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Supplements for concussion are never zero risk for athletes

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The career of a professional athlete is very unique. It’s not your usual nine to five. As an athlete, you are passionate about your sport. Sometimes your love of the game can get lost amidst all the pressure to perform and the desire to not let anyone, including yourself, down. A time trial difference of just 0.01 seconds can make or stall your career, and with a career that may go only until your thirties, the stakes seem higher than the every day desk job.

With such high expectations, a lot of focus is put on your training. Hours are spent in the pool, on the field, in the gym, on the ice. You do everything you can to be better, faster, stronger. Momentum builds as you get closer to your next competition.

And then… you get an injury.

Injuries for athletes can be devastating. You’ve invested more than just time, but also love into your sport. Your sport has become your identity. So when you’re injured, it can be crushing to transition from high intensity training to rest, recovery, and rehabilitation. After all, you still have the drive to do everything you can to get to the podium. All you want to do is feel better and get back in the game.

Concussion is an injury as unique and as high stakes as your athletic career. It’s such a steep slide, going from working with a team every day to physical & mental rest that puts you in isolation, more than most other injuries.

The problem is concussions are poorly understood. There’s no one clear path for every athlete to achieve a speedy recovery. As a result, athletes may turn to nutrition. When they do, they might come across information on specific nutrients, and suggestions to take supplements to help the brain heal.

When I work with an athlete, I consider all aspects of their health. One misconception I often see is the belief that supplements are ‘natural’ and therefore ‘safe.’ This is far from the truth. Research on supplements in concussion is still growing — there are no definitive answers. Some supplements may help, however these need to be chosen with the same care you put into your training.

Here are three things you need to consider when it comes to supplements for sport-related concussions.

1) Do you have a solid foundation?

When you walk into a pharmacy or grocery store, you sometimes find protein powders, creatine and other nutritional supplements labeled under an aisle called “sport nutrition.” How misleading is this? But this is how athletes tend to approach sport nutrition — they start with the sport aids that only support performance a fraction of what a healthy every day diet can. The result? Athletes are left unbalanced in nutrition, much like building a pyramid upside down and expecting it to stay upright. Supplements can only compliment your daily diet — they cannot be the foundation.

2) Do you know the side effects?

At one of my own more recent appointments with my sport medicine concussion team, we discussed the possible use of melatonin. Melatonin is a supplement that is thought to help with certain symptoms post concussion. We were comparing this to a medication that targets the same problem areas. In comparing the supplement to the medication, I was shocked to find that the supplement had just as many side effects. This should not have been so surprising to me. After all, whenever I work with clients, I discuss the same. ‘Natural’ does NOT mean free of consequences. Many supplements can cause digestive symptoms or can interfere with how well medications and other supplements work. Side effects of melatonin include headache, dizziness and nausea — symptoms that already happen in concussion.

Now, just because side effects exist doesn’t mean that a supplement or a medication isn’t worth a trial. However you have to consider that side effects may happen with supplements too. You need to work with your team to figure out the pros and cons of each supplement to choose the ones that best fit you.

3) How will you lower your risk of a supplement causing a positive test for doping?

Unlike medications, supplements don’t have to go through the same rigorous testing to prove their usefulness and safety. Not all supplements are created equally. What it says on the bottle for ingredients may not actually reflect everything that is in the bottle. As a result, professional athletes have lost chances to compete due to testing positive for banned substances. Safer supplements have gone through quality assurance testing, have come from companies with good manufacturing practices, or have been batch tested by a third party.

But even with all these measures in place to get you good quality & pure supplements, the truth is that risk still exists. There have been athletes who have still tested positive due to batch-tested supplements — a blow to the athlete as devastating as the injury itself.

So what’s the take home message?

All the research coming out on the possible benefits of supplements in concussion recovery is super exciting. However, it’s clear that your supplements should be considered with the same precautions as your prescribed medication. Furthermore, supplements in concussion recovery are only one very small piece of the recovery puzzle.

What you need to complete the recovery puzzle is a support system of people who not only celebrate your successes, but who help get you back up when you’ve been knocked down. No athlete goes it alone. If you are driven to get back to the sport you love, and if you find the information on supplements is putting more pressure on you than you need, then feel free to reach out to me. I can help lower your risk when it comes to supplements while getting you the right nutrition for your recovery.

Best in brain & sport health,

Krystal Merrells, Registered Dietitian