Whether you’re an at-home workout enthusiast or a gym fanatic, you’ve most probably heard of the supposed benefits of pre-workout supplements. Advocates claim these supplements can improve your fitness and give you the energy you need to power through these challenging workouts. Health experts, on the other hand, have shared that these supplements are potentially dangerous.
What Are Pre-Workout Supplements?
Pre-workout supplements are multi-ingredient dietary formulas designed to boost your energy and athletic performance. Typically presented in powder form, they are available as gummies, capsules, and canned drinks.
While countless formulas exist, there is very little consistency in terms of ingredients across the variations. They typically contain stimulants such as caffeine, B-complex vitamins, amino acids, creatine, and artificial sweeteners.
How Do They Work?
It’s very rare that you’ll walk into every workout feeling energized. Pre-workout supplements are designed to fight this lethargy, helping you exercise for longer and more effectively. Taken about 30 minutes before your workout, these supplements supply your body with extra carbohydrates in the form of glucose. This raises blood sugar levels and supplies additional energy during a workout.
However, it’s important to note that this supplement doesn’t produce any results on its own merit. Rather, it acts as an energy supplement.
As much as these supplements may help your workout, they may be detrimental to your health. This is due to the many ingredients we see in the majority of these supplements.
What’s in them?
As one of the most common pre-workout ingredients, caffeine is responsible for the boost in energy levels we look for in these supplements. With an amount of 150 – 500 mg of caffeine per serving, this can easily equate to five cups of coffee in one sitting. This surpasses the recommended daily allowance as stipulated by the FDA (it is advised that one shouldn’t have more than 400 mg of caffeine a day). This makes pre-workout supplements likely to cause the following side effects:
- Increased heart rate
- Excessive urination, leading to dehydration
- Increased blood pressure levels
(According to a study, young adults who consume more than four cups of coffee [above the RDA] a day are four times more vulnerable to heart attacks)
Since people usually take pre-workout supplements on an almost daily basis. Regular intake of high amounts of caffeine can have the following side effects:
- Inhibiting collagen production in the skin
- Constant anxiety
- Chronic Insomnia
- Increased risk of Osteoporosis (as high levels of caffeine interfere with the absorption of calcium, leading to bone thinning)
- Increased risk of breast tissue cysts
As a non-essential (naturally-occurring) amino acid, it joins with the amino acid histidine to form a dipeptide called Carnosine. Stored in muscles and other tissues, Carnosine helps reduce acid accumulation in the muscles during exercise. It, therefore, reduces fatigue and leads to improved performance. However, high intake through your pre-workout supplement can also cause side effects. These include:
- Paresthesia: Defined as pins and needles, this unusual sensation with a tingling of the skin is usually experienced in the neck, face, and the back of the hands.
- Taurine Deficiency: Due to competing with beta-alanine for absorption in your muscles, taurine levels in your body decrease. Due to its anti-inflammatory effects and ability to protect against coronary heart disease, taurine deficiency has been linked to cardiomyopathy, cardiac abnormalities, and renal dysfunction.
Also known as Vitamin B3, your body uses niacin to convert food (carbohydrates) into energy (glucose). This process helps to keep your nervous system, digestive system, and skin healthy. However, high dosages, as seen in pre-workout supplements, can cause the following side effects:
- Flushing of the skin: Due to it causing small blood vessel dilation, niacin can cause flushing of the skin on the face, chest, or arms
- Impacting blood glucose: When consumed in high quantities, niacin can lead to an increase in blood glucose levels, which can increase the risk of developing diabetes.
- Insulin resistance: Long-term intake of niacin can lead to insulin resistance in the liver and muscle tissue.
While artificial sweeteners may be considered a healthy alternative to sugar, they come with their fair share of controversy.
These sugar substitutes add a sweet taste to foods and beverages without the added calories.
- Increased Cardiovascular Disease Risk: A study conducted linked artificial sweetener intake to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, including cerebrovascular disease. According to the Women’s Health Initiative, these sweeteners have been associated with an increased risk of strokes and cardiovascular events, with a 9% higher risk observed.
- Increased Weight Gain: Studies show that some artificial sweeteners can affect sensitivity to certain body signals, thus promoting food intake, which could have an adverse effect on your exercise goals.
Healthier Alternatives to Pre-Workout Supplements
Pre-workout supplements are not suitable for everyone. With their ingredients, they can easily pose health risks, especially for those with pre-existing conditions and caffeine sensitivity. However, there are healthier alternatives to give you that extra kick before your workout.
Pre-workout supplements cannot replace a balanced diet and adequate hydration. Here’s what you can use as alternatives for these supplements:
- Fruit: These are ideal pre-workout snacks as they contain easily digestible simple carbohydrates. Bananas are the most popular pre-workout snack because they are rich in potassium, aid muscle recovery, and prevent muscle cramps.
- Oatmeal: This complex carb is digested easier than other whole grains. As a source of Thiamin, a B-Vitamin, it plays a role in the gradual release of energy whilst exercising. However, as it digests at a slow, steady rate, you need to eat it about 30 minutes before your workout.
- Green Tea: Containing less caffeine than coffee (45 mg per cup), green tea contains EGCG, a polyphenol typically extracted and added to supplements. Green tea potentially reduces body fat, increases blood flow, reduces muscle soreness, and increases oxygen uptake.
- Smoothie: As a classic, go-to pre-workout snack, smoothies are an effective, convenient way to ensure you get a nutrient-packed drink that will ensure your workout is energy-filled.
- Matcha: Made from the same plant as green tea, Matcha contains a stronger concentration of key nutrients and antioxidants. It contains L-Theanine, an amino acid that encourages your body to release caffeine at a sustainable pace, resulting in a calmer sense of alertness during workouts.
Are Pre-Workout Supplements Detrimental to Your Health?
A typical pre-workout supplement isn’t necessarily dangerous. However, if constantly taken in high dosages it can lead to various issues, including cardiovascular disease and skin conditions. Once again, nature proves to be the best answer. Organic and natural options are the perfect alternative to these caffeine-filled, potentially dangerous supplements.
MAIN IMAGE CREDIT:Derick McKinney on Unsplash
- Wang, S.S., 2020. Pre-workout supplement induced cardiac ischaemia in a young female. Journal of sports sciences, 38(2), pp.187-191.
- Cerqueira, H.S.C., Filho, H.T., Corrêa Junior, M. and Martinelli Junior, C.E., 2022. Effects of Theacrine as a Pre-Workout Supplement. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(21), p.14037.
- Marques, J.N.A.D.V. and Capela, J.P., 2022. Potential health risks surrounding ingredients of pre-workout and post-workout dietary supplements: a thorough label analysis. Revista de Nutrição, 35.