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  Last updated: 1/3/2010

Vitamins and Supplements - men vs women

Dietary supplements are often used by competitive cyclists with the hope that they will improve their physical performance. A list of commonly used vitamins, minerals, and other herbal and organic compounds (with the editor's comments) can be found in the section on nutritional supplements. Do male and female athletes have different needs for supplements? Are supplements used differently in men and women athletes?

Before answering this question, remember that one should be skeptical about unbelieveable claims for all these products. And unless they are proven in well designed, blinded studies, assume that a claim which sounds too good to be true, probably is. There are few shortcuts for a well designed training program supported with sound nutrition. And although there may be little risk in trying supplements in addition, there is a monetary cost for those on a limited budget for their athletic pursuits, as well as the potential to lose focus on the need for a good training program.

Based on the scientific and nutritional literature (double blind studies not annecdotal or personal experience) only two supplements (both minerals) have been shown to be needed in differing amounts by men and women - calcium and iron.

Calcium is the major mineral involved in bone growth and repair. There is no evidence that calcium supplements are needed by male athletes. The same is true of the average female involved in regular, vigorous physical activity. The exception is the female athlete who, because of the intensity of her training, has become amenorrheic. Amenorrhea is the abnormal suppression of the menstrual cycle and is associated with hormonal changes that can affect bone formation. Recent evidence has suggested that the positive effects of exercise on bone formation noted in all athletes will act to minimize the effects of amennorrhea in this specific group as well, and at this time there is still a lack of consensus as to the absolute need for calcium supplements in this group.

Iron needs have been studied extensively in athletes. A deficiency state does occur on occasion resulting in a negative effect on performance. Once again, this is more of a problem for the woman athlete because of the additional iron needed to replace menstrual blood loss. When the US Olympic team team was tudied, it was found that 20 to 30 percent of the female athletes did not get adequate iron in their diet alone. But iron is toxic in excessive amounts, so any question as to a deficiency state should be resolves with a screening blood count and serum iron or ferritin assay before starting routine supplements.

Aside from these two minerals, the need for all other minerals, vitamins, and herbal supplements is the same in both sexes.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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