Aug. 17, 2022 -- It used to be the treatment of last resort, but for competitive athletes, getting nutrition through an IV is threatening to become the norm, despite no scientific evidence that it works, or is safe, experts warn.
In their editorial, published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, experts said the “food first” and “no needle” messages that are taught in sports nutrition courses around the world need to be amplified among all athletes and their support teams to "stop this trend in its tracks."
The international group of authors, including experts from several United Kingdom universities, who regularly interact with professional team players in European and American leagues and their support teams, said they have become increasingly aware of the practice. Several of the authors have worked with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and Toronto Raptors and the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
Although it's not known exactly how common the practice actually is is, they pointed out that anecdotally, some players are hooked up to IV nutrition drips as often as every week as part of a pre- or post-game routine.
'Drip-bars' Easily Accessible but Devoid of Regulation
IV nutrition has traditionally been reserved for serious clinical conditions –or symptoms caused by nutrient deficiencies, or to correct severe dehydration caused by marathon running in, for example, a desert.
A ban on needle use by athletes at the Olympic Games has been in place for all recent Games except for appropriate medical use, and where a therapeutic use exemption is obtained.
However, "so-called 'drip bars' and concierge IV nutrition services are now easily accessible," the authors write. These claim to boost health and performance, restore hydration, and speed up recovery, by offering a menu of B vitamins, amino acids, antioxidants, vitamin C, and electrolytes.
However, they are devoid of regulation and for players or practitioners there is no official guidance on their use.
Physical and Reputational Risks
Using IVs like this, which bypass the gut-liver system risks nutrient toxicity, the authors warn, and "appears foolhardy" unless there is a "significant clinical rationale."
They said they had seen vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 levels often "beyond the measurement range of the laboratory" in a subgroup of professional players. They pointed out how long-term effects of too much vitamin B6 include nerve damage and that athletes regularly receiving certain ingredients risk liver disease.
"Given that the long-term effects of (doses greater than recommended liimts) of B vitamins and other nutrients are unknown in athletes, it does not appear to be worth the risk, especially given the lack of evidence-based benefits," they said.
Additionally, a shift away from "what works" according to scientific standards to that which is "unproven" puts the reputation of sport at risk, and also puts athletes at risk of antidoping violations, they cautioned.