The Variability With Supplements

Why is it that some people experience great results with certain supplements and others do not? Let’s look past the obvious where one person may have a greater dietary need than another. For example, a vegetarian may have a greater dietary need for creatine than a heavy meat-eater, and thus the vegetarian will typically reap better results with creatine supplementation. But let’s say you have two vegetarians, or better yet two identical vegetarian twins that train together and they’re both taking creatine but get different results. Well, the other obvious factor involves the source of raw materials. One uses an expensive, high quality brand sourced from Germany that’s free of impurities and gets better results than the other who uses a cheap, low quality brand sourced from China. You get what you pay for in supplements.

Not only does it matter where compounds are sourced geographically, but also where they are sourced from the raw material itself. A good example is Tribulus terrestris, a plant shown to have anabolic effects in the human body. In particular, it’s the steroidal saponins, the most dominant being protodioscin, that are responsible for many of the pharmacological activities of Tribulus terrestris. In other words, the higher the protodioscin content, the better the anabolic effect. Well, a study from the University of Mississippi analyzed several samples of Tribulus terrestris sourced from Bulgaria, India, and China along with different parts of the plant for protodioscin content. The results revealed that all samples from Bulgaria contained a high percentage of protodioscin, with most of it in the leaves and less in the stems and fruit. However, samples from India and China contained little to no content of protodioscin.

You need to also consider what companies put into their products and what they don’t put into their products. A recent analysis of leading herbal supplement brands from four major retailers in New York State showed that not all products meet their label claims, so you may think that you’re getting an ingredient and it’s not even there. Worse yet, you could be getting more than you expected! There have been companies in the past (and I’m sure even to this day) that have included hidden drugs in their “natural” dietary supplements to enhance the effect. People get amazing results; the product becomes extremely popular and develops a cult following; and before the feds catch on to any wrong-doing, the company removes any naughty ingredients while they cash in on huge profits.

You pretty much know when a product goes from swole to null. The placebo effect can only go so far before you get wise, but what if a product seems to work on some occassions but not all occassions? A classic study published in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy looked at the ephedra alkaloid content of 20 ephedra-containing supplements. Their results showed that the alkaloid content often differed markedly from label claims (ranging from 0 to 18.5 mg per dosage unit). Okay, that might be expected, but this is where it got alarming: They discovered excessive lot-to-lot variability within the same product! For example, two of the products analyzed showed variations in methylephedrine content in excess of 1000% (relative to the less potent lot), and differences in ephedrine content that exceeded 135% in one product and 260% in the other. So you may purchase the same product from the same brand each time, but if the lot number is different, the content can be completely different!

In general, to reduce the variability with supplements, follow these guidelines:

  • Find the supplements and brands that work well for you, regardless of what others say.
  • Don’t fall for hyped-up marketing ads. Do your homework to determine what the active ingredients are, where and how they are sourced, and examine labels from various brands.
  • Cost is usually a reflection of quality. When possible, favor professional-grade supplements, i.e., supplements that are provided only by licensed or certified healthcare professionals.
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