Nutritional Supplements: Gateway to Doping or Safe Alternative?

Published : Sep 11, 2019
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  • Updated On : Jul 27, 2022

    The problems of doping in sport and the increasing use of nutritional supplements by athletes are issues that intersect to the degree that a large number of supplements may contain substances that are banned in sport. Many supplements contain substances that are associated with significant health hazards. Athletes consuming such supplement products may jeopardize their sporting status, and their health. To clarify and summarize the current status of dietary supplements in general, and to describe specific problems that can be associated with supplement use so that sport physicians might be better prepared to address these issues with their athlete-patients.

    In a study published in Britain, looking into attitudes toward doping among university and international athletes, and how they related to the use of legal sports supplements. The key finding was that the athletes who reported using nutritional supplements were also more than three-and-a-half times more likely to report doping (22.9 percent compared to 6.0 percent). They were also more likely to report positive attitudes toward doping, and greater belief in the effectiveness of doping. The results were seen as support for the “gateway hypothesis”: you start out looking for an edge with legal performance-boosting pills, and eventually graduate to the “hard” (i.e. banned) stuff.
    Nutritional Supplements: Gateway to Doping or Safe Alternative?
    The study involved a group of more than 300 team-sport athletes, who did a set of five 20-metre sprints. The athletes were then given a supplement which they were told would either improve their sprint performance (the placebo condition), or improve their endurance but hurt their sprint performance (the nocebo condition, which is basically a negative placebo). In both cases, the supplement was just a placebo. Then, 20 minutes later, they repeated the five 20-meter sprints.

    The results, presented in the first poster, were more or less what you’d expect: those who received the placebo were better able to maintain their speed compared to those who received the nocebo. It would have been interesting to also have a control group, to find out whether the placebo improved performance more than the nocebo decreased performance, but it’s still a nice simple demonstration of placebo power.
    Nutritional Supplements: Gateway to Doping or Safe Alternative?
    The next stage of the experiment, presented in the second poster, was to explain the placebo results to the subjects, along with some background research on the power of placebo effects in sport. The athletes then re-completed a questionnaire (which they had also completed before the experiment started) that assessed their attitudes toward sports supplements and doping, along with their intention to use. Not surprisingly, after this “experiential” placebo education, the athletes reported weaker beliefs in the effectiveness of sports supplements, and also less favorable attitudes to doping in general.

    One thing that’s important to clarify: the study isn’t suggesting that performance-enhancing drugs are mostly placebos. Many banned substances really do boost performance.

    Legal sports supplements, on the other hand, are predominantly placebos (with a few notable exceptions like caffeine). So the thinking is: educate athletes about the illusory benefits of sports supplements, and they’ll be less likely to take them. This, in turn, will reduce the number of people progressing on to banned drugs through the “gateway” effect.
    Nutritional Supplements: Gateway to Doping or Safe Alternative?
    Would it work? It’s an interesting idea, but I also wonder whether it could have the opposite effect -because after all, the placebo supplement improved performance. The most powerful boost comes from strongly believing in something that’s really true. That’s why I do think it’s worth examining the supplements (and other training practices) used by athletes, to separate fact from fiction. But it’s a tricky topic!
    Nutritional Supplements: Gateway to Doping or Safe Alternative?
    An analysis of recent and relevant literature and interactions with clinicians, laboratory scientists, colleagues, and athletes. The dietary supplement industry is completely unregulated as a consequence, an abundance of supplement products of dubious value, content, and quality are now available around the world. It is known that many supplement products contain substances that are prohibited in sport-typically stimulants or anabolic steroid precursors. Many supplements contain substances (e.g., ephedrine) that have been associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Sport practitioners have particular responsibilities in addressing this issue. Athletes need to be aware of the problems that can follow supplement use, and sport authorities need to ensure that nutritional education and guidance for athletes is of the highest standard. The need for the appropriate regulation of dietary supplements is emphasized. And so it is important to include right sport specific supplements and which are banned substances tested to play safe and to also get that extra performance edge.

    Sayali Naik
    Fast&Up Nutrition Consultant

    Sayali works with a tons of people and players across the globe and across the sports disciplines, from grassroot to professional Cricketers, Football players, Badminton. Sayali is extremely passio... Read More

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