For people who routinely work out, a normal part of your workout routine may include pre-workout supplements. They're very popular with both fitness enthusiasts and people who do periodic workouts because of their touted benefits. If you've never heard of pre-workout before, or if you're considering using it yourself, you may want to read through this article first before trying. There are several studies that talk about the potential pre workout side effects. So, is pre work out bad? Read on to find out!
Pre-workout is a supplement that people take before they start their workout routines. Bodybuilders and people who are heavily into fitness routines are the two main groups of people who use it, but it's starting to catch on with routine gym-goers as well. This supplement can come in tablet and powder form, and you usually take it before you head to the gym or start your exercise routine.
There are several reasons why people use pre-workout. One of the main reasons people take this supplement is because they're supposed to help you focus, work out longer, and help you increase your workout's intensity (1). Depending on how often you exercise, these small things can turn into large gains.
You may start to see progress quicker, and this can motivate you to work out more and reach your weight loss or muscle building goals at a faster pace. Although pre-workout supplements are very popular, there are several pre workout side effects that cannot be ignored. Emerging studies are starting to show potential negative reasons why you may want to ditch your pre-workout and try a few other avenues to achieve the same results. We're going to outline nine reasons you should ditch your pre-workout next.
Did you know that some pre-workouts contain untested and dangerous chemicals that can wreak havoc on your physical and mental health? These chemicals can easily slip past regulatory agencies and make it into your pre-workout supplement.
For example, NSF International researchers randomly tested six different over the counter pre-workout supplements and found that they contained four unapproved stimulants mixed into the formula (2). These chemicals were similar to the banned substance 1,3 DMAA. 1,3 DMAA is the root cause for at least four human deaths, including a runner who was performing in a marathon and two United States soldiers (3). Additionally, many of the randomly tested pre-workout supplements contained other dangerous chemicals like octodrine.
Commonly called Dimethylhexylamine (DMHA), octodrine is a stimulant that directly affects your nervous system (4). Its manufacturers commonly call it a "fat burner" in pre-workout supplements. A third dangerous chemical you can find listed in many pre-workout supplements is 1,4-dimethylamylamine (5). Originally used as a nasal decongestant in the 1950s, you can't find this chemical naturally, and you have to produce it in a lab. Also, the World Anti-Doping Agency banned the use of this chemical in 2010, and athletes will earn a disqualification if they test positive for it.
Along with the dangerous chemicals, these pre-workout supplements can also contain a variety of unknown ingredients. This is usually due to the manufacturer trying to hide what the real ingredients in the pre-workout are (6). They do this because selling products that contain banned ingredients is illegal, and several countries around the world have put bans on different ingredients.
So, if the manufacturer hides the banned product under an unknown ingredient name of a natural extract, they usually won't get caught unless people have a reason to take a closer look. For example, many pre-workouts list 2-aminoisoheptane as an active ingredient. They claim that this ingredient is a natural compound that comes directly from a plant in the nightshade family like monkshood.
You may find it as Aconitum kusnezoffii on the label. Instead of being a natural product, scientists found that it's actually another name for 1,3-DMAA (7). 1,3-DMAA causes energy spikes that are very similar to what you'd traditionally get with caffeine, and it's thought to be the cause of a cardiac arrest death in an otherwise healthy 21-year-old (8).
The risks of these ingredients spike significantly when you combine them with caffeine, and they have links to potentially causing adverse cardiac events, increased blood pressure, hemorrhagic stroke, depression and sudden death (9).
You most likely know that certain stimulants are banned by different countries around the world. This means that it's illegal to see a product like pre-workout containing the banned ingredient. However, this doesn't always stop manufacturers.
Take DMAA for example. Australia banned products containing DMAA in 2012 after several deaths and emergency room cases linked to DMAA began to show up (10). Australia banned DMAA in order to protect athletes from the negative side effects as well as to prevent accidental doping for people who didn't realise DMAA was in their pre-workout. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States also banned DMAA in 2013 after they published a report citing DMAA's involvement in 86 different negative events (11).
Two other related substances are DMHA and DMBA, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration banned both DMBA and DHMA for sale or use in products throughout Australia in 2017. DMHA is better known as octodrine, and we mentioned above that it directly affects your nervous system (12). Finally, we have the substance called DMBA.
Although this substance isn't officially banned in the United States yet, the FDA warned that the effects of this stimulant resembled very closely those of DMAA in a 2015 publication (13). This publication also stated that DMAA isn't an officially recognised or approved ingredient for dietary supplements.
An artificial sweetener is something put in pre-workouts to replace actual sugar. They're generally sweeter than sugar as well, and this means that the manufacturers don't have to use as much of it in their products. However, there are several health concerns with consuming artificial sweeteners, and emerging research shows potential links to these sweeteners and an increased risk of developing cancer (14).
One study showed that the artificial sweetener High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) may be a leading cause of diabetes. Negative health issues are one of the main reasons why the Food and Drug Administration regulates the use of artificial sweeteners in the United States, and it lists them as food additives instead of GRAS or generally safe for public consumption (15).
Almost all pre-workouts you find will have artificial colours or "dye" added as well because it's generally a cheaper alternative than trying to find "natural" colouring agents. However, artificial dyes or colours have links to learning disabilities in children, and this is especially true for children who were hyperactive. (16)(17)
When you use a pre-workout supplement, you may notice that you end up with an odd tingling sensation throughout your body. For a lot of people, this is prominent in their hands and feet, and some people feel it worse than others. Also, you may experience flushing or have blotchy skin, and your sensitivity level dictates how much it'll affect you.
There are two common ingredients in pre-workouts that can cause this sensation. A lot of pre-workout supplements contain beta-alanine (18). This non-essential amino acid acts as an acidity buffer for your muscles. This is the ingredient that can help you get through your workout quicker without having a burning sensation in your muscles (19). However, people with a sensitivity to it experience a tingling sensation because they get a higher dose in their pre-workout (20). This tingling is generally harmless but can be quite uncomfortable.
The second ingredient that can cause a tingling sensation or flushed and blotchy skin is Niacin or Vitamin B3 (21). Since your pre-workout can contain as much as 500 milligrams, you may even start to feel itchy or tingly. Again, this can be generally unpleasant, but it's not thought to be dangerous. However, studies have shown that Niacin can actually encourage fat burning, and this is why it's so popular in pre-workouts (22).
In small amounts, caffeine is relatively harmless. However, too much caffeine can make you feel jittery, increase your heart rate and make you feel more pain in your muscles (23). For most people, the recommended daily amount of caffeine is no more than 400 milligrams per day (24). This is considered to be a safe level, but it'll fluctuate depending on your usual intake.
The average pre-workout supplement typically has between 200 to 400 milligrams of caffeine per dose. This means that you could potentially double your daily caffeine intake by simply drinking or eating what you usually do and then adding a pre-workout dosage or two on top of it. If you do this every day, you could find yourself having an excessive caffeine intake, and this can potentially cause physical and mental health problems or put you at higher risks for certain conditions.
Typically, when you get around 1,000 milligrams of caffeine, you'll start to notice nervousness along with a jittery feeling or decreased fine muscle control that doesn't go away (25)(26). Most people don't realise that they're doubling up on their caffeine levels, and this makes these side effects very unpleasant to deal with. If your body gets used to it, you can start to go through caffeine withdrawals on days that you don't have your pre-workout, and this can mean feeling fatigued or anxious, having a headache, and feeling irritable or depressed (27).
Did you know that changing your diet or adding pre-workout supplements can change the bacterial composition in your digestive tract? Adding pre-workout supplements to the diet can alter bacterial levels in the stomach and intestinal lining due to commonly included ingredients such as caffeine and artificial sweeteners (28).
This can lead to an imbalance in the bacterial levels in your stomach, and once they get unbalanced, it can take time for you to stabilise them again (29). Unfortunately, this can also lead to problems like allowing for the "bad" levels of bacteria to thrive. You may start to bloat, have skin problems and have mood fluctuations. It can also leave you more susceptible to illness (30).
Emulsifiers are synthetic agents that cause your pre-workout supplement to stabilise. While this may not seem like a bad thing, evidence suggests that emulsifiers can potentially damage your intestinal barrier and cause system-wide inflammation (31). Unfortunately, mice studies showed that having emulsifiers in your diet can significantly alter the bacteria content throughout your digestive tract (32).
When you combine this with the inflammatory response and intestinal lining damage, you have the potential for several health problems like Leaky Gut Syndrome and more. Pre-workout supplements with emulsifiers can put you at a higher risk for some unpleasant side effects, such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and potentially reproductive and fertility consequences.
Diuretic medications or water tablets have several functions including helping to treat water retention by prompting your kidneys to release urine to remove any excess water you may have stored in your body. This is a good thing for people who have problems with water retention or high blood pressure.
However, you may find yourself losing too much water, especially if you’re working out a lot. When you combine the diuretic effects of pre-workout supplements, inclusive of thermogenic fat-burners, with not taking in enough water or losing too much water through exercise, dehydration can come on quickly due to the high levels of caffeine and concentrated plant extracts they contain (33).
This can lead to excess urination and increased colonic activity resulting in dehydration and impaired cognitive function (34).
Now that you're aware of the top nine dangers of using traditional pre-workout supplements, we're going to go over four natural pre-workout supplements and things you can do to get your normal boost. You can use these without worrying about mystery ingredients, banned supplements, or any odd side effects that can come with traditional supplements.
All caffeine isn't bad. It simply depends on where you get it from and how much you take every day. When you compare the caffeine content in one eight-ounce cup of coffee to one eight-ounce cup of Yerba Mate tea, you get around 70 milligrams of caffeine in the tea compared to 120 milligrams of caffeine in coffee.
Medicinal mushrooms are a class of fungi that have medically proven benefits (36). You can purchase these mushrooms from specialty stores, online or you can go find them outdoors depending on your location. However, you want to be absolutely sure that the mushrooms you find are the ones you're after and not a different species.
Studies show that eating medicinal mushrooms can give you a boost of energy that can pump you up before your workout and it can also help you focus and burn through your workout quickly (37). This is especially true for Chaga mushrooms, and they can also increase your physical endurance while reducing fatigue (38).
Adaptogenic substances or adaptogens are an important component of herbal medicine, and they're widely used to improve your adrenal system's health and functioning capability. Holy basil is one example of an adaptogenic herb, and it is a very popular substitute for traditional pre-workout supplements.
We mentioned earlier that pre-workout supplements can unbalance your microbiome, and Holy Basil works to restore this balance (39). It's also important for boosting your energy levels so you're ready to go and tackle your workout (40). This herb can also work to protect your muscles from fatigue or soreness during and after your workout (41).
4. Get Into Ketosis by Loading up on MCTs Before Your Workout
Ketosis is another term for your metabolism's stabilised state (42). This state pushes your body to use any fat to its fullest potential to provide fuel for your body. Your fatty acids will travel to your liver and convert into ketones that provide energy for your body. You can load up on MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) to kickstart the ketosis process (43). You'll find high amounts of MTCs in coconut oil, dairy products and palm oil.
So, all in all, is pre workout bad for you? The truth is that, while pre-workout supplements are popular, we've outlined the top nine reasons why you want to consider ditching them in favour of natural pre-workout supplements. We've also given you four different pre-workout supplements that you can try without worrying about the typical pre worout side effects that you can experience with traditional supplements. As always, we encourage you to take to your physician before you make any significant changes to your normal diet or routine so you can ensure that there won't be any negative consequences from switching from traditional to natural pre-workout supplements.
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Editor's note: Originally published on April 14, 2018. Edited and updated on April 6, 2022.