The Missing Link: Vitamin Intake and Training
It is often believed that the biggest barrier to muscle growth, energy replenishment and positive performance outcomes among lifters at all levels is poor micronutrient intake.
High performance athletes are more susceptible to nutritional deficiencies than the general population. This especially holds true for bodybuilders and other physique athletes who place great demands on their bodies and who may restrict certain nutrients to achieve low bodyfat levels.
Micronutrients – vitamins, minerals and additional co-factors such as co-enzymes – are essential to life. Micronutrients, as co-factors for enzymes within the body, make myriad biochemical processes happen. Pound down all the protein and carbs you want and the chances are if your micros are not in the correct balance, you can forget about building quality muscle.
Frequently neglected among athletes are the vitamins (the focus of this article), of which there are 13 in the human body: 4 fat-soluble (A, D, E and K – stored in the body for long periods) and 9 water-soluble (8 B-vitamins and C – rapidly flushed from the body and excreted in the urine).
Many feel that a complete vitamin intake can be achieved by consuming a well-balanced diet comprising a variety of fruits and vegetables. However…
Many feel that a complete vitamin intake can be achieved by consuming a well-balanced diet comprising a variety of fruits and vegetables. However, with an ever-growing list of environmental toxins depleting the body of essential nutrients, poor soil quality and food preparation methods and daily stress compromising health, it is unlikely that an optimal intake of vitamins can be supplied through whole foods alone. The demand is even greater for strength athletes – including bodybuilders. The cumulative stress of ongoing resistance training and nutrient restriction – for example, high sugar fruits pre-contest – coupled with the aforementioned environmental factors make a quality multi-vitamin a muscle-building mandatory.
So why must hard training athletes prioritise vitamin intake? Will the standard multi cut it? If not, is there a superior approach to multi-vitamin supplementation? Read on to find out.
Why Increase Vitamin Intake?
While severe vitamin deficiencies among Western populations are rare, subclinical deficiencies (a less than optimal intake) are becoming more and more common. As of 2015 over 40% of US adults had dietary intakes of antioxidant vitamins A, C and E below the average requirement for their age and gender. And with 50% of the general population at risk of vitamin D (essential for bone growth, cell remodeling and immune function)2 deficiency and 1 in 4 adults deficient in vitamin B12 (essential for energy production, blood formation, and DNA synthesis) it is clear that even in developed countries, the right nutrient balance can be very difficult to achieve.9
People with subclinical vitamin deficiencies may believe they are getting their required vitamin intake through what may appear to be a well-balanced diet. But such diets are, in reality, less than optimal. And such dieters do not, as a result, enjoy the full health benefits of a nutritionally complete diet. In fact, over time, the suboptimal intake of vitamins results in a breakdown of the cellular metabolism required for the proper growth and functioning of bodily tissues and organs. Disease and illness may ultimately result and physical capabilities will certainly decline.
…suboptimal intake of vitamins results in a breakdown of the cellular metabolism required for the proper growth and functioning of bodily tissues and organs.
Some people are at greater risk of experiencing vitamin deficiencies than others. Aging populations, for example, are less capable of absorbing vital nutrients. And athletes continue to suffer the sustained depletion of micronutrients due to the rigors of intensive training. If you’re older and train hard you are especially at risk.
Those susceptible to vitamin deficiencies may simply choose to increase their intake of wholesome foods. Not entirely a smart move. While a well-balanced diet devoid of processed foods undoubtedly provides a solid foundation for continued good health, such an approach can still lead to subclinical vitamin deficiencies. Today’s farming practices and pest control measures have been shown to significantly reduce the mineral content of soil and, in turn, the vitamin content of produce. Un-ripened fruits (as included on many a supermarket shelf) also lack certain nutrients. And any degree of processing and preservation can strip fruit and vegetables of valuable vitamins.
Hard training athletes are known for seeking any edge to put their results over the top. More reps, longer sessions, quality macronutrient intake, targeted supplementation. Whatever the edge, to an athlete it is well worth pursuing. One often-overlooked training edge is also a fundamental key to excellent health and wellbeing: vitamin intake.
As discussed earlier, athletes are extra susceptible to nutritional deficiencies. Problem is, with the masses of food these people eat, particularly in the offseason, they may have no reason to believe they are at risk of any nutritional deficiencies. In emphasising high protein and energy intake, many athletes overlook the very thing responsible for translating their training efforts into tangible results: a complete array of micronutrients.
One often-overlooked training edge is also a fundamental key to excellent health and wellbeing: vitamin intake.
Compared to more moderate exercise, intensive training such as sustained weightlifting and regular high intensity cardio produces more free radicals (unstable atoms or molecules).10 A proliferation of free radicals can overwhelm the body’s antioxidant defenses and cause irreparable oxidative damage (or stress). Once damaged via oxidative stress, the targeted cells produce – cascade-style – more free radicals and further damage to healthy cells ensues. According to researcher Harshal R. Patil, “heavy and sustained exercise generates large quantities of free-radicals that likely outstrip the buffering capacity of the system, leaving these individuals susceptible to oxidative stress.”4 Such stress affects even superbly trained athletes who eat a wide range of beneficial nutrients.
Though not obvious at first, oxidative stress resulting from hard training and nutritional deficiencies (however minor) accumulate as the body seeks to compensate by taking nutrients from other areas. However, the micro-damage of tissues continues unabated. Such damage increases one’s risk of heart disease, cancer and an early death.1 While normal populations may not experience any observable effects from accumulated micro-damage – at least not in the early stages – any degree of cellular damage will greatly and immediately affect an athlete’s performance.7, 11
Many vitamins (B in particular) are instrumental in energy metabolism.
Many vitamins (B in particular) are instrumental in energy metabolism. Though marginal deficiencies may have only a minor effect on more sedentary people, small impairments in an athlete’s ability to generate energy and perform at their best can have serious consequences.7 Add to this the fact that vitamin depletion among athletes is higher than normal due to the intense nature of their training and the fact that many athletes – notably bodybuilders – deliberately curtail the intake of certain nutrients and it becomes clear that proper vitamin intake among athletes is fundamentally important.
As we now know, a vitamin deficiency can result in increased cellular damage. Since vitamins – co-factors for the enzymes that run our cellular machinery – are vital for ensuring the many biological processes function as they should, it follows that those at greater risk of oxidative stress require an extra insurance policy in the form of high potency vitamins.
Many regular multi-vitamin products populate today’s health stores, attracting masses of health-conscious people with their flashy labels and hyperbolic claims. However, such products are just that: regular. Many supply the recommended daily allowance for each nutrient (the bare minimum) and are thus inefficient for hard training athletes. Others provide a single source of a given nutrient, often in such low dosages that any intended therapeutic effects are simply not possible.
Many multis, though offering a full complement of vitamins, offer only a select-few co-factors – a few key minerals and essentials fats, for example. For one who is routinely exposed to significant oxidative stress and nutrient depletion, only the highest potency multi that offers unique advantages and a full array of co-factors will have the desired effect.
To work best, vitamins must not only be taken in optimal amounts but must also be taken with complementary co-factors. Vitamins and other micronutrients work synergistically. Indeed, as will be discussed soon, certain vitamins can only provide full benefit when included in a full spectrum formula alongside a complete complement of additional micros.
It doesn’t take a degree in biology to know that all 8 B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, and B12) must be taken together for maximum effect. Each B vitamin has a specific role to play in the body; all combine to ensure that the foods we eat are converted into fuel. Tissue growth and red blood cell formation are optimized only when all B vitamins are on board. Even so, a full spectrum B vitamin may be less than optimal. One B vitamin considered vitally important for human health and tissue growth is B9 (otherwise known as folic acid). For the vital biological process of methylation to occur, folic acid is absolutely necessary.
Systemic methylation – the transfer of methyl groups (one carbon bound to three hydrogen atoms) that modifies DNA and occurs in the body billions of times each day – underpins all biological functions. Thus methylation is essential for health. Without the proper intake and absorption of folic acid, methylation is severely compromised. Unfortunately, folic acid must undergo several biological conversions in the body before it can become 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF), its metabolically active form; an inefficient process that can limit its uptake.3 The absorption of folic acid is also problematic for many. However, by supplementing directly with 5-MTHF, the many benefits of folic acid can be experienced unimpeded.3
B12 protects RNA and DNA, supports immune function, protects nerve and brain cells, helps produce serotonin, and contributes to red blood cell formation.
Another B vitamin, B12, is widely regarded as the most important energy nutrient of all. B12 protects RNA and DNA, supports immune function, protects nerve and brain cells, helps produce serotonin, and contributes to red blood cell formation. However, various B12 forms included in multi-vitamin supplements must, like B9, undergo a multi-step conversion process before they can be converted into the naturally occurring co-enzyme form of B12: Methylcobalamin.5 This process is metabolically costly and highly inefficient. By taking Methylcobalamin direct, no conversion process is required. Furthermore, Methylcobalamin has higher stability and bioavailability compared to other B12 forms.5 In short, Methylcobalamin could be likened to regular B12 on steroids.
The fat soluble vitamin E penetrates fatty tissues to neutralize toxic oxidants and protect oxidant sensitive membranes. Arguably the most valuable of the antioxidants E not only neutralizes oxygen-based free radicals to protect the cells of the body (notably for athletes, the red blood cells) but also helps to counter inflammation and protect nerve cells from an overproduction of the neurotransmitter glutamate.
By dropping most forms of E in favor of the commonly used form, alpha tocopherol, supplement manufacturers are short-changing the consumer. To work synergistically to provide full benefit, eight different forms of Vitamin E must be present in one’s daily multi: 4 tocopherols (alpha, beta, gamma, and delta) and 4 tocotrienols (alpha, beta, gamma, and delta).12 Each serves a different function and all are critical for health and wellbeing. For example, while the body tends to retain more alpha tocopherol, the different tocotrienols are more permeable to cell membranes due to their unsaturated bonds. Gamma tocotrienol is especially protective. In one study, this powerful E form was shown to assist in the elimination of cancer cells.13
C: Repairing & Detoxifying
At one point during human evolution, we lost our natural ability to manufacture our own vitamin C. Most other animals are able to make their own. Vitamin C is so critically important to our health that disease follows deficiency pretty rapidly. Naturally water soluble and known for its potent antioxidant effect, vitamin C is also a powerful detoxifier and is crucial in the growth of many bodily tissues – from collagen to blood vessels to skin.
Vitamin C is so critically important to our health that disease follows deficiency pretty rapidly.
Like vitamin E, C works best when multiple forms are taken together.6 Sodium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate and ascorbic acid are three powerful forms of C that are seldom included together in the same multi. Most products will go with one over the others. Look for a product that has all three of these C forms for extra anabolic insurance.
Vitamin supplementation should always complement a well-balanced diet. But there is still no guarantee that all dietary nutrients – from the diet and the multi itself – will be properly absorbed. In fact, many people are woefully deficient in the digestive enzymes needed to properly digest and absorb the foods they eat. A good multi takes care of this dilemma by including a full array of digestive enzymes. Of the 6 important digestive enzymes (lipase, amylase, protease, bromelain, papain, and serrapeptase) required for optimum nutrient absorption, the proteases are vital for breaking proteins into amino acids to enhance muscle growth and amylase is needed to turn carbohydrates into glucose – ultimately stored as muscle glycogen – to fuel intensive workouts.
Full Spectrum Gains
Chances are your current multi does not feature the above-listed unique ingredients. Go ahead and check the label. In fact, few multis contain all of the important vitamins along with every other vital co-factor necessary for excellent health and solid gym gains. With ALLMAX Nutrition’s patented VITASTACK, VITAFEMME (including the 2-a-day packs), and VITAFORM a complete micronutrient balance can be achieved. Ultra-high potency and containing the leading-edge ingredients discussed above, these products are uniquely powerful and designed only for the serious athlete/gym trainee. It could even be argued that these products – tailored specifically for different training populations – should be prioritized ahead of the leading ALLMAX whey proteins. Indeed, without a proper micronutrient balance the superstar macros cannot do their respective jobs.
How to Determine Need
In terms of specific performance requirements, all vitamins must be prioritized, regardless of the pursuit. While antioxidants such as E and C are great for combating oxidative stress and the Bs are instrumental in energy production, each specific vitamin (including the often overlooked D, K and A) plays a distinct role in health, wellbeing, performance, and tissue growth.
General lethargy not related specifically to training can be a sign of a vitamin deficiency. Cravings for processed foods – the consumption of which will backfire in the worst possible way since these foods actually strip nutrients from the body – can also result from missing nutrients; lacking vital nutrients the body seeks sustenance from high sugar fare and appetite is increased accordingly. Such cravings could also arise from low caloric eating. More obvious signs of vitamin deficiency include cracks at the corner of the mouth; a red, scaly rash (on face) and hair loss; numbness or tingling in hands and feet; muscle cramps (due more to electrolyte imbalances); and red or white bumps resembling acne on the arms, thighs, buttocks and cheeks.8
Rather than select specific vitamins to address a certain complaint it is always best to achieve an optimal balance of all vitamins (meaning enough to promote health, no more or less). Like many good things, an overconsumption of vitamins can lead to a separate set of health problems, not to mention a lighter wallet.
For hard training strength athletes, including bodybuilders, a specifically-tailored multi is needed (refer to the above-listed recommendations) to supply the additional nutrients that gym progress demands.
Vitalize Your Training with Vitamins
Unlike in the offseason, when relaxed nutrition is often par for the course, a good multi must be taken at all times. While other supplements and foods might be neglected at certain times (not advised!), a multi must be front and center of the serious lifter’s training plan.
Building muscle and developing immense strength is not a simple case of maintaining a balanced macronutrient intake. Governing every chemical process in the body – digestion, muscle contraction, nerve conduction and recovery being but four – is the combined interplay of a full spectrum of micronutrients, of which the vitamins discussed in this article form a major part. So before grabbing that high protein shake and those high performance carbs, be sure to have all of your muscle-building bases covered. Only the most effective multi on the market will ensure you do.
Ames, B., DNA damage from micronutrient deficiencies is likely to be a major cause of cancer. Mutat Res. 2001 Apr 18;475(1-2):7-20.
Ceglia L. Vitamin D and skeletal muscle tissue and function. Mole Aspects Med. 2008;29:407–414.
Debe, J., L-5-MTHF: New supplement that could save your life [Online] http://www.drdebe.com/articles/l-5-mthf-new-supplement-that-could-save-your-life – retrieved on 15.4.16
Fisher-Wellman K, Bloomer RJ. Acute exercise and oxidative stress: a 30 year history. Dyn Med. 2009 Jan 13;8:1.
Kikuchi M, Kashii S, Honda Y, et al. Protective effects of methylcobalamin, a vitamin B12 analog, against glutamate-induced neurotoxicity in retinal cell culture. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 1997 Apr;38(5): 848-54.
Levy, T., The Many Faces of Vitamin C. [Online] http://www.peakenergy.com/health_ebytes/issue_9.php -retrieved on 14.4.16
Maughan,, Role of micronutrients in sport and physical activity. British Medical Bulletin 1999; 55 (No. 3): 683-690
Mercola, J., How to Recognize Nutrient Deficiencies. [Online] http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/11/03/nutrient-deficiency-signs-symptoms.aspx – retrieved on 15.4.16
Mercola, J., 11 Most Common Nutrient Deficiencies. [Online] http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/10/19/most-common-nutrient-deficiencies.aspx – retrieved on 15.4.16
Patil H, R., O’keefe J. H., Lavie CJ, et al. Cardiovascular damage resulting from chronic excessive endurance exercise. Mo Med. 2012 Jul-Aug;109(4):312-21.
Powers et al. Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress: Cellular Mechanisms and Impact on Muscle Force Production. Physiol Rev. 2008 Oct; 88(4): 1243–1276.
Treadwell, B., Eight Faces of Vitamin E. [Online] http://www.juvenon.com/the-eight-faces-of-vitamin-e-0903/ – retrieved on 15.4.16
Xionga, A., Distinct roles of different forms of vitamin E in DHA-induced apoptosis in triple-negative breast cancer cells. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2012 Jun;56(6):923-34