Athletes are notorious for using steroids. These hormones are naturally produced in the body but can have an extreme effect if taken in excess.
What most people do not realize, however, is that athletes seem to be equally—or perhaps even more—obsessed with vitamin supplements.
Social Acceptable or Going too Far?
Dosing on vitamins, whether as pills or vitamin injections, is more socially-acceptable than taking steroids. After all, many regular people take dietary supplements too.
The difference, however, is that athletes do a lot more than take just a couple of multivitamins a day. Some athletes, such as Cathy Freeman, a gold-medal sprinter from Australia, spend exorbitant amounts of money on supplements.
In the four months preceding the Olympics, Ms. Freeman spent $3,480 on various types of vitamins. Her story is not uncommon.
During the Olympics, health experts collect information from athletes regarding their health habits and what they put into their bodies prior to the games. The sports with the highest numbers of self-reporting athletes using supplements are:
- Modern pentathlon
- Track and Field
- Water polo
Of course, use of vitamin injections and other supplements is not limited to the sports listed above. Many athletes in every sport participate in the fixation on vitamins. The sport with the least amount of users is archery, with only 45% of its athletes reporting taking any kind of dietary supplement.
Common Supplements Among Athletes
The types of supplements favored by athletes vary somewhat by sport. Some of the commonly used vitamins include:
- Amino acids: Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which is of particular importance for extremely active people. There are 22 types of amino acids, all of which are used by athletes, though arginine is the most favored. Amino acids and the proteins they create are essential for muscle repair and maintenance, plus athletes believe that certain amino acids can stimulate production of human growth hormone naturally. The sports that tend to favor amino acid use are track, swimming, weightlifting, wrestling, boxing, and rowing.
- Creatine: This is another amino acid that is regularly used among Olympic athletes to speed the development of muscle mass. Creatine is sold as a powder to be added to liquid, though vitamin injections of creatine are increasingly seen on the market and in locker rooms.
- Vitamin B12: This vitamin is singled out of the complex of B vitamins because it is known to improve energy levels and concentration. It is also necessary for blood cell formation. Additionally, vitamin B12 injections increases the amount of oxygen absorbed by the blood and carried to the muscles, which is why athletes are known to use it. A growing number of Olympic athletes are reporting usage as both pills and vitamin B12 shots (here are examples).
Reasons to be Concerned
Though taking supplements is not illegal, there are reasons why athletes and their fans, coaches, and families should be concerned. Taking supplements in excess may not bar athletes from competing as steroids would, but there is a potential for serious health complications. Some concerns many nutritional experts voiced after Olympic athlete survey results were released include:
- The sheer volume of supplements being used. The average supplement user reports ingesting 16 different supplements per day, though for some athletes the number can be as high as 25.
- Vitamin supplements can interfere with other medications, which can have serious negative effects on overall health.
- Athletes are relying on supplements to help them heal instead of naturally taking time to rest and letting the body heal itself. Instead, the added vitamins and minerals are expected to speed the healing process.
- Some vitamins can cause uncomfortable side effects or even be downright toxic if taken in large doses. Vitamins A, D, and B6 and zinc are toxic if taken in large doses over a sustained period of time. Others such as niacin will cause heart palpitations when taken in mass quantities.
Reasonable amounts of supplements can be beneficial for athletes, but the pattern of usage seen among Olympic athletes today mirrors addiction. In the case of vitamin injections and other supplements, more is not necessarily better.