decrease in time-to-exhaustion in the control group that didn’t receive any supplement, making the results for the group receiving the iron even more striking.


What’s more, this study was compared to seven other similar studies, none of which showed a benefit in taking iron. Lastly, the measure of time-to-exhaustion is subjective, depending on the varying energy level of each subject. A better measure is determining maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), which was used in the next study.


Does Echinacea do more than prevent colds? Echinacea, the herb cultivated from the North American Purple Cornflower plant, has long been thought to help prevent colds and flu, but now also has a possible effect on oxygen transport. Gaining popularity, it’s suggested that echinacea increases erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates the body to make red blood cells (RBCs). More RBCs mean more cells that carry oxygen around the body. Erythropoietin, known to athletes as EPO, is the banned, performance-enhancing drug that got Lance Armstrong in trouble.


A recent US study measured VO2 max in 13 healthy, recreationally active, college students. They then took echinacea for 30 days and the VO2 max was measured again. This was not just a sampling of echinacea; each of them took 8 grams a day, about 8-20 daily pills depending on what dose you may buy at the grocer. The results: no significant difference in aerobic capacity.


So try as we might, there’s no quick solution for athletes wanting to win. It’s called putting in the time, no pain no gain, go hard or go home, and around here, the Midwest work ethic. That’s what we like to be known for.


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