Blog: ‘Few are aware’ of supplement risks

20 November 2018

Promoted as the magic pill for weight loss, weight gain, or as a contributor for maximum sporting performance – while the darker side to supplements is often ignored.

Few are aware of the dangers of what is largely an unregulated industry, according to Dr David Hughes, Chief Medical Officer at the AIS and Medical Director of the Australian Rio Olympic Team.

“Some of the ingredients in supplements can be dangerous,” Dr Hughes says.

"In fact, in Australia and in other places around the world, there have been deaths that have been directly attributable to individuals consuming sports supplements.”

There are numerous products which have “no beneficial effects whatsoever”, he says, and many don’t have all the ingredients – good or bad – listed on the label.

Dr Hughes warns that many take supplements with good intentions but have very bad outcomes often due to supplement contamination, intentional or otherwise.

“We know that in emergency departments and doctors’ clinics around the country, we are seeing increasing rates of individuals presenting with side effects from taking supplements,” he says.

“Those side effects can include heart arrhythmias, anxiety, panic attacks, nausea, vomiting and a range of other conditions. We have known people who have gone into liver failure as a result of taking supplements.”

Supplements for weight loss, fat burning or pre-workout “are high risk for contamination with stimulants”, he warns.

“Those stimulants can often be illegal in sports, so firstly individuals can fail an anti-doping test if they’re a high-performance athlete, but the stimulants in them can cause anxiety, heart arrhythmias, panic attacks, and have led people to collapse. We know that presentations of this sort [in emergency departments] are on the increase.

“Supplements that claim to increase muscle bulk can be contaminated with anabolic steroids, which could be in the supplement despite the fact they are not on the label.

“We know that anabolic steroids are banned in sport and there can be side effects of anabolic steroids, including decreased testicular size, negative effects on fertility, acne, aggression and liver problems. So for all of these reasons it is very important that no-one walks into a shop and just buys their own supplements or just takes them without having a discussion with a doctor or a dietitian in the first instance.”

There is “misinformation”, he says, that all high performance athletes take supplements - “that simply is not the case”.

“Even at the highest level, many of our Australian Olympic and professional athletes do not take supplements, there are some professional clubs who do not use supplements.”

Elite sporting performance, he says, is based on three key pillars: good nutrition, good training techniques and getting plenty of sleep.

“In the vast majority of cases supplements are not required if you have good diet, if you get good sleep and if you undertake good scientifically-based training.”

Dr Hughes says supplements are only required by “a very small number of athletes, in very specific situations in sport”.

“It is a very small percentage of sporting situations in which supplements may be required and in circumstances where supplements may be required, how they’re taken and what should be taken, should be on the advice of a sports dietitian or a sports doctor.”

Dr Hughes urges people to stop, pause, and have a careful think about the risks involved.

“You need to understand that supplements are poorly regulated, we’re not sure what’s in them. You should get the advice of a sports dietitian or a sports doctor … you really shouldn’t source them on your own.”