After the initial euphoria of finishing my first marathon my fatigued legs began to let me know what they thought of being put through such an ordeal. Walking more like one of the characters from the Muppets, I gingerly made my way to a nearby public pool where I spent the next hour wading in water to help my aching muscles recover. Everyone knows that exercise is good for your health and is a vital component to an energetic and productive lifestyle. But exercise can also cause some harm your body. It can cause muscle damage, fatigue and inflammation. In fact, if not properly managed, exercise can become a form of stress. So can supplementation help or hinder this?…
Research shows that the more exercise you do, the better your body becomes at minimizing any harmful effects from exercise. Every health professional, elite athlete and weekend warrior has their ideas on what can help your body cope with these rigours of exercise. One commonly prescribed suggestion was to supplement your diet with antioxidants. The thinking was since antioxidants in your blood are a key component to repairing damage in your body, then surely if you flood your body with even more antioxidants, then it should assist in this repairing process.
Researchers at the University of Porto in Portugal1 decided to see if antioxidant supplementation can assist in the recovery of aching muscles. They researched 20 athletes (14 men and 6 women) from the national kayaking and canoeing teams. These elite athletes were engaged in a controlled competitive period of training for the European Championships.
The participants were randomly assigned in a double-blind fashion to two groups taking either a placebo or taking an antioxidant supplement. Each antioxidant supplement contained 136mg of vitamin E, 200mg of vitamin C, 15 mg of beta carotene, 1mg of lute in, 200 micrograms of selenium, 15 mg of zinc and 300mg of magnesium. Supplementation was started at the completion of a 1000m maximal flat-water kayaking trial, continued for 28 days and ended the night before the second 1000m kayak time trial. Blood tests were taken at the onset of the study and after 4 weeks of supplementation.
The researchers found that taking this antioxidant supplement did not offer any form of protection against the stress of exercise and didn’t reduce any signs of inflammation. In fact, they found that if anything, taking antioxidant supplementation may increase further tissue damage and muscle injury and further delay recovery from exercise.
The more I research nutrition, the more convinced I’ve become that taking isolated vitamins and minerals at best, do nothing. As this study suggests, at worse vitamin supplementation can also cause harm. In particular, beta carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E supplementation are now being linked with increased mortality2.
Interestingly, earlier this year the same journal published a study showing that taking an antioxidant supplement does help to reduce muscle damage following intense exercise3. But there was a big difference between the antioxidant supplements. The effective supplement was not a typical vitamin and mineral supplement. It was a fruit and vegetable whole food concentrate.
You may be asking,” What is the difference between a whole food supplement and an isolated vitamin supplement?”
An isolated vitamin supplement is a formulation of different vitamins and minerals in a balance according to the supplement company. On the other hand, the whole food supplement mentioned contained the concentrate from 17 different fruits and vegetables and grains. The advantage in this approach seems to be that it has a formulation of a much larger variety of vitamins and minerals in a balance that occurs in nature.
According to H.Diplock4 there is 10 455 different vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in fruits and vegetables in a precise balance. It seems that many supplement companies are trying to outsmart Mother Nature thinking that their formulation containing five to fifty vitamins and minerals works as an effective substitute for not eating enough fruit and vegetables. It’s a bit like giving someone a hubcap, steering wheel and a seat belt and saying that it works as well as a car.
Food is the best medicine. I appreciate that we don’t always have the time to consistently eat the recommended seven servings of fruit and vegetables each day. But taking a vitamin supplement won’t help. Vitamins aren’t natural. You can’t grow a vitamin C plant. Vitamin C only occurs in nature in the form of whole foods like oranges and kiwi fruits. In such fruits vitamin C only exists in combination with hundreds and thousands of other nutrients in a precise balance.
My first rule in choosing the ideal supplement for you is to choose supplements sourced from whole foods from nature. For example if you are not enough garlic, try a garlic supplement. It makes more sense to take a fruit and vegetable supplement if you aren’t eating enough fruit and vegetables. To put it another way, if you can’t catch it or grow it in nature, don’t put it in your mouth.
- Teixeira, V.H. et al Antioxidants Do Not Prevent Post exercise Peroxidation and May Delay Muscle Recovery, Med. Sc. Sports Exer., Vol 41, No.9, pp.1752-1760, 2009
- Bjelakovic, G., et al Mortality in randomized trials of antioxidant supplements for primary and secondary prevention: review and meta-analysis Journal American Medical Association, 2007; 297 (8):842-57.
- Hambrecht, M. et al Protein Modification Responds To Exercise Intensity and Antioxidant Supplementation Med. Sci. Sports Exec., Vo.41, No. 1, pp.155-163,2009
- Diplock, A.T. Antioxidant nutrients and disease prevention: an overview American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1991, vol. 53, pp. 189S–193S.