Dietary Supplements, Sports, and Teenagers – Do They Mix?

For years, athletes have been looking for a competitive edge. In this pursuit, many try shortcuts to reach their goals, including over-the-counter (OTC) dietary supplements. These supplements are readily available to all ages but can have detrimental health effects.

Common OTC supplements used by teenagers include caffeine, amphetamine precursors, protein supplements, specific amino acids, creatine, nitrous oxide and testosterone precursors.

Caffeine is the main ingredient in energy drinks. High levels of caffeine can lead to heart rhythm and sleep issues, anxiety and dehydration. Products, such as 5-Hour Energy, Red Bull, Amp, and Monster, have been linked to multiple deaths. They have caffeine levels up to 420 mg per serving beyond the 400 mg amount studies have shown adults can safely consume daily. Additionally, most adults are larger than teenagers and don’t consume their daily caffeine all at once.  Amphetamine precursors, such as Dexatrin and DMAA, are even more powerful than caffeine.

Protein supplements, such as whey protein powders and shakes, are considered safe by most athletes and coaches. However, many teenagers consume more protein than they can digest, which leads to dehydration, digestive issues and kidney failure. Heat illness is more common in teenagers taking protein supplements. They may contain unlabeled anabolic steroids that can cause positive drug tests. Specific amino acids, such as L-Glutamine, are similar to protein supplements.

Creatine is a cellular-based element in muscle which has been shown to be effective in muscle performance, weight gain and muscle recovery for some athletes. However, the safety in teenagers hasn’t been proven and its use can lead to kidney problems, dehydration and increased heat illness issues.

Nitrous oxide, also called “Energy Igniters” as sold on the “Transform into a Teen-Titan” website ,” is touted for increasing blood flow. In turn, more nutrients are delivered to muscle, leading to “muscle mass increase.” It can lead to airway issues, worsen asthma, cause gout and blood abnormalities but there are no studies showing a positive muscle effect.

Testosterone precursors, such as DHEA, speak for themselves. They can cause positive steroid tests and all the detrimental effects seen with anabolic steroids.

So what should teenage athletes do to find that “edge?” An easy answer is to have a well-balanced diet with good hydration and do regular aerobic and resistive exercises with proper technique. Supplements cannot replace a fast food diet and poor training; this never works. Hard work and eating right are the keys to athletic success and good health.

Brian L. Mahaffey, MD, MSPH, FAAFP, is director of Mercy Sports Medicine and a team physician with the St. Louis Cardinals.