It’s a common trait among Soldiers throughout the Army to take pride in physical fitness and job performance.  Striving to improve Air Force Personnel Test scores, gaining muscle, and losing weight are all familiar parts of the military lifestyle.  Taking additional workout supplements to optimize performance is also a regular occurrence in a Soldier’s life, but how safe are the supplements troopers are taking?

Researchers are finding there is a high cost associated with using supplements to achieve fitness goals.  The dietary supplements vary from multivitamins, minerals, herbals, or proteins (whey, casein, etc); to others such as diet/weight loss/appetite suppressant pills, pre-workout supplements, energy drinks, mass gainer, creatine, or post-workout recovery drinks and pills.

These pills, powders, and gels may be marketed as a way to “improve your performance,” “get a quick fix,” or “gain focus and power at the gym,” but what they fail to advertise is they can also cause serious side effects.

Recently, two active-duty Soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, one only 22 years old, died suddenly during an APFT after suffering heart attacks.  A third Fort Bliss-based Soldier also died of heat stroke.

A subsequent Army investigation determined supplement use was a contributing factor in all three deaths.

There have been multiple cases involving 82nd Airborne Division troopers who have collapsed during strenuous exercise. Most investigations found Soldiers had taken various combinations of workout supplements. They all needed intense medical intervention and hospitalization before they could return to duty.

In an effort to prevent further illnesses, the Food and Drug Administration has warned manufacturers about advertising some about the more dangerous ingredients as dietary supplements.

The FDA specifically targeted DMAA (1,3-dimethylamylamine), a stimulant known to narrow the blood vessels and arteries, which can elevate blood pressure and may lead to cardiovascular events ranging from shortness of breath and tightening in the chest, to a full blown heart attack. Officials are working to permanently remove all products containing DMAA, and similar ingredients, from the market.

When used in higher than recommended amounts, in combination with other dietary and workout supplements, and by Soldiers with possible pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart problems, or prior heat injuries, adverse side-effects can occur.  Especially with the warmer temperatures of summer at Fort Bragg, Soldiers should be aware that many of the supplements sold in stores and on-line can cause side effects. Some of the side effects include increased heart rate, increased body temperatures, a perceived increase in exercise tolerance, and dehydration effects that make even the healthiest paratrooper prone to heat injury.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s in the supplement and what effect it may have on the body. The best advice is to avoid taking any dietary or workout supplement unless you first discuss it with a medical provider.  He/she can review your medical history, fitness level/goals, and help you make a healthy decision as to the possible side effects of the product in question.

The Army Wellness Center on Fort Bragg (643-2101) or the Department of Defense’s Human Performance Resource Center (http://hprc-online.org) are also available resources for information on dietary/exercise supplements, including up to date information about which supplements are banned or illegal to use in the DoD.

Research what supplements you are taking, know how they may affect you, report any adverse supplement reactions or concerns to an Army medical provider, and watch out for your battle buddies to make sure they do the same.

Be educated, be aware — stay fit to fight.

Dietary supplements

Red Flags:

What you need to know

Is it a high-risk dietary supplement? High-risk product categories include:

Body building products
  Weight-loss products
  Diabetes products 
  Sexual enhancement products

Does the supplement’s product label have statements such as the claims below? These claims often indicate that the supplement may contain substances not on the ingredients list, prescription drug analogs, or banned substances.

An alternative to (or claiming to have similar effects to) an FDA-approved drug — e.g., “All natural alternative to XYZ.
  Do not take if you have any medical condition, if you are taking any prescription medications, or if you are pregnant.
  May cause a positive result in a performance-enhancing drug test. 

If the supplement makes a claim about a dietary ingredient affecting normal body structure or function (e.g., “helps promote bone health”), is its product label missing the following statement?

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Does the label:

Claim to cure a wide range of unrelated diseases (e.g., cancer, AIDS, in addition to diabetes)?
  Promise “quick fixes” (e.g., cure XYZ in seven days, lose weight in nine days, shrink tumors in one week, cure impotency in two weeks, etc.)?