Category Archives: The Science of Supplements

Articles exploring supplements that have scientific backing and can help you in your training

A Guide To Pre Workout Supplements




Pre-workout supplements, as the name suggests, are designed to be taken up to an hour before your workout and to provide a mental focus, physical strength and endurance boost. Most pre-workouts provide these performance boosting benefits through caffeine. It’s that simple. Lots of pre-workouts come loaded with specific amino acids, different sugars and all sorts of filler but in the end, the caffeine is the true source of any performance benefit.

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Caffeine is a well known stimulant, boosting mental clarity as well as physical endurance. If you are feeling sluggish after a long days work and struggle to bring energy to the gym, pre-workout supplements can remedy this and provide a powerful boost to all sorts of workouts from cardio to weight lifting.

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As always, don’t just take my word for it. Instead lets take a look at the science and studies which demonstrate the powerful performance enhancing effects of caffeine…

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What is caffeine?

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Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug (one which alters brain function).  Most of this is in the form of coffee. Delicious coffee. I need a coffee. Caffeine fits into the methylxanthine class of molecules, home to a number of other stimulants. Caffeine is a well known CNS (central nervous system) stimulant which explains its powerful effects on perception, focus and co-ordination.

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Look at that sweet chemical structure

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Caffeine has a wide range of receptor, ion channel and enzyme targets beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, caffeine alters multiple physiological processes when consumed which explains its wide range of effects both cognitive and physical. The most important interaction to be aware of and one of the major ‘mechanisms of action’ is caffeine’s interaction with all sub types of the adenosine receptor (1).

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At these receptors, caffeine acts as an antagonist (it essentially stops them functioning for a short period of time). Whereas caffeine is a CNS stimulant, adenosine acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter or a CNS depressant (2). By antagonising adenosine receptors, caffeine stops the depressing effects of adensoine.

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Caffeine antagonism of adenosine receptors  stimulates numerous brain nuclei that control (and increase) respiratory rate, heart rate and vasoconstriction (3). Simultaneously, this receptor antagonism also promotes the release of other neurotransmitters, like acetylcholine, which provides caffeine it’s stimulatory function.

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All of these are well documented responses to caffeine intake and underpin some of the numerous physiological changes that boost physical performance.

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We known HOW caffeine should boost performance but what evidence is there that caffeine supplementation actually benefits performance during cognitive or physical tasks.

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Fatigue and Drowsiness

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A number of studies have shown that caffeine reduces physical fatigue (4) and increases the time until fatigue is reached (5). Due to this, caffeine can be used as a temporary measure to prevent or treat ‘drowsiness’ (6). Drowsiness is described as a ‘state of strong desire for sleep’.

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Fatigue can apply to the weakening of muscle contractions over time or CNS fatigue in which the nervous system itself struggles to innervate the muscles, due to reduced neurotransmission. Caffeine appears to be better at alleviating muscle fatigue rather than CNS fatigue. CNS fatigue is a more serious condition usually resulting from prolonged over-exercise and inadequate nutrition.

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You so do you cute little bastard

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Due to these effects, caffeine can be used to prevent sleep (not encouraged) and can also increase task performance when sleep deprived (7). A heavily sleep deprived brain usually performs exceptionally badly in logic puzzles and tests of co-ordination.

Additionally, and without surprise, caffeine supplementation promotes increased focus and this results in better body co-ordination in general including hand eye co-ordination (8) – applicable to a number of sports.

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What about pre-workout use in the gym. Will it actually improve your performance?

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Caffeine and physical training

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Caffeine is a powerful molecule. Numerous studies (see above) have demonstrated its strong stimulatory effects on many aspects of physiology. The most relevant being wakefulness, focus, co-ordination and power output. Grouped together, these benefits are ideal for increasing performance in sports and lifting.

What does the science say regarding caffeine supplementation and exercise performance?

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Key message:

Caffeine increases performance in numerous forms of exercise both aerobic and anaerobic (9)

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Caffeine is a well established ERGOGENIC AID in humans (10). An ergogenic aid is a substance which provides a performance boost either mental or physical.  The performance enhancing effects of caffeine have been known for decades now and are highlighted in a number of older reviews (11,12)  In most measures of performance, those subjects taking caffeine out-performed their control counterparts.

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The general finding appears to be that the greatest difference in performance is seen 1 hour after caffeine intake.

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An array of studies have shown that caffeine is an effective performance aid in a number of sports/exercises. 

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Aerobic activities especially endurance sports (13)

Improved sprint performance (14)

Improved cycling performance and power output (15)

Anaerobic activities such as weight lifting (16)

Overall caffeine also delays the onset of muscle and central fatigue (17) which improves endurance across the board.

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As previously discussed, caffeine reduces fatigue and increases focus as well, all of which benefits exercises ranging from power lifting to endurance running.

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Of all the supplements explored on this website, pre-workouts will give you the most obvious and immediate boost in the gym due to the acute effects of caffeine stimulation.  Caffeine improves focus, endurance, co-ordination and performance in both anaerobic and aerobic exercises. A supplement for use in all fitness situations.


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Potential dangers

 

‘Pre workouts’ are, in theory, the most dangerous due to their high caffeine content. Always avoid these supplements if you are highly sensitive to caffeine. Never exceed the recommended dose stated by the manufacture.  As with creatine, I’d recommend cycling pre-workout use to give yourself a break every now and then. Be warned, that these supplements are POWERFUL. My own advice is to try half the recommended dose the first time you try it and adjust accordingly there after.

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Hahaha…but seriously…watch the dosage

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What about caffeine-free alternatives?

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Some people don’t handle caffeine as well as others. Instead of boosting mental clarity, individuals who are very sensitive to caffeine may find themselves ‘jittery’, experiencing involuntary shaking and restlessness. If you think or know you are sensitive to caffeine, supplementation with it is probably best avoided. The good news is that caffeine free pre-workouts do exist (or you can make your own using the list at the bottom of the article)

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Although caffeine is a huge part of the pre-workout formula, other components can boost your workout mainly by increasing endurance. These major additional components include beta alanine and citrulline malate both of which can be found detailed in the ‘On a tight budget’ section found at the bottom of the article.

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It can sometimes be hard to find to caffeine-free alternatives when using google as the vast majority are all caffeine based. To give you a head start I’ve listed the names of some of the most popular brands…

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  • EVOGEN EVP
  • MusclePharm VasoSport
  • MAN Pump Powder (What a name!)
  • NO explode (caffeine-free)

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The caffeine-free market was pretty sparse just a few years ago but the market is expanding year on year so the choice is growing larger than ever before. All 4 of these supplements have great user reviews and are considered some of the best. A good place to start if caffeine isn’t for you.

 


Top Picks

 

                                             

 

 

Both of these are great pre-workout products. NO explode is the cheaper option. It is also the first pre-workout I ever used and it blew me away. It tastes good and can fit into your budget at less than 20 GBP for half a kilo. It dissolves well. Most importantly it provides a meaningful boost in the gym, clearing your head and prepping your muscles for serious action.

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I’m a big fan of optimum nutrition as a supplement manufacturer in general and recommend their micro-ionzied creatine to give yourself a long term training boost. Their pre-workout maintains the high standards seen in other Optimum Nutrition products.

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On a tight budget?

 

Pre-workout supplements can be expensive but as with most supplements, the individual components are much cheaper than the final product. If you are working on a tight budget but still want to make the most of your gym sessions then you can make your own pre-workout formulas from home for a much cheaper price.

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All you will need are the major (non-filler) components found in most pre-workout brands.

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Caffeine: This stuff is cheap and comes powdered. A quick google will give you numerous options but the base product is the same. In terms of amount, try to match the caffeine content of reputable pre-workout products already on the market which have approximately 150 mg per serving.

Creatine Monohydrate: I’ve written extensively about the benefits of creatine for weight and power lifters. Creatine essentially acts as an additional energy store for muscle contractions. This allows you to squeeze out those important last repetitions when lifting weights. Pop about 5 g of this per serving in your pre workout.

Low or non-calorie flavouring of your choice

That sums up the basic mix. The caffeine is the key ingredient providing the performance boost. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

If you are feeling fancy you can add some extra goodies on top…

Beta-Alanine: A couple of studies, explored in the link reviews,  have shown that beta-alanine can increase physical endurance allowing you to train for a longer period of time (18, 19). Aim for between 2 and 5 g per serving.

Citrulline Malate: In similar fashion, the amino acid L-Citrulline coupled to malate appears to boost performance in a limited number of studies (20,21). The most important aspect of this compound appears to be a reduction in fatigue, in theory allowing you to train for longer periods of time. Aim for around 3 g per serving.

Thanks for reading,

Any further questions or advice? Head to the comments section or email me directly at ed@scienceguysupplements.com

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References

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References can now be found linked directly in the text rather than listed in this section. Delving deeper into the research has never been easier!

If you are looking to do a bit of your own research, on any topic, PubMed and Google Scholar both have a huge literature collection.

A guide to whey protein: Do you need it?

Whey protein supplements are the most popular and most widely sold of all fitness products. Gym-bros (and other users) pounding down the protein shakes have helped grow the value of the whey protein industry to a whopping 7 billion pounds. This is projected to exceed 10 billion GBP by 2020. So why are whey protein supplements so popular? As almost anyone can tell you, muscle is primarily composed of proteins. If your goal is to increase or maintain your weight and muscle mass then good levels of protein in your diet are absolutely essential. Whether or not you decide to obtain this protein from whey products is entirely up to you and I’ve written this guide to give you the general run down on what whey protein is and if it can ultimately help with your training.

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Despite the widespread availability and growing popularity of whey protein, a good amount of misinformation still persists on the internet and especially in the gym. This article aims to explain the importance of proteins for muscle growth, delve into how whey is made, address concerns regarding whey protein side effects and finally determine if you even need whey protein at all.

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Protein and muscle growth

 

Proteins are an essential nutrient of the human body. They are formed by chaining amino acids together with peptide bonds. When consumed, proteins are broken down into smaller ‘chunks’ or chains by the actions of acid in the stomach as well as various protease enzymes. This protein break down is important for obtaining the essential amino acids (phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine) which we cannot synthesise ourselves (1)

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Proteins are both a major building block for tissue and also a fuel source, providing as much energy as carbohydrates (fats are about double this, yay fat!) at around 4 kcal (17 kJ) per gram. Protein is only used as anaerobic fuel when carbohydrates are low, or as aerobic fuel when lipid resources are also low (2). Alongside their role in muscle building, proteins can be found in practically all cells of the body where they act as major structural components (3). When broken down into their amino acids, proteins are used as precursors to nucleic acids (essential for all forms of life…so pretty bloody important), co-enzymes and a variety of hormones to name just a few (4). Basically, without proteins you’d be a pool of slightly salty water.

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Not so big now are you puddle face
Not so big now are you puddle face

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.Protein is essential to develop and repair muscle tissue (5) and there is good evidence that athletes and active individuals require greater protein consumption, than the average person,  to power this growth and repair (6). However there appears to be a fairly clear upper-limit on protein requirements. Once protein needs are met (which will be higher if you are training), additional protein will not increase muscle synthesis and will instead be excreted as waste . This holds true for almost all biological nutrients and molecules including things like vitamins:

http://scienceguysupplements.com/the-multivitamin-hoax.

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So whats the ideal amount of protein to be consuming? It depends on your goals and your body type but the generally agreed ‘standard’ amount is roughly 0.7-0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. 

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For an average 72 kg man wanting to gain some muscle that would be about 128 g of protein a day. You may want to take 1 gram per pound for ‘safety’ but any more than that seems to have no positive effect on muscle growth (7,8,9)

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Surprisingly, research has shown that as long as you are meeting your protein requirements you are better off obtaining additional  calories from non-protein sources to increase your muscle growth even further (11,12,13).  Eating a very high protein but low carbohydrate diet isn’t all that great for muscle growth.

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Ah good old non-protein calorie sources
Ah good old non-protein calorie sources

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The best diet for muscle growth, as in most cases, involves balance. You want to be consuming 0.8-1 g/lb of body weight per day whilst also obtaining a good amount of your calories from carbohydrates and unsaturated fat. This will really help you power through heavier lifts. I’ve noticed very obvious drops in my maximal lifts when cutting down on my carbohydrates even when actively increasing my protein intake.

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Whey protein production 

 

I’ve summarised the process (very simply) in a little diagram:

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Producing whey protein is very cheap. Whey is essentially a by-product of cheese manufacturing. Initially, whey protein was, and still is, sprayed onto hay to act as a  cheap, protein rich supplement feed for live stock. Now that the supplement market has boomed companies now target the greatest prey of all…the human cow. Whey protein isn’t very expensive but it certainly isn’t cheap either. Considering it is manufactured in huge quantities for a small cost the mark-up we pay as consumers is in the thousands of percents.

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The diagram above is a very general outline of whey production but multiple forms of whey can be produced by changing steps in the process. Most of these forms are available as bodybuilding supplements:

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  • Concentrates have typically  low levels of fat and cholesterol but, in general, compared to the other forms of whey protein, have higher levels of carbohydrates in the form of lactose — they are 29%–89% protein by weight. This is the cheapest form of whey protein.

 

  • Isolates are processed to remove the fat and lactose. They are 90%+ protein by weight. Like whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates are mild to slightly milky in taste. This type of whey protein is especially popular as a supplement probably due to the fat removal.

 

  • Hydrosylates are whey proteins that are predigested and partially hydrolysed for the purpose of easier metabolising, but their cost is generally higher because of additional processing (14). Highly hydrolysed whey may be less allergenic than other forms of whey. Allergies are more commonly against the casein (a phosphoprotein) rather than the other proteins in milk.

 

I’ve always gone for ‘isolate‘ whey proteins as my goal is to take on as much protein per scoop of supplement as possible. I prefer to obtain my carbohydrates and fats from cooked food. However, if you are actively trying to ‘bulk’ and increase your weight or improve your maximal lifts then concentration whey protein might be more appropriate for your goals.

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The ‘anabolic window’: fact or fiction

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.The term ‘anabolic window‘ is thrown around the gym all the time if you mention protein shakes and other whey protein supplements. A lot of ‘gym bros’ frantically down a massive protein shake following a weight lifting session claiming that the protein is needed straight after a work out if you want to grow. The idea is that following a workout there is a small window of opportunity to intake protein which your body will use immediately to start synthesising muscle. If you miss this window, some will claim, you will either not grow as much or not grow at all depending on who you talk to. This protein doesn’t have to come from whey but it’s easier, faster and cheaper to have a protein shake with you than a chicken breast and a few eggs…

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anabolic-window-meme

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I myself am guilty of this. I always take a protein shake straight after a workout but I do this more out of habit and to have something in my stomach before I can get hold of real food. I’ve had periods at the gym on and off protein shakes and some of my most marked strength gains have occurred when NOT taking  protein supplements. Sometimes I would wait as long as 90 minutes after a work out to consume food suggesting immediate protein intake might not be necessary. However this is all anecdotal evidence. As always lets look to the science for answers…

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What does the science say about protein intake timing and the so called ‘anabolic window’?

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I’m not sure where this ‘myth’ first started but the idea of an anabolic window is pretty much entirely false and here’s why:

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In most situations, muscles don’t break down following training 

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When we lift weights our goal is to stimulate muscle growth. Following a workout, muscles show signs of tension damage (and low grade inflammation) and the goal is to repair them to a bigger and stronger state than before. However, your muscles won’t ‘break down’ if you don’t intake protein immediately. Insulin release plays an important role in preventing muscle break down and ingesting carbs and protein will raise your circulating insulin levels. In theory this should reduce muscle break down but the ‘breakdown’ is so minimal to begin with that the impact of insulin spiking is negligible (15). The only situation in which you should make sure to intake protein and calories as soon as possible is if you are training in a fasted state (16). I personally never do this as not eating at all before lifting weights makes me feel lethargic and weak.

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No good evidence supports the claim that post-workout protein increases muscle growth

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On the surface it seems to make sense that if you take on protein immediately after hammering your muscles then they will grow and repair at a faster rate than if you didn’t. However an in-depth meta-study (a study pooling data from multiple similar studies) found that this simply isn’t the case (17). So it seems as if the major touted benefit of post-workout supplementation i.e. faster and bigger muscle growth, probably isn’t true.

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Having looked more closely at the data, most of the cohorts in the studies are comprised of either obese or elderly people (as muscle maintenance is very important)  or those who don’t train frequently. Some studies do look at more active individuals and while a small benefit is seen in one or two (18), the most benefit is actually attributed to a full post-workout meal within a few hours of training.

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One study conducted in 2012, that does include exercise was conducted on a number of young men (19). In this study, 33 men with no previous weight lifting experience were put on a 3 week resistance training programme (enough time to see early signs of muscle growth). Half the men were assigned protein immediately before and after their workout and the other half received a placebo (in this case a similar powder but no protein content). After 3 weeks, the size,  one rep maximum and maximum voluntary force were all measured in the bicep and no differences between the PROTEIN or PLACEBO groups were observed.

 

The evidence suggests that there is no reason to ingest whey protein (or any protein for that matter) immediately in the post workout period. However, that is not to say that increased protein in general will not benefit your training and muscle gains overall.

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Whey protein side effects

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I wanted to briefly look at any side effects that may be associated with whey protein consumption.

The general consensus is that whey protein, when taken by mouth (how else?!) is safe for both adults and children (20,21).

The issues arise when excessive amounts of whey protein are ingested and this can be said for very high protein diets in general.

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Side effects include:

  • Gastrointestinal distress: bloating, increased bowel movements, cramps
  • Nausea
  • Increased thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches (maybe due to ‘hidden’ MSG in some cheaper whey supplements
  • Ketosis if coupled with little to no carbohydrates in the diet (22)
  • Increased risk of kidney stones (23)
  • Potentially carcinogenic (high chronic consumption) (24)

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These complications are fairly rare. When I first started taking whey protein years ago I did suffer mild gastrointestinal distress but this resolved quickly and hasn’t returned. Most of these complications results from excessive protein consumption or only result when other dietary changes are also made such as ketosis.

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.For the average person using whey to reach around the 1 g per pound of body weight value (discussed earlier), long term whey protein intake is safe. For those who are lactose intolerant you can chose supplements that have almost all lactose removed such as whey isolates.

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Will whey protein benefit me?

 

This does depend entirely on your goals. Whey protein isn’t a magic powder that will turn you into a Greek god but it is a great way to increase your protein intake if you feel your diet isn’t providing enough or if you just want to be taking slightly more. Some people suggest using whey protein to promote weight loss but I would avoid this. In most cases whey protein or similar shakes are suggested as meal replacements. When losing weight I don’t think supplements are necessary at all – meal replacement isn’t a good idea as it doesn’t encourage a healthy relationship with your food.

When bulking up (during the winter months like a big bear) whey concentrate powders, which have a good amount of carbohydrates and fats remaining in the product, are a good way of getting extra calories into your diet alongside protein.

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.Take home message: Nothing beats real food but whey protein is a fast and cheap ‘protein fix’.

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I say this in a lot of my articles because it’s very important. A lot of people starting out at the gym especially younger and smaller individuals  will spend a fortune on whey protein, creatine, BCAAs and everything else in the hope of packing on muscle fast but they neglect real nutrition. This simply doesn’t work. The bulk of your calories should be coming from real, nutritious food. Supplements should be used as a convenient way to squeeze in a bit more on top of everything else to give you an edge. This is especially true of whey protein.

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As an added note – whey protein is frequently used in a non-fitness capacity if you suffer from illnesses that are associated with muscle atrophy or that massively reduce appetite. These include established HIV and forms of cancer. Whey protein can also be taken simply if you have trouble  maintaining weight in general and doesn’t have to be associated with fitness or weight lifting.

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Top picks

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The choice of whey protein is staggering. The first thing to do is to look at if the product is a whey ‘concentrate’, ‘isolate’, or ‘hydroyslate’.

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Concentrates are great for general weight gain as they contain more calories per gram due to increased levels of carbohydrates and fats

Isolates are good if you’re looking for a high protein but low carbohydrate and fat product. Per serving you will obtain greater levels of protein but lower overall calories

Hydrosylates are the most heavily processed and expensive of the whey products. They have been designed in theory to be more easily digested.

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The products above are examples of ones I have used in the past and are some of the top choices in their category. Currently I have been using both My Protein Isolate Impact Whey and Olmpus Health Whey Concentrate.

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As always, thanks for reading and feel free to drop me an email at ed@scienceguysupplements.com for any further information,

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ScienceGuy

 


 

References

I recommend using Google Scholar for quick access to these studies.

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1) Genton, Laurence; Melzer, Katarina; Pichard, Claude (2010). “Energy and macronutrient requirements for physical fitness in exercising subjects”. Clinical Nutrition. 29 (4): 413–423

2) Nutrition Working Group of the International Olympic Committee (2003). “Nutrition for Athletes”. IOC Consensus Conference on Nutrition for Sport. Lausanne.

3) Van Holden and Mathews. ‘Biochemistry’.  Third Edition (1999)

4) Branden and Tooze ‘An introduction to Protein Structure’. Second Edition (1998)

5) Hermann, Janice R. ‘Protein and the Body‘. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources • Oklahoma State University: T–3163–1 – T–3163–4.

6) Lemon, Peter (2000). “Beyond the Zone: Protein Needs of Active Individuals”. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 19 (5): 513–521

7) Lemon PW, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. ‘Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders’. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1992 Aug;73(2):767-75.

8) Lemon PW. ‘Beyond the zone: protein needs of active individuals’. J Am Coll Nutr. 2000 Oct;19(5 Suppl):513S-521S.

9) Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. ‘Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation’. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2011.619204.

10) Rodriguez NR, DiMarco NM, Langley S; American Dietetic Association; Dietitians of Canada; American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Mar;109(3):509-27.

11) Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, La Bounty P, Roberts M, Burke D, Landis J, Lopez H, Antonio J. ‘International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise’. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007 Sep 26;4:8.

12) Tipton KD, Wolfe RR.‘Protein and amino acids for athletes.’ J Sports Sci. 2004 Jan;22(1):65-79. 

13) Rozenek R, Ward P, Long S, Garhammer J.’Effects of high-calorie supplements on body composition and muscular strength following resistance training’. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2002 Sep;42(3):340-7.

14)  Foegeding, EA; Davis, JP; Doucet, D; McGuffey, MK (2002). “Advances in modifying and understanding whey protein functionality’‘ Trends in Food Science & Technology. 13 (5)
15) Kumar V, Atherton P, Smith K, Rennie MJ: Human muscle protein synthesis and breakdown during and after exercise. J Appl Physiol 2009, 106(6):2026-39.

16)  Pitkanen HT, Nykanen T, Knuutinen J, Lahti K, Keinanen O, Alen M, Komi PV, Mero AA: Free amino acid pool and muscle protein balance after resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003, 35(5):784-92.

17) Aragon, Alan Albert, and Brad Jon Schoenfeld. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 10.1 (2013): 5.
18) Phillips SM (February 2011). “The science of muscle hypertrophy: making dietary protein count”. Proc Nutr Soc(Review). 70 (1): 100–3.
19) Erskine RM, Fletcher G, Hanson B, Folland JP: Whey protein does not enhance the adaptations to elbow flexor resistance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012, 44(9):1791-800.
22) Smith, Jack L.; Gropper, Sareen Annora Stepnick; Groff, James L. (2009). Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
23)  Food and Nutrition Board (2005). A Report of the Panel on Macronutrients, Subcommittees on Upper Reference Levels of Nutrients and Interpretation and Uses of Dietary Reference Intakes, and the Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS, Washington, D.C.

24)  Levine et al. ‘Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer and overall mortality in he 65 and younger but not older population’ Cell Metabolism. March 2014. 19 (3) p407–417.

 

The truth about Fish Oil

Many cupboards across the country are home to a little tub of those squishy yellow fish oil pills.

Over the last decade or so, fish oil capsules have become exceptionally popular and now take pride of place on any health supplement shop shelf.

Eating fish is  generally considered healthy. Fish, in general, is low in saturated fats and less calorific than red meats. Populations that consume large amounts of fish also have lower incidence of heart disease. Additionally, high consumption of red meat has been linked with increased risk of bowel cancer (1) – further promoting the eating of fish is therefore good for public health.

The idea for a long time has been that the oils and fats in fish is what really sets it apart from other meat products – hence why we now see fish oil supplements.

But what is the truth about eating fish oils regularly? Will you really be ‘healthier’? Are fish oils protective against heart disease for example?

Lets find out…but first a bit of background about what fish oils actually are.

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What are ‘Fish Oils’?

 

Fish oil is simply an oily substance derived from the tissues of ‘oily’ fish. The most oily fish are sardines, mackerel, salmon, halibut and tuna. Lots of other fish also contain these oils but to a lesser degree (2).

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 The major components of fish oil are the omega-3 fatty acids:

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Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

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An additional type of fatty acid is also important in human health but found in nuts, not oily fish:

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α-linolenic acid (ALA)

.Both EPA and DHA are described as ‘essential’ – we have to obtain these fatty acids from our diets, we cannot make them ourselves (3). ‘Fatty’ fish such as salmon and sardines are great sources of both of these compounds. If you aren’t a fan of fish, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts are just a few other dietary sources from which you can obtain high levels of EPA and DHA.

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A handy conversion schematic from Dr. Ben King at drbenking.com

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Omega-3 fatty acids are important for normal metabolic function and are especially important for growth in infants (4). DHA is found in large quantities in the brain where it acts as a major structural component (5).  Aside from structural function, DHA and EPA are thought to play an important role in brain health – good evidence suggest omega-3s are important in maintaining mood stability and show potential in combating depression (discussed more below).

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As with a lot of popular supplements – many remarkable health benefits have been attributed to omega-3s and the broader term of ‘fish oils’. As always, as I have shown you before, when we dig deeper we see that many common claims about supplements either exaggerate the truth or are entirely made up. Some supplements have very weak literature and research behind them, fish oils however have been researched in depth for a number of years so we can draw firmer conclusions regarding their therapeutic efficacy.

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Are there health benefits: What does the science say?

 

At some point or another, fish oils have been said to cure or alleviate an extremely wide range of maladies and diseases. I won’t cover them all here as the list is practically endless and mostly made up. Instead I will focus on common diseases and pathologies which have the most research behind them concerning fish oils as a therapeutic supplements.

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.Cardiovascular Disease

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CVD and fish oils go hand in hand. Aside from widely cited ‘mental boosting’ effects, the next benefit on the list of fish oil supplements is almost almost cardiovascular health. We know that dietary fat intake is very important for cardiovascular health and can be a major indicator of risk of heart attack. In general, we know that trans fats are especially bad when it comes to heart health and that polyunsaturated fats are a much better choice and may even be protective against heart disease if eaten in moderation (6). It therefore makes sense that so much research has investigated the effects of omega-3 fatty acids and CV health and disease risk.

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Basic anatomy of the heart – many of these components can be adversely affected by cardiovascular disease

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Most of that research sends a clear message: Fish oil supplements do not protect against heart attacks of strokes. Although some individual papers have shown potential benefit – i.e. two papers from 1999 and 2009 (7,8) suggesting fish oils may have beneficial effects on certain abnormal heart rhythms. However, since then meta studies have refuted that specific claim (9) and also gone on to conclude that…

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”Omega-3 Fatty Acid supplementation did not reduce the chance of death, cardiac death, heart attack or stroke”

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This is the conclusion of a 2012 meta-study (Journal of the American Medical Association) which analysed the data from 20 separate studies and well over 60,000 patients (10). This is a good amount of data so we can be confident in this conclusion as it stands.

It is important to note that although fish oil doesn’t seem to prevent death from heart attacks of stroke it does appear to have beneficial effects for previous sufferers of heart attacks and other people with a history of cardiovascular disease. Omega-3s possess modest anti-inflammatory properties (11) and it is probably because of this that a cohort of heart attack survivors that received daily fish oil supplements for 6 months showed improved heart function overall and lower markers of systemic inflammation than their control counterparts (12). Furthermore, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation greater than one gram a day for at least a year may be protective against cardiac death, sudden death, and myocardial infarction in people who have a history of cardiovascular disease.

Another meta study also concluded that there was ‘tentative’ evidence of an anti-inflammatory effect  from fish oil supplementation. More data will be needed to take a stronger position on this in the future.

Although not directly heart protective in healthy individuals the current evidence suggests fish oil supplements may benefit those who have a history of heart disease and/or have suffered a heart attack.

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Prostate Cancer

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I’ve decided to mainly write about prostate cancer here as this is the type of cancer with the most relevant studies. Omega-3s are often touted as having a strong anti-cancer effect but as I have said before: Just because a compound kills or inhibits the growth of cancer cells in vitro (in a cell culture dish) does not mean it qualifies as a cancer therapy by itself.

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More true advice has never been given

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Some studies have shown that fish oils rich in Omega-3s do inhibit tumour cell growth in vitro. This effect was deemed strong enough to suggest that a diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids be used alongside traditional breast cancer treatments (13) – this may actually prove beneficial (this does not endorse Omega-3 fatty acids as a treatment by itself in any way).

But what about studies where they gave actual patients with cancer Omega-3 supplements or looked directly at Omega-3 blood concentrations? This has been mostly done with prostate cancer patients.

The area remains controversial due to the publication of a few papers with conflicting results.

One paper demonstrated that increased DHA in the blood was associated with a reduction in prostate cancer risk (14). However, two other papers have shown almost the exact opposite. One group showed that increased levels of DHA and EPA was associated with an increased risk of more aggressive prostate cancer (15).  Another group presented evidence that suggested a link between high blood levels of omega -3 fatty acids and an increased risk of prostate cancer (16).

These papers have all been published in the last few years, starting in 2012, so this is a an actively contested research  topic that has yet to see a solid consensus emerge. As such we can say that overall, given the available data, the effects of omega-3 supplementation on cancer, including prostate cancer, is currently inconclusive. 

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Alzheimer’s Disease

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It is unlikely that dietary intervention will prevent Alzheimer’s and even more unlikely that symptoms will be reversed once they manifest. A 2012 Cochrane meta-analysis (17) pooled the data from studies when individuals over the age of 60 had been given fish oils as a supplement. They found that taking fish oil supplements did not provide protection against the development of Alzheimer’s in the over 60s.

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In their words…

“Our analysis suggests that there is currently no evidence that omega-3 fatty acid supplements provide a benefit for memory or concentration in later life”.

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It is important to note that this meta-study specifically looked at those over the age of 60 as Alzheimer’s is typically a disease of old age. This study is therefore limited in a number of ways. It cannot tell us whether fish oil supplementation in younger years may ultimately prove protective against Alzheimer’s in old age. Although this remains unlikely, fatty acids are important brain components and do play a role in mood and brain function so there may be an as of yet, undiscovered link.

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Mental Health

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Overall, studies and meta-studies in this area have expressed the need for many more randomised controlled studies in order to increase the data pool and that the data is, in general, limited. The major review that suggested this need for more data also showed that omega-3s were an effective adjunctive therapy for depressive (but not manic) symptoms in bipolar disorder (18).

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The most recent meta-study in this area from 2014, an analysis of 11 studies, looked at treating depression in patients diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and those with depression but without a diagnosis of MDD.

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They concluded…

‘The use of omega-3 PUFA is effective in patients with diagnosis of MDD and on depressive patients without diagnosis of MDD.”

Omega 3 fish oil supplements appear to be effective in treating depression. More data more establish this more strongly in the future.

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Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

Omega-3s may have a small beneficial effect on hypertension by lowering blood pressure (19). The effect currently shown in studies is small and appears to only effect individuals with hypertension. Studies which failed to replicate the blood pressure reduction may be due to dosage issues. Additionally, DHA and EPA don’t seem to have the same efficacy with DHA having potentially greater effects.

This area is worth exploring in greater detail with more data before a solid conclusion can be drawn.

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Are there any dangers associated with fish oil supplements?

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A 2013 review on fish oil supplement dangers concluded…

”appear mild at worst and are unlikely to be of clinical significance”

This is true of eating fish in general…not just taking fish oil supplements.

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Mercury

Heavy metal accumulation can be a problem with fish and predatory fish at the top of the food chain have higher levels of mercury due  to bio-accumulation over time. Mercury levels can range from very low to worryingly high in a single serving of fish. Usually from 10 ppb (parts per billion) of mercury all the way up to 1,000 (20). Luckily your average fish oil supplement contains 2 ppb mercury- well within tolerable limits (21).

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The process of bio-accumulation means large predatory fish have greater levels of environmental toxins in their system than smaller prey fish. Original image from jessbanda.wordpress.com

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Dioxins and dioxin like chemicals

Chronic exposure to low levels of dioxins may be carcinogenic and the chemical is classified as a human carcinogen (22).  There is also evidence that uterine exposure to dioxins leads to subtle developmental issues in children. In a similar fashion to mercury, chemicals like dioxin bio accumulate in fish so that the concentrations in the fish are much greater than the surrounding environment. In reputable brands of  fish oil supplements, dioxins will not be found. Always buy your supplements from reputable brands and suppliers.

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Vitamin A

The liver and liver products of fish (i.e. cod liver oil) contain omega-3, but also the active form of vitamin A.

High intake of vitamin A can lead to dangerous Hypervitaminosis A.

I have covered the role of vitamins in health extensively here.

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% Recommended Daily Allowances

FDA guidelines state that it is  safe to take up to 3000 mg of omega-3 per day. However, that is pure omega-3 oil not 3000 mg of fish oil.

Fish oil contain varying levels of omega-3 which should be labelled clearly on the back of the packaging.

A typical 1000 mg fish oil pill contains about 200-400 mg of omega-3 fatty acids. You would have to take over ten pills a day to be over recommended allowances – no chance of that.

.Ultimately taking fish oil supplements from a reputable producer and seller is no more dangerous than consuming fish frequently.

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The Final Word

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Dissecting out exactly what certain molecules and compounds are doing in the body is always tricky. This is certainly true of supplements. There is no doubt that supplements are a great idea for those deficient in a particular nutrient but the benefits of taking more of a particular nutrient when you are already meeting requirements are much harder to determine. This is a common theme running through supplement use in general.

Overall fish oils (Omega-3s) are physiologically important and play a number of key roles in the body. The science suggests that  supplementing with fish oils is no where near as ‘powerful’ as some manufactures would have you believe…

Currently the data suggests there is no clear protective effect against…

Risk of cancer

Risk of stroke

Risk of heart attack

Development of Alzheimer’s Disease

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However! There is some evidence that Omega-3s are effective in…

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Treating certain types or depression – more data would be ideal

Increasing general heart function following a heart attack

General reduction in markers of  systemic inflammation

May have small beneficial effects on hypertension

Although there are some minor risk associated with high fish oil intake (potential heavy metal ingestion), this risk is no greater than when simply eating fish. On this topic, researchers at Harvard’s School of Public Health said…

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 ”The benefits of fish intake generally far outweigh the potential risks.”

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I myself really enjoy eating fish – mainly salmon and tuna. I also eat mixed nuts frequently which include walnuts. All good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. I also always have a tub of fish oil capsules handy at home. I do not take them every day but if I haven’t got hold of fresh fish for a week or two I will go ahead and supplement for a few days with capsules.

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If you fancy doing the same, grab them for cheap down below. Also, check out the Microalgae Capsules – the vegetarian alternative to fish oil capsules.

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Thanks for reading!

-ScienceGuy

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References

 

  1. Zhu, H; et al. (2013). “Red and processed meat intake is associated with higher gastric cancer risk: a meta-analysis of epidemiological observational studies.”. PLOS ONE. 8 (8)
  2. Kris-Etherton, Penny M.; William S. Harris, Lawrence J. Appel (2002). “Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease”. Circulation. 106 (21): 2747–57.
  3. Moghadasian, Mohammed H. (2008). “Advances in Dietary Enrichment with N-3 Fatty Acids”. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 48 (5): 402–10.
  4. Freemantle E, Vandal M, Tremblay-Mercier J, Tremblay S, Blachère JC, Bégin ME, Brenna JT, Windust A, Cunnane SC (2006). “Omega-3 fatty acids, energy substrates, and brain function during aging”. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids. 75 (3): 213–20.
  5. “Nutrition for the Brain” (PDF)/DHA in Brain and Retina Structure” (PDF)
  6. Zaloga GP, Harvey KA, Stillwell W, Siddiqui R (2006). “Trans Fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease”. Nutrition in Clinical Practice. 21 (5): 505–512.
  7. Charnock John S (1999). “The role of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid-enriched diets in the prevention of ventricular fibrillation” Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 8 (3): 226–30.
  8. Li GR, Sun HY, Zhang XH, Cheng LC, Chiu SW, Tse HF, Lau CP (2009). “Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids inhibit transient outward and ultra-rapid delayed rectifier K+currents and Na+current in human atrial myocytes”. Cardiovasc Res. 81 (2): 286–93.
  9. Khawaja, Owais; Gaziano, J. Michael; Djoussé, Luc (2012-02-01). “A meta-analysis of omega-3 fatty acids and incidence of atrial fibrillation”. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 31 (1): 4–13.
  10. Rizos, E. C.; Ntzani, E. E.; Bika, E; Kostapanos, MS; Elisaf, MS (2012). “Association Between Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation and Risk of Major Cardiovascular Disease Events: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis”. Journal of the American Medical Association. 308 (10): 1024–33.
  11. Wall R, Ross RP, Fitzgerald GF, Stanton C (2010). “Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids”. Nutr Rev. 68 (5): 280–89.
  12. Heydari B, Abdullah S (2016) Effect of Omega-3 Acid Ethyl Esters on Left Ventricular Remodelling After Acute Myocardial Infarction: The OMEGA-REMODEL Randomised Clinical TrialCirculation2;134(5):378
  13. Jiajie Liu and David W. L. Ma (2014).’‘The Role of n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in the Prevention and Treatment of Breast Cancer” Nutrients. 6(11): 5184–5223.
  14. Heinze, VM; Actis, AB (February 2012). “Dietary conjugated linoleic acid and long-chain n-3 fatty acids in mammary and prostate cancer protection: a review”. International journal of food sciences and nutrition. 63 (1): 66–78.
  15. Chua ME, Sio MC, Sorongon MC, Morales ML (May–June 2013). “The relevance of serum levels of long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and prostate cancer risk: a meta-analysis”. Canadian Urological Association Journal. 7 (5–6): E333–43.
  16. Brasky TM, Darke AK, Song X, et al. (August 2013). “Plasma phospholipid fatty acids and prostate cancer risk in the SELECT trial”. J. Natl. Cancer Inst. 105 (15): 1132–41.
  17. Sydenham E, Dangour A, Lim W (2012) ”Omega 3 fatty acid for the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
  18. Grosso, G.; Pajak, A.; Marventano, S.; Castellano, S.; Galvano, F.; Bucolo, C.; Caraci, F. (2014). “Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials”. PLoS ONE. 9 (5)
  19. Miller PE, Van Elswyk M, Alexander DD (July 2014). “Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid and blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials”. American Journal of Hypertension. 27 (7): 885–96
  20. Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish (1990–2010) U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed 14 January 2017
  21. Top 10 Fish Oil Supplements – LabDoor”. LabDoor. Accessed  14 January 2017
  22. Steenland K, Bertazzi P. (2004) ‘‘Dioxin Revisited: Developments Since the 1997 IARC Classification of Dioxin as a Human Carcinogen”. Environmental Health Perspectives. 112 (13) 1265-1268

 

The Science of Creatine

 

During my time in the gym I’ve overhead numerous talk of creatine being illegal, a steroid, a protein, an ab-specific weight loss aid (eh??)…The list is endless and almost everything I’ve overheard is incorrect. I thought it would be useful to provide a clear piece of information that tells you what creatine actually is, how it impacts you on a physiological level, exaggerated side effects and if it can aid in your training.

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Creatine is perhaps the most well researched supplement on the market today.  Initially, fairly ‘low-dose’ creatine supplements where the norm but specific creatine supplements designed specially for strength training where not developed until the mid 1990s. The first such product was named Phosphagen by a company called EAS (1). Since then creatine supplements have exploded in popularity.

 

 


 

WHAT IS CREATINE?

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Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid that aids in generating energy for cells, the most immportant being muscle cells. Creatine is not an essential nutrient and is produced naturally by the body from the amino acids glycine and arginine (2). The biosynthesis reaction is pretty tastey:

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Nothing boring about that...
Nothing boring about that…

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Almost all of this reaction occurs in the kidneys and liver. The produced creatine is then transported to skeletal muscle where the vast majority of it remains (3). Studies suggest as much as 50% of stored creatine in the muscles comes from dietary sources, mainly red meats, and that vegetarians possess significantly less natural creatine in their muscles than meat eaters (4) but levels are equal when both groups supplement (Get supplementing you veggies!)

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PHYSIOLOGICAL ROLE

 

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The importance of creatine in the body is highlighted by genetic disorders which disrupt the biosynthetic pathway pictured above. The major genetic disorders are associated with the synthesis enzymes or disruption of creatine transport into the brain (5,6). The end result of any of these genetic abnormalities is severe neurological defects suggesting creatine plays an important role in normal brain function (7). Additionally, research has shown that creatine supplementation provides not only physical enhancement but also cognitive improvements as well (8).

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Now for the important part: What does creatine actually do when it is sitting in the skeletal muscle? First we need to understand the power of ATP.

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All cells in our body utilise an ‘energy currency’ called ATP (Adenosine TriPhosphate) which we ultimately produce from the food we eat in the form of glucose (9). When energy is required in a cell a phosphate ion is split from the ATP molecule which then becomes ADP (Adenosine DiPhosphate). The breakdown of the last covelant link between phosphate and ATP liberates energy which can be utilised by the cell for a number of processes including movement, growth or protein synthesis (10)(In our case we want that cell to grow some big-ass biceps).

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Creatine itself can be phosphorylated into phosphocreatine with the addition of a phopshate ion take from ATP (12). Phosphocreatine comes into play by essentially acting as a phosphate store for when energy demands are high. At some point during exercise ATP is being reduced to ADP faster than ADP is restored to ATP. Our total ATP concentration is falling and thus so is our available energy. In the muscle, phosphocreatine is stripped of its precious phosphate which is then attached to a wandering ADP molecule. This provides a fresh new ATP molecule to power a cellular process.

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That is how creatine works as a supplement in a nut shell. It acts as a store of potential energy. The idea behind supplementing with large amounts of creatine is that we increase the creatine concentration in our muscles thus providing a larger store of energy which should allow for greater numbers of muscle contractions before we fatigue.

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Phopshate + Creatine (requires ATP) = Phosphocreatine

Phosphocreatine + ADP = Creatine + ATP       

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HOW WILL THIS AID MY TRAINING – WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SHOW?

 

Creatine supplementation, in theory, provides a greater store of utilisable energy to skeletal muscle. This allows greater use of that muscle before the onset of muscle fatigue. In reality creatine supplementation is great for some types of exercise and fairly poor or non beneficial for others. Creatine will be of most use in high intensity anaerobic repetitive work (13). This would include something like weightlifting in which a number of repetitions are performed and then a break is taken. This can also include high intensity workouts involving rapid sprinting/cycling (14). Modest improvements have also been seen in ‘single effort work’ for example, a one rep max on a very heavy weight (15). In this area creatine has been shown to increase general performance with a focus on maximum power.

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Areas where creatine will not help at all are mainly endurance based sports, for example, long distance running (16). Presumably this is due to the fact that muscle activity is maintained for a long period of time and a lack of rest reduces ATP replenishment rates (ADP–>ATP) even when high levels of creatine are present in the muscle.

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'Is this how you do a bench press?'
‘Is this how you do a bench press?’

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To briefly summarise a number of other studies…It has been demonstrated that subjects receiving creatine supplementation along with resistance training lead to decreased serum myostatin concentrations compared to subjects that trained with no creatine or subjects which didn’t train and also didn’t receive any creatine (17). (Really we should have another group here that took creatine without doing resistance training but hey ho). Myostatin is important for INHIBITING muscle growth so a lack of it should allow for greater muscle development. Ever seen a Belgian Blue cow? These guys have been selectively bred to lack functional myostatin….

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Look at dat ass...
MOO BITCH

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Additional studies performed on young college footballers have also shown modest increases in circulating dihydro testosterone as well as testosterone itself following creatine supplementation (18.19) (please follow the references for greater detail). Creatine may therefore enhance your training in multiple ways, not just providing additional ATP for muscle contractions.

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Take home message: Creatine has no significant effect on aerobic endurance. However, it will increase power during short, repetition-based exercises including weight lifting and high intensity cardio training.

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COMMERCIAL FORMS

 

drugs

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Creatine can be purchased as a powder or as a tablet. I have always personally gone with a non-flavoured powder as it is easy to add to a protein shake. Tablets may be more convenient for people who want to take their creatine at a specific time when not at home. In terms of performance, both forms contain the same product but powdered creatine may provide faster absorption into the system. Make sure to read the manufacturers instruction when switching to a new creatine and always stay within the recommended dose.

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Something of additional importance to point out is that the supplement industry in general is always looking for ‘the next big thing’ to sell you. Very often ‘new and improved’ versions of creatine will make their way onto the market with loudly advertised improvements such as malate or citrate. These newer products offer no advantages over standard creatine but usually cost considerably more. Stick with standard creatine monohydrate (the form on which most research is based) for the same functional product at a lower cost.

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HOW AND WHEN TO TAKE CREATINE

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Most users of creatine, and most creatine product labels, suggest a loading phase followed by a maintenance phase of creatine dosing. The idea here is to saturate yourself (mainly your muscles!) with high levels of creatine in the first week followed by a lower dosing from then on. This is what I personally do whenever I have taken a break from creatine i.e. when going abroad for a week or two with limited weight training.

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It is common to see a cycle suggested on the product label. for example

Week 1: LOADING 5g x 4 times daily

Week 2-8 MAINTENANCE 5g daily

BREAK (usually 1-4 weeks)

REPEAT PROCESS

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It is not necessary to cycle creatine at all as it can be taken for a long period of time with no ill effect to health. However, most people throughout the year have commitments that may reduce or entirely remove their ability to train and this can be an opportunity to take a break from creatine and re-load when returning to the gym.

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SIDE EFFECTS AND HEALTH ISSUES

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One of the major things you may hear about creatine is in regards to it safety as a long-term supplement. Modern creatine-based supplements have only been around for two decades. Research can therefore only address this far back. Some studies looking into the health impacts of long term creatine use have lasted as long as five years. In most cases this is ample time to uncover any safety-related issues.

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Commonly cited 'side-effects' of creatine use such as kidney and liver damage, muscle cramps and dehydration have been thoroughly debunked in the literature

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Kidneys: Common statements seem to be that long term creatine use may lead to kidney and/or liver damage. Kidney damage is the most widely cited issue. This is probably due to research being portrayed in a misleading manner. When additional creatine is taken into the body, creatine breakdown products, namely creatinine, will also increase in the blood as well as in the urine. Serum creatinine levels are commonly used as an indicator but not direct measure of kidney function. Therefore, when supplementing with creatine, do not be alarmed by a rise in creatinine levels. Multiple human studies have confirmed that longer term creatine use is not damaging to the renal or hepatic systems in any way (20, 21, 22).

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kidneys

 

 

 

Gastro-intestinal Tract: GIT disruption CAN occur with larger doses of creatine, especially when taken on an empty stomach. This is sometimes referred to as ‘Mud Butt’ in some gyms. GIT disturbances are very rare, short lasting and self-resolving. These mild GIT issues can be avoided by taking smaller doses more frequently or eating something before hand. If you decide to cycle creatine and are starting the ‘load phase’ avoid taking your daily creatine all at once. Instead try to split dosing across the day.

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Heat tolerance and muscle cramping: Internet rumours suggesting creatine messes with thermoregulation, induces dangerous dehydration and/or muscle cramps have now been thoroughly debunked in two systematic reviews on the topic (23, 24)

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Weight gain: This is something that I actually found to be true but the weight gain I observed was probably due to water being pulled into the skeletal muscles. A number of studies have shown an acute increase in water retention in muscles following creatine loading but this subsides and has no negative effects on your training or health. Ultimately creatine has been shown more than once to promote FAT LOSS and lean MUSCLE MASS GAIN due to higher training intensities and volume (25,26).

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To date, research has found no negative impact to kidney, liver, intestinal function or any other major organ for that matter.In fact, in rodent studies, creatine improved the life span of mice (27) but whether this translates to humans remains to be seen. If you are a healthy individual then creatine is perfectly safe to take over the  long term. However,  it is important to point out that if you have a PRE-EXISTING KIDNEY DISORDER then it is probably best to avoid creatine-based supplements in general unless your doctor says otherwise.

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Take home message: Creatine can provide a real benefit to your workouts if you lift weights or perform high intensity cardio workouts. The supplement is cheap and safe to to take over a long period of time. Creatine comes in multiple forms but the standard powdered creatine monohydrate is the most popular for a reason.

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TOP PICKS

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I’ve tried a few different creatine manufacturers before. It can be an overwhelming choice as there are quite literally hundreds of different brands. However, on the inside of the tub its all essentially the same. My Protein Creatine monohydrate is very cheap and does a good job. It doesn’t dissolve well but I add it to my whey protein so don’t notice when drinking it. This is the stuff I’m currently using. The ‘micro-ionised’ powder by Optimum Nutrition dissolves much better so may be a good choice if you plan on taking the creatine by itself with water or juice. Creatine monohydrate can also come ‘flavoured’ which makes the experience of drinking it much more pleasant if just using water. My Protein offers a number of flavours and is a good place to start.

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Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment about your experiences with creatine whether good or bad. You can also reach me at ed@scienceguysupplements.com

-ScienceGuy





 

REFERENCES

I recommend using Google Scholar for quick access to these studies.

 

(1) Stoppani, Jim (May 2004). Creatine new and improved: recent high-tech advances have made creatine even more powerful. Here’s how you can take full advantage of this super supplement. Muscle & Fitness.

(2) “Supplement muscles in on the market”. National Review of Medicine. 2004-07-30

(3) Passwater, Richard A. (2005). Creatine. p. 9

(4) Burke DG, Chilibeck PD, Parise G, Candow DG, Mahoney D, Tarnopolsky M; Chilibeck; Parise; Candow; Mahoney; Tarnopolsky (2003). “Effect of creatine and weight training on muscle creatine and performance in vegetarians”. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 35(11): 1946–55.

(5) “L-Arginine:Glycine Amidinotransferase” http://omim.org/entry/602360

(6) Braissant, O; Henry, H; Béard, E; Uldry, J (May 2011). “Creatine deficiency syndromes and the importance of creatine synthesis in the brain.”. Amino Acids. 40 (5): 1315–24.

(7) Hemmer; W, Wallimann, T (1993) ”Functional aspects of creatine kinase in brain” Developmental Neuroscience. 15 (3-5): 249-260

(8) Rae, C; Digney A.L; McEwan S.R (June 2003). ”Oral creatin supplementation improves brain performance: a double blind, placebo controlled, cross-over trial”. Royal Society Publishing. 270, 2147–2150

(9) Knowles, J. R. (1980). “Enzyme-catalyzed phosphoryl transfer reactions”. Annu. Rev. Biochem. 49: 877–919.

(10) Campbell, Neil A.; Williamson, Brad; Heyden, Robin J. (2006). Biology: Exploring Life. Boston, MA: Pearson Prentice Hall.

(11) Di Carlo, S. E.; Collins, H. L. (June 1, 2001). “Submitting illuminations for review”. Adv. Physiol. Educ. 25 (2): 70–71

(12) Saks, Valdur (2007). Molecular system bioenergetics: energy for life. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH. p. 2.

(13) Bird, S. P. (2003). “Creatine Supplementation and Exercise Performance: A Brief Review” (PDF). Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 2 (4): 123–132.

(14)  Graham, AS; Hatton, RC (1999). “Creatine: A review of efficacy and safety”. Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association. 39 (6): 803–10; quiz 875–7.

(15)  Engelhardt, Martin; Neumann, Georg; Berbalk, Anneliese; Reuter, Iris (1998). “Creatine supplementation in endurance sports”. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 30 (7): 1123–1129

(16) Kreider R, Rasmussen C, Ransom J, Almada AL (1998). “Effects of creatine supplementation during training on the incidence of muscle cramping, injuries and GI distress”. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research. 12 (275).

(17)  Saremi, A.; Gharakhanloo, R.; Sharghi, S.; Gharaati, M.R.; Larijani, B.; Omidfar, K. (2010). “Effects of oral creatine and resistance training on serum myostatin and GASP-1”. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology. 317 (1–2): 25–30

(18)  Van Der Merwe, Johann; Brooks, Naomi E; Myburgh, Kathryn H (2009). “Three Weeks of Creatine Monohydrate Supplementation Affects Dihydrotestosterone to Testosterone Ratio in College-Aged Rugby Players”. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. 19 (5): 399–404.

(19) Hoffman, J; Ratamess, N; Kang, J; Mangine, G; Faigenbaum, A; Stout, J (2006). “Effect of creatine and beta-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes”. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism. 16 (4): 430–46.

(20) Kreider, Richard B.; Melton, Charles; Rasmussen, Christopher J.; Greenwood, Michael; Lancaster, Stacy; Cantler, Edward C.; Milnor, Pervis; Almada, Anthony L. (2003). “Long-term creatine supplementation does not significantly affect clinical markers of health in athletes”. Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. 244 (1–2): 95–104.

(21) Mayhew, DL; Mayhew, JL; Ware, JS (2002). “Effects of long-term creatine supplementation on liver and kidney functions in American college football players”. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism. 12 (4): 453–60

(22) Gualano, Bruno; Ugrinowitsch, Carlos; Novaes, Rafael Batista; Artioli, Guilherme Gianini; Shimizu, Maria Heloisa; Seguro, Antonio Carlos; Harris, Roger Charles; Lancha, Antonio Herbert (2008). “Effects of creatine supplementation on renal function: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial”. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 103 (1): 33–40.

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