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  • Writer's pictureChristie Robson

SUPPLEMENTS: Do I really need that?

When you google supplements, walk into a supplement shop, or browse the supplement aisle at the supermarket, it can be very overwhelming and confusing. 


There are thousands of supplements on the market, many opinions, and many that are unnecessary. So, how do you decide if you should take a supplement… let’s explore a little. 





Firstly, there are different supplements. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Dietary supplements (vitamins and minerals): iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin c, vitamin D, B-complexes, omega 3s, multivitamins, magnesium, probiotics, collagen, etc 

  • Sports supplements: sports drinks, protein powder, sports gels and similar products, magnesium, creatine, BCAAs (branched chain amino acids)

  • Performance enhancing supplements (ergogenic aids): caffeine, beta-alanine, sodium bicarbonate, nitrates, citrulline malate, glycerol, etc 

  • Herbal based supplements: ashwagandha, ginseng, turmeric etc 


There are varying degrees of research behind these types of supplements, and certain ones. 

To understand more, the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) has a helpful handout that explains the levels. This is an important consideration to take into account when choosing supplements. Evidence-based research takes some time, so whilst particular supplements may have limited research to show their effectiveness, benefits or contraindications (may interact with certain medications or affect certain health conditions), some people experience benefits. So, it’s important you consider this and take that into account when deciding to use it.




So, what else do we need to know?


CONSIDERATIONS:

  • Check in with your dietary intake: Are you eating well for you and your needs? Have you had any recent tests (blood tests, bone density scans) that indicate you are deficient in a micronutrient? Supplements will only be beneficial once your nutrition foundations are nailed. Just like the foundations of a house - the roof won't work if the foundations and walls aren't there!

  • Note: depending on your level of activity, athletes have higher micronutrient requirements compared to the general population, so whilst results may be within range, they be be at the lower end, or changed for you, and therefore should be optimised. 




  • Training status: Are you in a competition phase, pre-season, heavy block of training. This can determine whether you need to optimise your diet with dietary supplements, or could improve your performance and recovery with ergogenic aids. 

  • Are you injured? When you’re injured, certain supplements can play a role in recovery such as omega 3s, collagen hydrolysate, zinc and proteins. 

  • Budget: supplements are expensive. And many brands use great marketing to entice you, when you can buy the same supplement for half the price. So do your research and consider if you really need it, or you’re just paying for expensive urine (as most water-soluble vitamins when taken in excess will be peed out!) 

  • Safety: it is always best to use third party tested supplements as they have been tested for banned substances. This is ESSENTIAL for elite athletes and those competing at a high level. They can be more costly at times, but worth it! 

  • Legal and ethical considerations: the benefit of using tested supplements is that is limits your risk of taking in banned substances. These are substances that are banned by the World Anti-doping agency WADA). You can view the list here, which includes ingredients in products and certain products such as steroids. 

  • Access: There are many supplements you can buy online. Make sure you have done your due diligence to check the product is safe and where it is coming from. Try to avoid buying supplements overseas, and look for local brands/ companies. 

  • Age and health conditions: this can influence particular supplements that you may need or benefit from. Such as creatine during peri and post menopause, folate and other micronutrients during pregnancy and post natal, and weight loss surgery. 



THIRD PARTY TESTING

It’s always best to use third party tested supplements as they’ve been tested for banned substances. This is ESSENTIAL for elite athletes and those competing at a high level. This includes protein bars and other foods with protein powders added! They can be more costly at times, but worth it! 


Look for logos such as HASTA, Informed Sport, Informed Choice; or a certification stamp. 


It means either this exact batch (such as Informed Sport - they test every batch) or the product in general (random batches tested - Informed Choice) has been tested by a third party / independent organisation and they’ve determined that it complied with the standards for safety, quality and performance (testing for potency of ingredients, accuracy, presence for heavy metals, bacteria and mold). 


You can head to these websites and they will list what brands and, or, products they have tested. 




JUNIOR ATHLETES

It can be tempting to fuel like older athletes and role models; however junior athletes do not need many supplements. 


It’s important to go through the above considerations and check in regularly with your health professional and sports dietitian to monitor growth and development. 


There is no set age where sports supplements and ergogenic aids become safe, but rather it’s influenced by growth, development, maturity, training level and dietary intake. 




HELPFUL SUPPLEMENTS

*Remember to always check with your health professional first before taking supplements or changing the dose. Taking supplements when you don’t need to can lead to overdosing, or impact your health. 


Endurance athletes

  • Iron: if you do lots of running, the foot striking breaks down red blood cells, and can therefore increase your needs, or lead to deficiency. 

  • Protein powders (and energy powders with carbohydrate) to meet your overall nutrient and energy needs

  • Omega-3 supplement to support inflammation (if not meeting needs)

  • Nitrates during and around key events = can reduce oxygen cost during exercise, creating vasodilation, increasing blood flow and improving oxygen delivery to working muscles 

  • Creatine: whilst helpful for vegans, vegetarians, peri and post menopause athletes, creatine can help with improving intense and short bursts of efforts which can be required during endurance racing



For vegetarian and vegans

The following supplements can help enhance your nutrient intake, and overall health and performance. 

  • Omega-3 supplement: especially if you don’t eat oily fish and seafood 3 times per week. Two of the three types of omega 3s (DHA and EPA) are only found in seafood, with ALA having limited conversion to these two. Therefore, can be key for some people. 

  • Creatine: if you don’t eat meat, creatine monohydrate can help support lean muscle mass, recovery, cognitive function and possibly enhance sports performance 

  • Check your iron, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium levels and intake, as most rich food sources of these are meat and dairy products. 



Peri and post menopause:

  • Ashwagandha: An ancient medicinal herb that helps reduce stress which reduces cortisol, which then helps manage weight. It also can help improve memory, sexual function, and manage blood glucose levels.

  • Calcium and vitamin D: essential for strong bones. As you age, you need to keep strong bones by doing strength work and eating 4 x calcium rich foods each day, along with vitamin D foods (eggs, cheese, milk, seafood). For some women, if you're deficient or don't eat dairy, taking a combine supplement can be beneficial.

  • Turmeric: rich anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties which may help reduce arthritis, support immunity and good mood

  • Vitamin B6: helps manage and reduce headaches and migraines; plus supports good mood

  • Magnesium: helps relax muscles, manage headaches and helps manage blood glucose levels and digestion. Magnesium also helps absorb fat soluble vitamins (Vitamin A,D,E,K) and plays a role in bone health. When your oestrogen levels fall, it's harder to absorb magnesium. That's why nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens fruits and whole grains are important to eat.

  • Zinc: key for hormone production and supporting a strong immune system

  • Iron: key for energy as it transports oxygen around the body; and supports immunity. Whilst your needs reduce post-menopause, it's still important to manage healthy levels and check regularly as active women.

  • Phytoestrogens: plant compounds found in soy milk, tofu, tempeh, chaste tree berry, broccoli and legumes - they help naturally boost oestrogen levels which can help relieve hot flushes, support good mood and prevent / delay osteoporosis and low bone density.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: taking either a daily fish oil or vegan omega-3 capsule (with algae, not just flaxseed!) can support healthy brain function, immunity, hormones, reduce blood pressure and inflammation. There are three types, and only two types are found in seafood...so if you don't eat seafood, taking a fish oil or vegan omega 3 with algae will be useful. Get cleared by your GP first though, as this can increase clotting risk for some people

  • Iodine: essential for thyroid function and bone health. You only need small amounts, so don't overload.

  • Creatine: Can help brain fog reduction and cognition. Helps build and maintain lean muscle too. Important for plant-based eaters to think about taking too. Aim for 3-5g creatine monohydrate per day for 4 weeks.

  • Beta-alanine: taking beta-alanine before exercise can help women manage hot flushes and blood flow during exercise as it helps open your blood vessels. It also helps muscular endurance during high-intensity exercise around 10 minutes, and recovery. You can get it from poultry, meat, and fish; and also by taking a daily supplement. Research recommends a routine daily dose (3 to 5 g) for 4 weeks as effective for women, regardless of age.


Master athletes (over 40s)

  • Protein powder: can help meet your (often increased) protein needs - especially before bed 

  • Creatine, magnesium, vitamin K, l-carnitine can help support cardiovascular health 

  • B12 supports cognition, mood, nerve health, along with preventing anemia 

  • Vitamin D and calcium for bone health 

  • DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone): circulates throughout the body and can make other hormones, such as testosterone and oestrogen 

  • Magnesium to support bone health, muscle function, sleep and cardiovascular health 



I hope this prompts some further thought before you reach for that next supplement.


Stay well,

Christie




REFERENCES 

Vitale K, Getzin A. Nutrition and Supplement Update for the Endurance Athlete: Review and Recommendations. Nutrients. 2019 Jun 7;11(6):1289. doi: 10.3390/nu11061289. PMID: 31181616; PMCID: PMC6628334.


Forbes SC, Candow DG, Neto JHF, Kennedy MD, Forbes JL, Machado M, Bustillo E, Gomez-Lopez J, Zapata A, Antonio J. Creatine supplementation and endurance performance: surges and sprints to win the race. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2023 Dec;20(1):2204071. doi: 10.1080/15502783.2023.2204071. PMID: 37096381; PMCID: PMC10132248.


Grgic, J., Pedisic, Z., Saunders, B. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: sodium bicarbonate and exercise performance. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 18, 61 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-021-00458-w

Examine. Healthy Aging Supplement Guide. M Hull, & W  Brown. 

Examine. Vegetarian and Vegan Supplement Guide. M Hull, & W  Brown. 


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