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Natural supplement use among athletes linked to heart concerns

While many athletes think they’re getting a natural health boost, these supplements may actually pose significant health risks

Athlete taking vitamins
Photo (c) Dobrila Vignjevic - Getty Images
A new position paper written by experts from the European Society of Cardiology explored some of the health risks associated with natural supplements. According to their findings, supplements geared towards athletes that are designed to boost performance may actually increase the risk for serious heart concerns

“Caffeine is a prime example of a natural substance that is considered safe,” said researcher Dr. Paolo Emilio Adami. “While caffeine improves performance, particularly aerobic capacity in endurance athletes, its abuse may lead to fast heart rate (tachycardia), heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias), high blood pressure, and in some cases sudden cardiac death.” 

Being mindful of supplements 

For the paper, the experts looked into various substances that are marketed to athletes to help them improve their overall athletic performance. While many supplements are marketed to be natural and beneficial for health and wellness, the team found that there may be adverse health effects linked with many of these products. 

“Nutritional supplements are commonly viewed as risk-free substances that may improve performance,” the researchers wrote. “Some nutritional supplements, including various plant and ‘natural’ extracts, may pose a serious health risk and athletes may even risk contravening anti-doping rules.” 

The researchers explained that athletes often combine supplements -- like caffeine, creatine, multivitamins, or other vitamin supplements -- but don't realize that they're putting their health at risk. If athletes take incorrect dosages or mix supplements that can have adverse effects, there is a higher likelihood of heart health concerns. 

Substances like peptides or anabolic steroids have been linked with significant health concerns. The researchers' work showed that peptides are likely to have long-term health risks, while anabolic steroids have been linked with cardiovascular-related deaths. 

“In many cases, sportspeople use a mix or cocktail of substances to improve their performance and the interaction between them can also be extremely dangerous,” Dr. Adami said.

“All doping substances are risky and their use as medications should only be allowed when prescribed by a physician to treat a medical condition, when no therapeutic alternatives are available, and following the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) requirements. Based on the dose, the duration of use, and the interaction with other substances, the health consequences can vary and in some cases be lethal. From a cardiovascular perspective, they can cause sudden cardiac death and arrhythmias, atherosclerosis and heart attack, high blood pressure, heart failure, and blood clots.”

Use quality products and be careful

Moving forward, the researchers hope athletes seriously consider the supplements they’re taking, including the dosage and how the different products might interact with each other. 

“Athletes should be aware that nutritional supplements and substances are not necessarily safe and should only be used if recommended by professional nutritionists,” Dr. Adami said. “It is fundamental to use products from well-established manufacturers with known and internationally approved good quality standards.” 

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