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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


The Use of Antioxidant Vitamins For Exercise Performance

By Julia Bird

The effect of exercise on the body could perhaps be seen as a case of “tough love.” Exercise actually causes damage to the body at the cellular level, something that can be felt at the human level as sore muscles after an intensive exercise bout. This damage is necessary to stimulate the body to rebuild stronger and more efficient muscle tissue. Improvements in physical performance, and the health benefits of exercise, therefore only arise after the body is damaged by exercise.

The cellular damage is caused by oxidative stress. In the case of exercise, the oxidative stress is caused by the intensive energy use by muscles. As antioxidant vitamins are capable of reducing levels of oxidative stress, it is thought that muscle pain can be reduced. Less muscle pain after exercise allows athletes to train harder. Various studies have therefore investigated whether antioxidant supplements provided at levels higher than what can be obtained through the diet can affect exercise performance. The authors Draeger et al. aimed to summarize studies conducted with antioxidant vitamins on physical performance.

The authors identified a few small studies have been conducted in both trained athletes and untrained volunteers. This is an important distinction to make, because people who exercise regularly have higher levels of antioxidant enzymes in their body, which are produced in response to exercise. Untrained volunteers have a naturally lower antioxidant capacity. They found two studies conducted in trained athletes that showed a positive response to supplementation with vitamins C , E and pro-vitamin A beta-carotene. In contrast, in untrained volunteers the placebo group out-performed people supplemented with vitamin C, and vitamin E.

Unfortunately, some studies did not measure the baseline nutritional status of the participants. This is important because supplementation with antioxidants to improve the oxidative capacity of the body is only likely to be beneficial if the baseline antioxidant level provided by the diet is low. Athletes from a wide range of different disciplines have been found to be deficient in some nutrients due to high nutrient needs and strict schedules. Deficits have been found for zinc in swimmers, a large range of micronutrients in soccer players, female athletes in general and handball players, vitamin D for athletes, dancers, and elite athletes in a wide range of recent studies. It is difficult to find trends in the data as such, however it seems that low intakes or levels are likely to be found for folic acid and vitamin D, and less so for the antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin C. Correcting nutrient deficiencies should be the focus of nutritional therapy. The supply of extra antioxidants is only likely to be effective when baseline intakes are too low.  

Main citation:

Cainara Lins Draeger, Andréia Naves, Natália Marques, Ana Beatriz Baptistella, Renata Alves Carnauba, Valéria Paschoal and Humberto Nicastro. Controversies of antioxidant vitamins supplementation in exercise: ergogenic or ergolytic effects in humans? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014, 11:4. Published: 19 February 2014.

Supporting citations:

Constantini NW, Arieli R, Chodick G, Dubnov-Raz G. High prevalence of vitamin D insufficiency in athletes and dancers. Clin J Sport Med. 2010 Sep;20(5):368-71. doi: 10.1097/JSM.0b013e3181f207f2.

Gibson JC, Stuart-Hill L, Martin S, Gaul C. Nutrition status of junior elite Canadian female soccer athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011 Dec;21(6):507-14.

Giolo De Carvalho F, Rosa FT, Marques Miguel Suen V, Freitas EC, Padovan GJ, Marchini JS. Evidence of zinc deficiency in competitive swimmers. Nutrition. 2012 Nov-Dec;28(11-12):1127-31. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2012.02.012.

Heaney S, O'Connor H, Gifford J, Naughton G. Comparison of strategies for assessing nutritional adequacy in elite female athletes' dietary intake. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2010 Jun;20(3):245-56.

Magee PJ, Pourshahidi LK, Wallace J MW, Cleary J, Conway J, Harney E, Madigan SM. Vitamin d status and supplementation in elite irish athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2013 Oct;23(5):441-8.

Molina-López J, Molina JM, Chirosa LJ, Florea D, Sáez L, Jiménez J, Planells P, Pérez de la Cruz A, Planells E. Implementation of a nutrition education program in a handball team; consequences on nutritional status. Nutr Hosp. 2013 Jul-Aug;28(4):1065-76. doi: 10.3305/nh.2013.28.4.6600.