It is vital for sportspeople, especially those who engage in elite sports and arduous training, to be adequately supplied with dietary fuel, vitamins and minerals, as deficiencies may impair their performance and increase the risk of sports injuries, infections, anemia, osteoporosis, and hormonal imbalances.
Sportspeople must always make sure to get adequate amounts of the nutrients that are important for metabolism and blood formation, as intensive and prolonged physical activity requires an enormous energy and blood supply to the hard-working muscles. Sportspeople must also be adequately supplied with the antioxidants that protect the cells. According to scientific research, the most important nutrients are B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, iron, selenium, and zinc.
The different B vitamins collaborate as one big family. They are necessary for an optimal energy turnover, the muscles, the nervous system, the digestion, and skin and hair. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are particularly important for blood formation, protein synthesis, and reconstruction of muscle tissue and other tissues. Refined food, birth control pills, overconsumption of sugar, caffeine and other stimulants, and physical and mental overload all increase the need for B vitamins. Lack of vitamin B12 is particularly common among vegetarians.
Vitamin D is important for the uptake of calcium from the digestive system and also for building and maintaining strong bones. Vitamin D is also important for our muscles, cardiovascular system, nervous system, immune system, and for controlling inflammation. The summer sun is our primary source of vitamin D, and many of us become deficient during the winter period. Sportspeople and others who train indoors - typically swimmers, ballet dancers, figure skaters, and fitness practitioners - represent a specific risk group. Moreover, many experts believe that our actual need for the nutrient is greater than the daily reference intake (recommended daily intake)
Calcium is important for our bones, nerve impulses, muscles, and blood coagulation. Lack of dietary calcium or poor calcium utilization from food and/or supplements will increase the risk of weak bones and osteoporosis at an early age, and this goes unnoticed until it is too late and the damage is done.
Antacids, lack of gastric acid, low vitamin D status and lack of magnesium all contribute to reducing the uptake and utilization of calcium. Therefore, the use of calcium supplements should always be accompanied by vitamin D and magnesium
Beware of osteoporosis and other deficiency diseases
Elite sports, endurance sports, and training dependency - especially when combined with low energy availability or unhealthy diets - may deplete the body of vitamins and minerals, leading to osteoporosis, missed periods, and numerous injuries and diseases.
Magnesium is important for our bones, energy metabolism, muscles, blood pressure, and nerve impulses. Magnesium is primarily found inside the cells where it supports more than 300 enzymatic processes. Lack of magnesium may cause muscle cramps, constipation, insomnia, and insidious bone decalcification. Lack of magnesium and poor utilization of the nutrient may be caused by physical and psychological overload, an unhealthy and incomplete diet, too much calcium, lack of vitamin B6, and a large consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and other stimulants.
Magnesium deficiency is widespread among sportspeople. For example, whole blood analyses have shown that 75% of the players on a women's handball team had low magnesium levels. Whole blood analyses are far more accurate than regular blood analyses because they reveal intra-cellular nutrient deficiencies, something which normal blood analyses are unable to.
Iron is important for our energy metabolism, vitality, red blood cell formation, immune system, and enzymatic processes in the brain. An iron deficiency, with or without anemia, reduces our performance and may cause shortness of breath, palpitations, vertigo, and impaired immunity. Iron deficiencies are especially common among women because of their menstrual periods. Sportspeople who are underweight and endurance athletes (typically runners) plus vegetarians are also at risk of developing an iron deficiency. The uptake of iron from food may also be reduced by too little gastric juice, the use of antacids, too many dairy products, calcium supplements, a large consumption of coffee and tea, and lack of vitamin C.
Because iron is a pro-oxidant (the opposite of an antioxidant), it is important that you only take iron supplements if your doctor has observed a deficiency. Iron supplements and calcium supplements should normally be taken with different meals in order to ensure the best utilization.
Revealing deficiencies among sportspeople
The players on a female handball team were all offered a whole blood analysis. As it turned out, the majority had low levels of magnesium, iron, zinc, and potassium. Similar whole blood analyses carried out with male athletes showed that most of them lacked calcium, magnesium, and zinc. Baseline measurements of blood samples from a male handball team specifically showed deficiencies of vitamin C, vitamin D, magnesium, and selenium.
Selenium is part of over 30 different selenoproteins that are important for energy metabolism, thyroid hormones, cardiovascular health, healthy sperm cells, immune defense, and the body's ability to control inflammation. Selenium is a powerful antioxidant that counteracts oxidative damage caused by free radicals. Selenium deficiencies are becoming increasingly common due to depleted farm soil and diets that lack fish and organ meat. Low selenium increases the risk of virus infections, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic disorders, poor sperm quality, and cancer.
Zinc is important for the energy turnover, construction and reconstruction of muscle tissue, the immune defense, and skin. Zinc deficiencies are typically seen with vegetarian diets and other diets that lack animal raw materials. Athletes, and women in particular, are at the risk of zinc deficiency. A zinc deficiency may directly affect levels of thyroid hormone, the basic metabolism, and the protein metabolism, and that may be harmful to your health and physical performance.
Antioxidant protect the cells
During hard training and elite sports, the production of free radicals is stepped up as a result of the increased oxygen turnover. Therefore, sportspeople should pay careful attention to the body's need for antioxidants that neutralize the free radicals and protect cells in e.g. the heart, brain, muscles, and joints. The most important antioxidants are vitamins A, C, and E plus selenium and zinc.
Sodium (salt), potassium, and chloride
These minerals are important for the electrolyte balance and especially important for athletes who sweat a lot.
Healthy diets and supplements
A healthy diet should provide energy and nutrients. However, there are things that increase the need for specific nutrients, for instance intensive sports performance and being underweight as an athlete. The same is the case with unhealthy diets, nutrient-depleted soil, lack of sunshine, menstrual periods and other specific conditions.
There are currently not any scientific studies to show that consumption of vitamins and minerals in mega-doses can improve physical performance as such. Still, lack of vital nutrients may impair your ability to perform optimally and increase the risk of sports injuries and other serious health complications. Because of that, sportspeople should always make sure to get the nutrients they need - and there are many useful supplements that are well suited for that purpose.
Athletes should make sure to get the following nutrients, which are important for:
|Energy turnover||B vitamins, magnesium, selenium, zinc|
|Thyroid hormones||Iodine, selenium|
|Blood formation||Iron, B vitamins|
|Musculoskeletal system||Calcium, magnesium, vitamin D|
|Immune defense||All vitamins, especially vitamins C and D plus selenium, zinc, and iron|
|Antioxidants||Vitamins A, C, and E, zinc, selenium|
Common causes of poor nutrient status among sportspeople:
- Poorly timed meal patterns that do not match training periods
- Poor energy distribution between protein, carbohydrate, and fat
- Too little fish, fruit, and vegetables
- Overload of empty calories
- Unhealthy beverages
- Training on an empty stomach
Nancy R Rodriges et al. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medscape.
Sara Sig møller, Anna Melin, Åsa Tornberg og Anders Sjödin: Lav energitæthed og hormonforstyrrelser blandt kvindelige atleter. Dansk Sportsmedicin 2013. Institut for idræt og ernæring. Københavns Universitet, Lunds Universitet
Yoon Moberg. Får du nok jern? Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet.
Nielsen FH, Lukasi HC. Update on the relationship between magnesium and exercise. PubMed.gov
Pernille Lund: Rigtig kost til motionister og elitesportsfolk
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