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Doc: Workout supplements are a sum of their parts

Keith Roach
To Your Health

Dear Dr. Roach: My son, in his mid-20s, uses a preworkout energy supplement to which I am opposed. Can you tell me if this is harmful so that I can show him scientific research and your educated and medically sound response?

The supplement he uses contains alanine 1 g, creatine 1 g, arginine 1 g, tyrosine and velvet bean seed extract. It also contains 150 mg caffeine.

B.G.

Dear B.G.: It’s not always easy to tell what supplements are safe or effective for the condition they are marketed for, and the information available through a Web search often is biased. One place I start to get information is Medline Plus (nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/), which has reliable information about many supplements, but you often have to search individually.

In this case, alanine, arginine and tyrosine all are amino acids. These are the building blocks for proteins, and are safe in reasonable amounts. Creatine is generally safe for adults, and has been shown modestly effective at helping improve strength in young male weightlifters. One gram is a fairly low dose and is generally considered safe. The 150 mg of caffeine is about the same as a cup of strong coffee.

Velvet bean seed extract I had to look up. It has been used as a food crop and in traditional medicines. It has toxicity at high doses, but at the dose in the supplement, it should be safe.

In summary, I think this supplement is not likely to be harmful if taken in recommended doses, and it might have some small benefit. There is nothing in the supplement that cannot be obtained easily and cheaply from food, apart from the velvet bean, which I think has the least proof of benefit of all the components of the supplement.

Dear Dr. Roach: The problem is that I am losing my hair. I am a 63-year-old gal in relatively good health who walks for exercise, eats a healthy, balanced diet and takes a pill each day to manage cholesterol and blood pressure. I do not have a thyroid problem, nor do I have diabetes. My dermatologist told me I do not have alopecia, as some of my siblings do.

Instead, he suggested that my hair loss — and specifically the thinning of the hair on top of my scalp — is due to heredity; male pattern baldness runs through both sides of my family.

So here’s the question: Is it safe and/or effective to take 5,000 mcg of over-the-counter biotin supplements to lessen the effect of hair loss, or is this product ineffective and just being pushed on women by pharmaceutical and vitamin manufacturers to increase sales and profits, and to manipulate the consumer into believing that this expensive vitamin product is essential to our well-being?

Thank you.

C.W.R.

Dear C.W.R.: Biotin has been studied for both male pattern and female pattern baldness, and has had limited success, especially when combined with other vitamins and nutritional supplements (60 percent effectiveness versus 11 percent in one placebo-controlled trial). It might be worth a try, since it is very safe.

As far as expense goes, I found biotin tablets for 6 cents each at an online retailer. It certainly isn’t essential to well-being; in fact, with a healthy diet, I believe no supplement is essential. Vitamin and supplement manufacturers may try to make you think supplements are essential, but there is no good evidence for this.

Taking it to try to improve a problem like male-pattern baldness is reasonable, but if it doesn’t help significantly, save your money.

Email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.