don't know how true this really is, but I want to share it with you.
Originally posted on T-nation.
If you were to design the ultimate protein drink, what characteristics would it have? Of course it would have to contain high quality protein and taste good. It would also be free of any potential dangerous chemicals (as crazy as that sounds... ).
The meal replacement Muscle Milk has been a hot topic on the message board of late, so let's see if it holds up to our checklist.
High quality proteins? Check.
Tastes good? Yup.
Free of potentially dangerous substances? Nope.
Hyperbole aside, the biggest problem with Muscle Milk is that it contains the potentially dangerous chemical glycocyamine. I originally discussed the implications of consuming glycocyamine and the increased risk of cardiovascular disease in Dangerous Creatine article, but this substance is much worse than originally thought.
Dangerous Creatine: Now With 80% More Danger!
The first problem with this substance is that glycocyamine is known to increase our blood levels of homocysteine, which is thought to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. This means that we're more likely to have heart disease/atherosclerosis when our homocysteine levels are high. Oh, and don't forget that cardiovascular disease is still the #1 killer in the Western world.
It's recently been reported that the correlation between homocysteine levels and cardiovascular disease isn't as strong as once thought — which some have used to justify their consumption of glycocyamine. To put it bluntly, this weaker correlation means that you're not quite as likely to die as once thought from consuming this substance.
"Not quite as likely to die from it?! Sounds great! Sign me up!"
While it may seem irresponsible to include such a chemical in a supplement, you shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the industry is all about profits. Its only concern is your health and safety. Really.
In an attempt to minimize this potentially dangerous side effect, Muscle Milk also contains a substance known to reduce homocysteine levels; betaine.
Although betaine may be effective under natural circumstances, we don't know if it will work while we're artificially increasing homocysteine through another chemical. Additionally, the effective dose for a 200lb bodybuilder is nearly 10g of betaine a day (4, 7), although the highest dose of most products will only give you 2g (and that's just from the companies that actually report their betaine concentration).
That's like producing a supplement that has been shown to increase your risk for getting cancer, but adding a little green tea to "balance things out."
Glycocyamine = Brain Damage?
Let's pretend that you have a huge hard-on for glycocyamine and believe that the correlation to cardiovascular disease is weak, or that the betaine takes care of the problem. Well, we're home free right? Maybe not, because the worst part about glycocyamine has been described as "neurotoxic action" (6).
Among the effects of glycocyamine is an inhibitory effect on a brain enzyme called the sodium pump (8, 9). This isn't just any enzyme; the sodium pump is responsible for all nerve signals that happen in our body. For the record: screwing up our nerve signals is BAD. Messing with our brain is BAD.
What's worse is that the sodium pump is so important that it exists not only in nerve cells, but in every single cell in the body. This means that although only the brain has been studied (so far), glycocyamine has the potential to disrupt the proper functioning of every cell.
Again, this is BAD.
For those who are concerned about performance (and I'm sure that we all are), our muscle has a high concentration of the sodium pump. After studying it for 7 years, I can tell you that this enzyme is critical for proper muscle contraction and optimal performance. This is why it's not surprising to learn that high glycocyamine levels have been implicated in reducing muscle strength (2).
Bullet (Points) on the Brain
• Glycocyamine inhibits the sodium pump by inducing oxidative damage (10), which begs the question of what else glycocyamine affects.
• To worsen the story, glycocyamine also alters nerve signals by acting as a neurotransmitter itself. (6)
• A disease characterized by elevated glycocyamine levels is manifested in seizures and an impaired ability to control movement (dyskinesia). (6)
While I'm usually the first to call for studies that are more specific to strength athletes, we're not just talking about evidence for performance enhancement, we're talking about health. When it comes to a supplement having potentially harmful effects, even in vitro and animal studies should give us cause for concern.
What's the Point?
Realistically speaking, the idea of consuming glycocyamine is just messed up, but there has to be a reason why it's in there. The main idea behind its supplementation is that it is converted to creatine by our bodies, so taking in more glycocyamine results in higher creatine and homocysteine levels.
Glycocyamine —> Creatine + Homocysteine
NOTE: Glycocyamine is meant as a creatine substitute and doesn't enhance creatine levels to a greater extent than actual creatine supplementation. And don't forget that until glycocyamine is converted, the "neurotoxic action" is still a problem.
While this would have been a great idea when creatine was close to a dollar per serving, creatine monohydrate is now the cheapest supplement available and substitutes aren't needed; particularly when the substitutes are far more expensive and potentially harmful.
The Cheaters' Paradox
Take a look at a typical glycocyamine-containing supplement, and you'll notice that the actual dose is never reported. This is likely due to the excessive cost of this chemical, so instead of the actual required dose, companies can skimp on this expensive product.
Even if the conversion to creatine in the body were 100% (which, biochemically speaking, is next to impossible), a dose of 3-5g is required once a person is fully creatine loaded. Paradoxically, an under-dosed supplement may actually be a benefit, because it means that the threat to one's health is less likely.
To Summarize the Potential Problems Associated With Glycocyamine
• Neurotoxic action
• Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
• Neural misfiring
• Increased oxidative damage
• At best it is no better than creatine
• More expensive than creatine
• Inhibition of one of our most important enzymes (affects every cell)
• Decreased performance
• Implicated in reducing muscle strength
Potentially dangerous chemicals aside, we should take a look at the other ingredients in Muscle Milk to figure out what makes this stuff tick. After all, it's called Muscle Milk so it must be pretty badass.
In fact, the main reason for the name (other than the obvious marketing) is because it contains an ingredient similar to one found in human breast milk; colostrum. The idea behind this (other than the obvious gimmick) is that breast milk elevates IGF-1 (a very anabolic hormone) for us... when we're babies.
You see babies have underdeveloped digestive systems that can absorb things that we, as adults, can't. This allows for rapid growth and development — babies are tissue-building machines.
Unfortunately, we know that this super anabolic phase is short lived and certainly doesn't apply to adults. While consuming 60 grams of colostrum a day has interesting effects, elevating IGF-1 levels is not one of them (3). Considering that Muscle Milk contains a miniscule amount compared to this, you might as well drink your IGF-1 if you want to throw money away.
Of course, the idea of including colostrum in supplements isn't a new idea. TC was writing about colostrum over ten years ago at Muscle Media 2000, but we know a lot more now.
But the Taste!
The biggest asset to Muscle Milk is that is tastes good. Okay, quite good. While I don't mind the taste of most protein powders, it's a pleasant surprise to find another one that's actually enjoyable to drink. Muscle Milk accomplishes this by adding fat to their product, which in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but then they had to go and say that it causes fat loss (sigh).
The main fat used is canola oil, a good but not overly special cooking oil. Another fat used is Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT's). Some of you vets may recognize these because they were a hot topic back in the 90's, when they were supposed to have almost magical effects.
Back then, MCT's (you may remember them as "fractured fats") were supposed to be super healthy and used as energy, not stored as fat. There was also the idea that they could help improve performance, particularly for endurance athletes.
Of course, we really didn't know much about fat as a nutrient a decade ago, so the idea that fats could be healthy was itself a strange concept. Rather than bore you with a detailed literature review to resurrect a dead supplement, I can simplify things to say that the MCT theories didn't pan out and there's nothing magical about them (1, 5).
On a positive note, MCT's are better than the typical bad fats that we eat, and the average person would do well to substitute some of their bad fats with them. Unfortunately, they're just not what we had hoped them to be.
So to reiterate, it's not bad that Muscle Milk contains cooking oil and MCT's, but the outrageous claims that come along with it are.
Muscle Milk is a great tasting meal replacement that contains a potentially dangerous chemical. That alone should say it all, but there's always more.
If that specific "mouth feel" is that important to you, you could easily add your own higher-quality fat to a high quality protein powder. It would cost less, and you could control both the quantity and quality of the nutrients involved. Lastly, the theory that drinking colostrum will replicate our neonatal IGF-1 response just doesn't hold any milk... er, water (yeah that was bad).
Q. Your [sic] wrong. I used Muscle Milk and didn't die so I know it's safe.
A. Clearly the neurotoxic action of glycocyamine does not result in sudden brain damage and may take many years to manifest itself — by which time it could be too late to reverse any damage. We also know that cardiovascular disease requires years of abuse to ones' body before problems occur. That type of short term thinking is the worst thing you can do for yourself.
Special thanks to Nathan Devey for his assistance with this document.
1. Goedecke JH, Clark VR, Noakes TD, Lambert EV. The effects of medium-chain triacylglycerol and carbohydrate ingestion on ultra-endurance exercise performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2005 Feb;15(1):15-27.
2. Kan HE, Buse-Pot TE, Peco R, Isbrandt D, Heerschap A, de Haan A. Lower force and impaired performance during high-intensity electrical stimulation in skeletal muscle of GAMT-deficient knockout mice. Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2005 Jul;289(1):C113-9.
3. Kuipers H, van Breda E, Verlaan G, Smeets R.Effects of oral bovine colostrum supplementation on serum insulin-like growth factor-I levels. Nutrition. 2002 Jul-Aug;18(7-:566-7.
4. Matthews A, Johnson TN, Rostami-Hodjegan A, Chakrapani A, Wraith JE, Moat SJ, Bonham JR, Tucker GT.An indirect response model of homocysteine suppression by betaine: optimising the dosage regimen of betaine in homocystinuria. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2002 Aug;54(2):140-6.
5. Misell LM, Lagomarcino ND, Schuster V, Kern M. Chronic medium-chain triacylglycerol consumption and endurance performance in trained runners. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2001 Jun;41(2):210-5.
6. Neu A, Neuhoff H, Trube G, Fehr S, Ullrich K, Roeper J, Isbrandt D. Activation of GABA(A) receptors by guanidinoacetate: a novel pathophysiological mechanism. Neurobiol Dis. 2002 Nov;11(2):298-307."Neurotoxic action"
7. Schwahn BC, Hafner D, Hohlfeld T, Balkenhol N, Laryea MD, Wendel U.Pharmacokinetics of oral betaine in healthy subjects and patients with homocystinuria. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2003 Jan;55(1):6-13.
8. Zugno AI, Stefanello FM, Streck EL, Calcagnotto T, Wannmacher CM, Wajner M, Wyse AT. Inhibition of Na+, K+-ATPase activity in rat striatum by guanidinoacetate. Int J Dev Neurosci. 2003 Jun;21(4):183-9.
9. Zugno AI, Franzon R, Chiarani F, Bavaresco CS, Wannmacher CM, Wajner M, Wyse AT. Evaluation of the mechanism underlying the inhibitory effect of guanidinoacetate on brain Na+, K+-ATPase activity. Int J Dev Neurosci. 2004 Jun;22(4):191-6.
10. Zugno AI, Scherer EB, Schuck PF, Oliveira DL, Wofchuk S, Wannmacher CM, Wajner M, Wyse AT. Intrastriatal administration of guanidinoacetate inhibits Na+, K+-ATPase and creatine kinase activities in rat striatum. Metab Brain Dis. 2006 Mar;21(1):41-50."Oxidative damage"