How safe are Bodybuilding Supplements?

How safe are Bodybuilding Supplements?

Bodybuilding supplements are a huge industry, every bodybuilder you have ever heard of in the last 20 years has either promoted, directly sold, or at the very least recommended a type of supplement.

In recent times governments have cracked down on a lot of supplements and have made them illegal or at the very least forced them to repackage their products.

Supplements such as Ephedrine have been taken off the shelves in the UK and US whilst other countries such as Canada and Germany continue to sell them.

One of the most famous product bans in recent times was Jack3D that contained DMAA and was thought to be responsible for the death of a marathon runner and two US soldiers.

Stories like this can cause regular gym goers to worry about the state of the supplement industry, how safe are the products currently resting in your gym bag?

You might even begin to question the safety of products such as whey protein, doesn’t it damage your kidneys?

This article will assess some of the more well-known and used supplements and hopefully give you the confidence to use some, and the knowledge to avoid others.

Supplement #1. Ephedrine

Ephedrine is a product that comes from a herb known as Ephedra. It can lower body fat when taken on its own [1] but is most effective when taken as part of a stack known as ECA. This combination is Ephedrine, Caffeine, and Aspirin which form a synergistic relationship (a relationship that is greater than the sum of its parts).

The stack is known to increase thermogenesis [2] and improve anaerobic performance. The Ephedrine stimulates the central nervous system while the caffeine stimulates the skeletal muscles [3].

The aspirin helps to increase thermogenesis as well, but is essentially useless unless taken with the other two ingredients.

Ephedrine was finally banned after multiple studies found that it increased blood pressure to dangerous levels which could potentially result in death. As such it is now banned in the UK and US and is only available in certain countries (and not for export).

Ephedrine used to be sold in pharmacies as it was an effective cold remedy, but bodybuilders would simply buy the remedy as a source of Ephedrine and as such the products are no longer available.

A synthetic version of Ephedrine that is known as Synephrine is now on the market, it is nowhere near as effective as Ephedrine was, but is a lot safer as it doesn’t raise blood pressure.

It has also been proven to raise metabolism [4] so should work as a good (but not spectacular) fat burner when taken short term.

Verdict: Avoid

Supplement #2. DMAA

1,3-dimethylamylamine, methylhexanamine better known as DMAA is a stimulant which is similar to amphetamines [5].

DMAA was originally a nasal decongestant but was repackaged as a performance enhancing supplement around 10 years ago [6]. DMAA is very similar to ephedrine, it can help with fat-loss and is often used as a pre-workout [7].

As with Ephedrine DMAA was pulled from shelves due to its dangerous effect on blood pressure.

The problem being that bodybuilders were taking it in much higher levels than was safe.

Verdict: Avoid

Supplement #3. Caffeine

Rather than reviewing pre-workouts which can have hundreds of different ingredients, we will concentrate on the most important ingredient in any pre-workout: Caffeine.

This supplement has more studies surrounding it than almost any other supplement around and it is also the most used stimulant in the world. Clearly there is a difference between Caffeine the social drug, and Caffeine the performance enhancer.

There are many benefits to supplementing with caffeine. It can raise metabolism and fat-oxidation [8], improve performance [9], and make exercise appear easier than it is [10].

The problem being that 1) Caffeine needs to be taken in high doses for improvements in performance (some studies use between 5 and 7mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight) and 2) You can quickly build up a tolerance to caffeine forcing you to keep upping the dosage to get the same benefits.

This can result in panic attacks or anxiety [11], hallucinatory experiences [12], or even arrhythmias [13]. Gastrointestinal discomfort and high blood pressure are also common problems that can occur when taking high doses of caffeine.

That being said, caffeine is still a relatively safe supplement to take. If you are taking it for performance try to cut out recreational caffeine to keep your daily amount low. Also look into cycling it to prevent a tolerance build up.

Verdict: Safe so long as treated with respect

Supplement #4. Whey Protein

There is a belief that protein in high amounts can cause kidney damage, it comes from the practice of prescribing a low-protein diet for people who have kidney problems.

Whilst it is obvious why this belief has come to be, it is in actual fact wrong. See if your kidneys are damaged it means that they can’t handle protein as well (it is the hardest of the macronutrients to break down) but protein does not damage kidneys.

This was best summed up by Helen Kollias at Precision Nutrition.com where she wrote:

“Jogging with a broken leg is a bad idea. Doctors would probably tell you not to jog if your leg is broken. But does jogging cause legs to break? No. That’s the same thing with protein and kidneys. Eating more protein does increase how much your kidneys have to work (glomerular filtration rate and creatinine clearance), just like jogging increases how much your legs have to work.” [14].

So to sum up, if you have already damaged kidneys try to avoid excessive protein consumption. If your kidneys are fine then don’t worry about it.

Verdict: Safe


[1] Shekelle, P., Hardy, M., Morton, S., Maglione, M., Mojika, W., Suttorp, M., Rhodes, S., Jungvig, L., Gagne, J. 2003. Efficacy and safety of ephedra and ephedrine for weight loss and athletic performance: a meta-analysis. JAMA 289(12): 1537-45
[2] Astrup, A., Toubro, S., Cannon, S., Hein, P., Madsen, J. 1991. Thermogenic synergism between ephedrine and caffeine in healthy volunteers: a double blind, placebo-controlled study. Metabolism 40(3): 323-9
[3] Bell, D., Jacobs, I., Ellerington, K. 2001. Effect of caffeine and ephedrine ingestion on anaerobic exercise performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 33(8): 1399-403
[4] Stohs, S., Preuss, H., Keith, S., Keith, P., Miller, H., Kaats, G. 2011. Effects of p-synephrine alone and in combination with selected bioflavonoids on resting metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate and self-reported mood changes. International Journal of Medical Sciences 8(4): 295-301
[5] [1] Examine.com 2011. 1,3-Dimethylamylamine. [ONLINE] Available at: http://examine.com/supplements/1%2C3-Dimethylamylamine/. [Accessed 28 June 2016].
[6] Nootriment . 2015. 1,3 Dimethylamylamine Effects, Benefits, Side Effects & Dosages. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nootriment.com/1-3-dimethylamylamine/. [Accessed 28 June 2016].
[7] McCarthy, C., Canale, R., Alleman Jr., R., Reed, J., Bloomer, R. 2012. Biochemical and Anthropometric Effects of a Weight Loss Dietary Supplement in Healthy Men and Women. Nutrition & Metabolic Insights 5: 13-22
[8] Dulloo, A., Duret, C., Rohrer, D., Girardier, L., Mensi, N., Fathi, M., Chantre, P., Vandermander, J. (1999) Efficacy of a green tea extract rich in catechin polyphenols and caffeine in increasing 24-h energy expenditure and fat oxidation in humans. American Society for Clinical Nutrition 70(6): 1040-1045
[9] Wiles, J., Coleman, D., Tegerdine, M. Swaine, I. 2006. The effects of caffeine ingestion on performance time, speed and power during a laboratory-based 1 km cycling time trial. Journal of Sports Sciences 24(11): 1165-1171
[10] Rodrigues, L., Russo, A., Silva, A., Picarro, I., Silva, F., Zogaib, P., Soares, D. 1990. Effects of caffeine on the rate of perceived exertion. Brazilian Journal of Medical & Biological Research 23(10): 965-8
[11] Smith, A. 2002. Effects of caffeine on human behaviour. Food Chem Toxicol. 40(9): 1243-55
[12] Persad, L. 2011. Energy Drinks and the Neurophysiological Impact of Caffeine. Frontiers in Neuroscience 5: 116
[13] Klatsky, A., Hasan, A., Armstrong, M., Udaltsova, N., Morton, C. 2011. Coffee, Caffeine, and Risk of Hospitalization for Arrhythmias. The Permanente Journal 15(3): 19-25
[14] Helen Kollias. 2016. Will a high-protein diet harm your health?. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/will-a-high-protein-diet-harm-your-health. [Accessed 31 August 2016].


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