You’ve seen the headlines. One day no one needs to take vitamins, the next day, it turns out everyone needs them.
Just how important is it to take vitamins anyway and which ones are we to choose for best results?
If you’re a high performance athlete then you know you can be more vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies than the average person.
Bodybuilders and other athletes place a heavy demand on their bodies and often restrict certain nutrients/foods to get lean. But doing this can actually create a barrier between you and that muscle growth you’re striving for.
So if you’re struggling with muscle growth, energy replenishment or even positive performance outcomes then you might just have a poor micronutrient intake.
What are micronutrients?
Micronutrients, which include vitamins, minerals and additional co-factors such as co-enzymes, are essential to life. Micronutrients make myriad biochemical processes happen. Pound down all the protein and carbs you want but chances are if your micros are not in the correct balance, you can forget about building quality muscle.
Frequently neglected among athletes are vitamins. There are 13 in the human body: 4 fat-soluble (A, D, E and K - stored in the body for long periods) and 9 water-soluble (8 B-vitamins and C - rapidly flushed from the body and excreted in urine).
Many feel that a complete vitamin intake can be achieved with a well-balanced diet consisting of a variety of fruits and vegetables. However, with an ever-growing list of environmental toxins depleting the body of essential nutrients, poor soil quality & food preparation methods, and daily stress compromising health it is unlikely that a desirable vitamin intake can be obtained through whole foods alone.
The demand is even greater for strength athletes, including bodybuilders. The collective stress of ongoing resistance training and nutrient restriction (for example, high sugar fruits pre-contest) coupled with environmental factors make a quality multi-vitamin a muscle-building mandatory.
Why increase vitamin intake?
As of 2009 more than 2 billion people globally were affected by micronutrient deficiency.14 With 50% of the general population at risk of vitamin D deficiency2 and 1 in 4 adults deficient in vitamin B12 it is clear that even in developed countries, the right nutrient balance can be very difficult to achieve.9
People with no vitamin deficiency symptoms, many believe they are getting their required vitamin intake through a well-balanced diet. But such diets are, in reality, less than optimal.
In fact, over time, the suboptimal intake of vitamins may result in a breakdown of the cellular metabolism required for the proper growth and functioning of bodily tissues and organs. Disease and illness may result. Physical capabilities will certainly decline.
Some people are at greater risk of vitamin deficiency. For example, aging populations are less capable of absorbing vital nutrients. In addition, athletes continue to suffer micronutrient depletion due to the rigors of intensive training.
Those vulnerable to vitamin deficiencies may simply choose to increase their intake of wholesome foods. While a well-balanced diet devoid of processed foods undoubtedly provides a solid foundation for continued good health, such an approach can still lead to subclinical vitamin deficiencies.
Today’s farming practices and pest control measures have been shown to significantly reduce the mineral content of soil and the vitamin content of produce.15, 16 Un-ripened fruits also lack certain nutrients. Processing and preservation can strip fruit and vegetables of valuable vitamins.
Multivitamin: A Training essential
Hard training athletes are known for seeking any edge to put their results over the top. More reps, longer training sessions, quality macronutrient intake, targeted supplementation - whatever the edge, serious athletes will likely pursue it. One often-overlooked training edge also doubles as a fundamental key to excellent health and wellbeing: vitamin intake!
As discussed earlier, athletes are extra susceptible to nutritional deficiencies. Problem is, with the masses of food athletes eat, particularly in the offseason, they may have no reason to believe they are at risk of poor nutrient intake.
In emphasising high protein and energy-rich foods, many athletes overlook the very thing responsible for translating training efforts into tangible results: a complete array of micronutrients.
Compared to more moderate exercise, intensive training (such as sustained weightlifting and regular high intensity cardio) produces free radicals.10 An increase of free radicals can overwhelm the body’s antioxidant defenses and cause irreparable oxidative damage (or stress).
Once damaged, the targeted cells produce more free radicals and cause further damage to healthy cells. According to researcher Harshal R. Patil, “heavy and sustained exercise generates large quantities of free-radicals that likely outstrip the buffering capacity of the system, leaving these individuals susceptible to oxidative stress.”4
Though not obvious at first, oxidative stress resulting from intense training and nutritional deficiencies accumulate as the body compensates by taking nutrients from other areas. Unfortunately, the micro-damage of tissues continues unabated.
Such damage increases one’s risk of heart disease, cancer and early death.1 Normal populations may not experience observable effects from accumulated micro-damage. However, any amount of cellular damage will greatly and immediately affect athletic performance.7, 11
Many vitamins (B in particular) are instrumental in energy metabolism. Though marginal deficiencies may have only a minor effect on sedentary people, small impairments in an athlete’s ability to generate energy and perform at their best can have serious consequences.7
Add to this the fact that vitamin depletion among athletes is higher than normal due to the intense nature of training and intentional nutrient restriction, and it becomes clear that proper vitamin intake among athletes is especially important.
As we now know, a vitamin deficiency can result in increased cellular damage. Since vitamins are vital for ensuring systemic functioning of the body, it follows that those at greater risk of oxidative stress require an insurance policy in the form of high potency vitamins.
Unique differences between Vitamins
Many regular multi-vitamin products populate today’s health stores, attracting masses of health-conscious people with their flashy labels and exaggerated claims. However, many supply the recommended daily allowance for each nutrient and that's it. Others provide a single source of a given nutrient, often in such low dosages as to limit product efficacy. They are thus inefficient for hard training athletes.
Many multis, though providing a full complement of vitamins, offer only a select-few co-factors. For those routinely exposed to significant oxidative stress and nutrient depletion, the highest potency multi with unique advantages and a full array of co-factors can offer superior benefits.
To work best, vitamins must be taken in sufficient amounts and with complementary co-factors. Vitamins and other micronutrients work synergistically. Many vitamins can help to address health and wellbeing only when included in a full spectrum formula alongside a complete complement of additional micros.
It doesn’t take a degree in biology to know that all 8 B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12) should be taken together for maximum effect. Each B vitamin has a specific role to play in the body; all combine to ensure that the foods we eat are converted into fuel.
Tissue growth and red blood cell formation are optimized only when all B vitamins are on board. Even so, a full spectrum B vitamin may be less than optimal. One B vitamin considered vitally important for human health and tissue growth is B9 (otherwise known as folic acid, or folate). For the vital biological process of methylation to fully occur, folic acid is absolutely essential.
Systemic methylation – the transfer of methyl groups which modify DNA and occurs billions of times each day – underpins all biological functions. Methylation is essential for health. Without the proper intake and absorption of folic acid, methylation is severely compromised.
Unfortunately, folic acid must undergo several biological conversions in the body before it can become 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF), its metabolically active form; an inefficient process that can limit folic acid uptake.3 Folic acid absorption is also problematic for many. However, by supplementing directly with 5-MTHF the many benefits of folic acid can occur unimpeded.3
Another B vitamin, B12, is widely regarded as the most important energy nutrient of all. B12 protects RNA and DNA, supports immune function, protects nerve and brain cells, helps produce serotonin and contributes to red blood cell formation.
However, like B9, various B12 forms included in multi-vitamin supplements must undergo a multi-step conversion process before they can be converted into the naturally occurring co-enzyme form of B12: Methylcobalamin.5
This process is metabolically costly and highly inefficient. By taking Methylcobalamin direct, no conversion process is required. Also, Methylcobalamin has higher stability and bioavailability compared to other B12 forms.5
The fat soluble vitamin E penetrates fatty tissues to neutralize toxic oxidants and protect oxidant sensitive membranes. Arguably the most valuable of the antioxidants, E not only neutralizes oxygen-based free radicals to protect the cells of the body, but also helps to counter inflammation and protect nerve cells from an overproduction of the neurotransmitter glutamate.
By dropping most forms of E in favor of the commonly used form, alpha tocopherol, supplement manufacturers are short-changing the consumer. To work synergistically to provide full benefit, eight different forms of vitamin E must be present: 4 tocopherols (alpha, beta, gamma, and delta) and 4 tocotrienols (alpha, beta, gamma, and delta).12
Each E form serves a different function and all are critical for health and wellbeing. For example, while the body tends to retain more alpha tocopherol, the different tocotrienols are more permeable to cell membranes due to their unsaturated bonds. Gamma tocotrienol is especially protective. In one study, this powerful E form was shown to assist in the elimination of cancer cells.13
C: repairing and detoxifying
So critically important is Vitamin C to health that disease may rapidly follow a C deficiency. Naturally water soluble and known for its potent antioxidant effect, vitamin C is also a powerful detoxifier and is crucial in the growth of many bodily tissues – from collagen to blood vessels to skin.
Like vitamin E, C works best when multiple forms are taken together.6 Sodium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate, and ascorbic acid are three powerful forms of C that are seldom included together in the same multi. Most products will go with one over the others. Look for a product that has all three of these C forms for extra health insurance.
Vitamin supplementation should always complement a well-balanced diet. But there is still no guarantee that all dietary nutrients – from the diet and the multi itself – will be properly absorbed. In fact, many people are woefully deficient in the digestive enzymes needed to properly digest and absorb the foods they eat.
A good multi takes care of this dilemma by including a full array of digestive enzymes. Of the 6 important digestive enzymes (lipase, amylase, protease, bromelain, papain, and serrapeptase) required for optimum nutrient absorption, the proteases are vital for breaking proteins into amino acids to enhance muscle growth and amylase is needed to turn carbohydrates into glucose to fuel workouts.17
In terms of specific performance requirements, all vitamins must be prioritized, regardless of pursuit. While antioxidants such as E and C are great for combating oxidative stress and the Bs are instrumental in energy production, each specific vitamin (including the often overlooked D, K and A) plays a distinct role in health, wellbeing, performance, and tissue growth.
General lethargy not related specifically to training can be a sign of a vitamin deficiency. Cravings for processed foods can also result from missing nutrients; lacking vital nutrients the body seeks sustenance from high sugar fare and appetite is increased accordingly. Such cravings could also arise from low caloric diets.
More obvious signs of vitamin deficiency include cracks at the corner of the mouth; a red, scaly rash (on face) and hair loss; numbness or tingling in hands and feet; muscle cramps (due mostly to electrolyte imbalances); and red or white bumps resembling acne on the arms, thighs, buttocks and cheeks.8
Rather than select specific vitamins to address a specific complaint, it may be in your best interest to achieve an optimal balance of all vitamins (meaning enough to promote health).
For hard training strength athletes, including bodybuilders, a specifically-tailored multi is needed to supply the additional nutrients that gym progress demands.
Vitalize with vitamins
Unlike in the offseason, when relaxed nutrition is often par for the course, a good multi must be taken at all times. While other supplements and foods may be neglected at certain times, a multi must be front and center of the serious lifter’s training plan.
Building muscle and developing immense strength is not a simple case of maintaining a balanced macronutrient intake. Governing every chemical process in the body is the combined interplay of a full spectrum of micronutrients, of which the vitamins discussed in this article form a major part.
So before grabbing that high protein shake and those high performance carbs, be sure to have all of your muscle-building bases covered.
- Ames, B., DNA damage from micronutrient deficiencies is likely to be a major cause of cancer. Mutat Res. 2001 Apr 18;475(1-2):7-20.
- Ceglia L. Vitamin D and skeletal muscle tissue and function. Mole Aspects Med. 2008;29:407–414.
- Debe, J., L-5-MTHF: New supplement that could save your life [Online] http://www.drdebe.com/articles/l-5-mthf-new-supplement-that-could-save-y... - retrieved on 15.4.16
- Fisher-Wellman K, Bloomer RJ. Acute exercise and oxidative stress: a 30 year history. Dyn Med. 2009 Jan 13;8:1.
- Kikuchi M, Kashii S, Honda Y, et al. Protective effects of methylcobalamin, a vitamin B12 analog, against glutamate-induced neurotoxicity in retinal cell culture. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 1997 Apr;38(5): 848-54.
- Levy, T., The Many Faces of Vitamin C. [Online] http://www.peakenergy.com/health_ebytes/issue_9.php -retrieved on 14.4.16
- Maughan, R., Role of micronutrients in sport and physical activity. British Medical Bulletin 1999; 55 (No. 3): 683-690
- Mercola, J., How to Recognize Nutrient Deficiencies. [Online] http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/11/03/nutrient-d... - retrieved on 15.4.16
- Mercola, J., 11 Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies. [Online] http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/10/19/most-commo... - retrieved on 15.4.16
- Patil H, R., O’keefe J. H., Lavie CJ, et al. Cardiovascular damage resulting from chronic excessive endurance exercise. Mo Med. 2012 Jul-Aug;109(4):312-21.
- Powers et al. Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress: Cellular Mechanisms and Impact on Muscle Force Production. Physiol Rev. 2008 Oct; 88(4): 1243–1276.
- Treadwell, B., Eight Faces of Vitamin E. [Online] http://www.juvenon.com/the-eight-faces-of-vitamin-e-0903/ - retrieved on 15.4.16
- Xionga, A., Distinct roles of different forms of vitamin E in DHA-induced apoptosis in triple-negative breast cancer cells. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2012 Jun;56(6):923-34
- Investing in the Future: A United Call to Action of Micronutrient Deficiencies. Global Report 2006. [Online] http://www.unitedcalltoaction.org/ - retrieved on 2.9.16
- Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R. S., & Walker, P. (2002). How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110 (5).
- Pimentel, D. (2006). Soil erosion: A food and environmental threat. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 8(1).
- University of Michigan. Health system. Digestive Enzymes. [Online] http://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hn-2840008 - retrieved on 1.9.16