When you’re choosing and buying your workout supplements or any other dietary supplements, you expect them to work each time, every time. What many people don’t realise however is that by religiously taking the same supplements everyday, we may be compromising that supplement’s effectiveness. As a result, it becomes critical to know about the art of cycling supplements.
Why Cycle Supplements?
There are three main reasons why supplements should be cycled:
- Threshold – Consumption of a supplement might reach the level at which the active ingredient is already at its peak level of effectiveness or peak levels of storage in the body. Additional supplementation is neither beneficial nor necessary.
- Suppression – Our body has an amazing feedback mechanism. Supplementation can often up-regulate production of certain hormones and/or chemical messengers in our body. When certain hormones or chemical messengers are in high supply due to exogenous (outside body) causes, our body begins to suppress endogenous (inside body) production of those hormones or chemical messengers. Long term supplementation with these supplements can dramatically suppress our body’s ability to produce these compounds, even with cessation of supplementation.
- Tolerance – With some ergogenic ingredients, our body develops a tolerance to their effects. That is, we need greater quantities of that ingredient to feel the same strength of effects.
It is important to know that the above list is far from comprehensive and each reason may not be independent. One supplement may have lowered efficiency due to one or more of the above reasons.
Cycling Caffeine and Other Methylxanthines
Caffeine belongs to a group of compounds called methylxanthines which are compounds known to affect the central nervous system. Caffeine as a supplement is found in many pre-workout supplements as well as thermogenic supplements and has been shown to positively impact on focus, attention, fatigue and exercise performance. Several earlier studies have shown caffeine’s ability to affect the adenosine pathway1,2, important for energy production and sleep promotion. Caffeine and many other methylxanthines affect this pathway by blocking adenosine from attaching to their receptors. As a result, our body responds by upregulating the number of adenosine receptors in our body. In effect, this means that more caffeine is needed in order to block the original and the new receptors in order to achieve the same ergogenic effects. Furthermore, caffeine has been shown in some studies to promote rises in compounds known as corticosteroids such as cortisol3 and catecholamines such as adrenaline4, both of which are involved in the fight or flight response. Excess cortisol is very catabolic and can inhibit your ability to sustain muscle growth and burn fat. In addition, constant rises in either of these compounds can possibly affect the function of your adrenal glands. Rises in adrenaline are also often followed by a dip in adrenaline levels resulting in feelings of fatigue and irritability. Consuming more coffee to remedy this is not a great idea and in fact can lead to dependence and impaired performance due to constant highs and lows in mood and wakefulness.
Most supplements containing stimulants use caffeine and other xanthines as they generally have a safer profile. Consumption of most stimulants will also lead to tolerance development and may result in increased dose dependence. Similar to caffeine, they cause a massive release of hormones involved in the fight or flight response. Unfortunately, this can potentially lead to an issue known as adrenal insufficiency. As many of the fight or flight hormones are released from the adrenal glands, consumption of stimulants causes an excess production of these hormones from those glands which can overwork it resulting in general fatigue as a result.
Cycling Testosterone Support & Creatine Supplements
In terms of hard scientific evidence, only stimulants have been shown in studies to cause a tolerance which requires cycling, however there has been anecdotal evidence from bodybuilders and other weight lifting websites about other products that potentially require cycling. The most common ones include testosterone boosters and creatine.
- Testosterone Boosters - Testosterone boosters or test boosters are common supplements said to be able to boost endogenous testosterone and/or growth hormone production. Similar to the case of adrenal insufficiency, there is an argument that testosterone boosters can cause insufficiency of the organs that produce the specific hormones mentioned above including the testes, adrenal cortex and the anterior pituitary. While there is evidence of testicular, adrenal and anterior pituitary insufficiency, whether or not the chronic use and/or overuse of testosterone boosters causes it is unknown.
- Creatine is one of the most commonly known and effective ergogenic supplements in the market capable of increasing body creatine stores and in turn helping with exercise performance. Many companies producing creatine and many bodybuilders and long time resistance trainers stand by the necessity of cycling creatine. However, it is inconclusive whether or not cycling creatine periodically will help with exercise and sports performance parameters. The most logical reason for doing so would be due to:
- A) Threshold Capacity - It is known that creatine levels in our body does have a threshold whereby additional creatine supplementation will not cause any further plasma rises or muscle stores of creatine. Thus, after a loading phase, extra creatine intake may not actually offer you any additional benefits.
- B) Saving Money – During periods of non-training.
The jury is still out however on whether or not there are any substantial negative consequences of continued consumption of testosterone boosters or creatine.
Cycling Glandular Supplements
Glandulars or caps are specific dietary supplements suggested to boost function of a particular organ. Commonly sold caps include adrenal caps, liver caps, kidney caps and pituitary caps. They usually contain raw animal derived organs of the same type in attempt to keep to the alternative medicine adage of ‘like benefitting like’. In addition, other ingredients used include natural plant derivatives suggested to help with the particular organ in question. For example, if you were looking at a common adrenal glandular – it would contain a raw adrenal gland concentrate (most likely bovine derived), licorice, clove, gotu kola and eleuthero root. Licorice has been implicated to be able to treat a whole host of conditions including endocrine conditions due to the presence of isoflavones. It is able to raise cortisol levels and can therefore help with adrenal insufficiency5. Gotu Kola, a small plant found commonly in Asia is also said to have endocrine benefitting effects6. Eleuthero root or Siberian Ginseng is another substance said to have anti-stress effects and able to inhibit releases of corticosteroids from the adrenal glands6. Individually, the commonly used ingredients in adrenal glandular supplements may be able to help promote better endocrine function through different methods. It seems perplexing however that the ingredients used seem to have some opposing effects on endocrine hormones. Unfortunately, many of these herbal supplements are still in their infancy of research, which is compounded by the fact that the ingredients used in these supplements are whole foods with tens and possibly hundreds of active compounds which could have varying interactions with each other. In other words, no conclusive statements can be made about the effectiveness of such supplements.
Cycling Supplements is Wise
Cycling supplements is considered a wise practice especially with respect to stimulant containing supplements, as excess use of stimulants can cause suppression of endogenous body processes as well as risking the development of tolerance and dependence. As such, it may be logical both in ergogenic and financial terms to maintain the efficacy of these supplements by cycling off them periodically. In addition, other supplements such as testosterone boosters and creatine may also benefit from cycling, however there is less conclusive evidence regarding this practice. We’ve all heard about ‘variety being the spice of life’. Indeed, it is always advisable to consume a range of different foods to gain maximum benefits from each food without overloading on certain nutrients. Relaying that ideal to supplements, it may be beneficial to swap brands every so often, even with products that don’t require cycling such as protein. By doing so, you may be reaping the benefits of a different source of protein. With regards to supplements such as glandulars to help with issues caused by overconsumption or chronic consumption of some supplements, there isn’t enough research suggesting that it may help, however, there is some evidence showing beneficial effects of the individual ingredients. In this author’s opinion, it may be more cost effective to simply cycle your supplements to prevent this situation. Whatever you choose, remember that everybody reacts to supplements differently, so it is important to listen to your body and to adjust your supplementation regime accordingly.1 Green, R M; Stiles, G L (1986). "Chronic caffeine ingestion sensitizes the A1 adenosine receptor-adenylate cyclase system in rat cerebral cortex.". Journal of Clinical Investigation 77 (1): 222–7.
2 Holtzman SG, Mante S, Minneman KP (1991). "Role of adenosine receptors in caffeine tolerance". J. Pharmacol. Exp. Ther. 256 (1): 62–8.
3 Lovallo WR, Whitsett TL, al'Absi M, Sung BH, Vincent AS, Wilson MF. ‘Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels.’ Psychosom Med. 2005 Sep-Oct;67(5):734-9.
4 Battram DS, Graham TE, Richter EA, Dela F. ‘The effect of caffeine on glucose kinetics in humans--influence of adrenaline.’ J Physiol. 2005 Nov 15;569(Pt 1):347-55. Epub 2005 Sep 8.
5 Armanini D, Fiore C, Mattarello MJ, Bielenberg J, Palermo M. ‘History of the endocrine effects of licorice.’ Exp Clin Endocrinol Diabetes. 2002 Sep;110(6):257-61.
6 Provino, R. (2010). The role of adaptogens in stress management. Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism, 22(2), 41-49