It doesn’t work that way: Review tries to debunk potency of supplements by taking a “one size fits all” approach

Not all supplements are created equal. That’s just a fact, no matter what type of supplement is being considered. In addition, individual metabolism, age, physical activity levels, bioavailability of the particular supplement under consideration, and many other factors all influence just how effective supplementation will ultimately prove to be.

A recent review evaluating the value of several supplements in relation to gaining strength and building muscle mass, published in the European Journal of Nutrition, is a perfect example of such a study. The research team found only “weak” or “scarce” evidence of efficacy for several supplements, including glutamine and resveratrol, and “no evidence” for other supplements like a-ketoglutarate and ornithine.

Experts warn that broad findings should not be extrapolated from the research, however, since there were large differences between the studies included in the meta-analysis, and the spectrum of people included was too broad – for the purposes of the study, the needs of elderly people and young athletes were viewed as being equal. (Related: Battle mental and physical fatigue with these science-backed supplements.)

What the review claims

As reported by Nutra Ingredients, after conducting their study, the Spanish research team made the following claim:

Despite their popularity, most of the supplements available on the market lack scientific support for their alleged effects and some have even proved ineffective or have been found to give rise to serious adverse effects.

Although some supplements have shown promising results in the basic research field, their effects in humans have not been consistently analysed in the scientific literature.

To reach this conclusion, the scientists first conducted a search in PubMed using terms like muscle atrophy, hypertrophy, muscle mass, strength and body composition in relation to each supplement under review.

They then searched through each study listed to find references to additional publications and reviews, and then listed the possible ways in which each supplement might have provided either muscle building or strength benefits for the various studies.

The team reported:

We then summarised the results of relevant studies assessing the effectiveness of each supplement in humans (if available), with a priority focus on randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and meta-analyses, when available.

Finally, the main weaknesses of each supplement (e.g., side effects, lack of evidence in humans) are presented. Based on this information, the evidence supporting the beneficial effects of each supplement on muscle mass/strength was categorised (A to D).

If that seems to you to be a haphazard way to make a determination about the value of these supplements, you’re not alone; the experts agree.

Specific populations have different needs

Dr. Emma Derbyshire, public health nutritionist and an adviser to the Health & Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS), noted when asked to comment on the review that the findings of this study “should not be communicated out of context.”

She added that the paper considered effects on “strength” and “muscle mass,” but that the areas involved were too wide, covering everything from sports and exercise performance to preventing sarcopenia, a degenerative condition associated with aging which causes loss of skeletal muscle quality, mass and strength.

This “broad approach,” she noted, might well have “diluted the findings.”

In addition, individual physiological effects and reactions to supplementation were totally ignored by the researchers. For example, elderly people and serious athletes require far greater supplementation than younger or more sedentary members of the population, but this fact was ignored by the research team.

Dr. Derbyshire concluded that while the study results have some value, more tests are needed on “specific populations” and “broad findings cannot necessarily be extrapolated.”

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