Body building supplements are marketed to two primary groups: young men and women who are trying to increase lean muscle to improve strength and physical appearance, and older adults who want to reverse the physical signs of aging, including loss of muscle mass, energy, cognitive changes, and sexual performance.
What are these supplements, and is there any science supporting their effectiveness?
There are two main types of body building supplements- protein mixtures, either as amino acids such as creatine or other combination proteins, such as casein or whey, and hormone precursors. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein synthesis, and muscles are made of, and repaired by, protein. Protein is also a source of energy and has several functions within the biochemistry of the body, such as repair of damaged tissues and making enzymes and other chemical transmitters.
But does ingesting extra protein cause the work of protein in the body to change? Unfortunately not. Our systems work to a certain balance, and if we take in more than we need, the extra is excreted or stored as fat. Eating more protein, of either the creatine-amino acid type, or the milk-based protein supplements, or, indeed, just eating more animal protein and meat, does not cause those extra nutrients to be converted to lean muscle.
Weight-bearing exercise can develop more lean muscle mass. Eating extra protein of the types currently available in body building supplements are more likely to put a strain on the kidneys, as they work to excrete the extra protein that isn’t needed, or cause weight gain as the protein is converted to stored fat. With new onset acute kidney failure in an otherwise healthy person, body building supplements will get a first look.
Hormone precursors are substances that are, hopefully, converted to hormones in the body. These supplements, usually DHEA and Andro, androstenedione, are marketed to correct the lower testosterone that is a normal part of aging. With the decrease in testosterone comes several signs of aging, including decreased muscle mass. Unfortunately, the rate of conversion of the supplements into active hormones is affected by a number of concomitant health conditions. The science has shown very little actual benefit of taking these supplements, and there is concern over the risk to kidney and liver function. In addition, since the rate of conversion cannot be accurately measured, the issues of hormone receptor positive tumors in the presence of hormone precursors is of concern.
Hormones are kept in balance by the body, and changing one can change the whole system. Both men and women have different amounts of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone at different stages of life. Attempting to alter the levels of one, to target a specific symptom, unfortunately has impacts across the hormone systems.
So the science at this point suggests that the risk/benefit to taking both protein body building supplements and hormone precursors falls on the risk side of the equation. Kidney and liver damage is related to preexisting condition and the amount of supplement taken; the risk of hormone receptor positive tumors in the presence of hormone precursors is being studied by scientists.
So what can be done to build lean muscle mass and to decrease the visible signs of aging? Two things have been shown through good science to improve the amount of lean muscle mass and to slow, but not reverse, visible signs of aging. Weight bearing exercise and micronutrients, such as are found in fresh fruits and vegetables, provide the most benefit. The micronutrients in fresh fruits and veggies provide the building blocks we need to do all of the repair and balancing work that our systems have fine-tuned. In addition, they do not have any of the damaging effects of too much protein. Plant based protein is high quality, and perfectly adequate for human needs for protein. At this time, the science suggests that a primarily plant-based diet, and weight bearing exercise, can help us build and maintain lean muscle mass, and keep energy and vigor into older adulthood.