What is ZMA, and is it a worthwhile supplement?
In my recent article, “Suplements: what I use, and my thoughts on ‘fat burners’“, and in my older (but still highly relevant) article “My take on supplements“, I neglected to mention a supplement that I feel is quite good: ZMA.
ZMA is a simple, all-natural, safe**, inexpensive and effective (at least on some levels–see below) dietary supplement. It contains a synergistic blend of just three ingredients: Zinc, Magnesium Asparatate and vitamin B6.
** Zinc toxicity is something to be aware of. Most sedentary individuals get plenty of zinc through their normal diet, while hard-training athletes are often found to be deficient in zinc (a lot of zinc is lost through sweat). I am not a doctor or health professional. Always fully research any supplement or medication before choosing to take it! Personally I tend to take ZMA for about 3 months and then cycle off of it–usually for at least 3 months, but often years (as is the current case). I’ve never had a problem, but I train daily and sweat a lot.
ZMA was developed by Victor Conte, founder of BALCO. Unfortunately BALCO is often associated with a 2003 doping scandal, however that scandal (and doping) has absolutely nothing to do with ZMA. SNAC Systems, in which Victor Conte has ownership equity, owns the trademark for ZMA’s proprietary blend. These days more than 100 manufacturers are fully licensed and authorized to distribute ZMA (including Now Sports ZMA, which is what I take).
So, what are some of the claimed benefits of ZMA?
- Increased muscle strength
- Increased testosterone
- Increased anabolic hormone levels
- Increased endurance
- Faster recovery
- Increased libido
- Deeper, more restful sleep
On June 2, 1999 at the 46th Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Seattle, WA, Dr. Lorraine Brilla, a sports performance researcher at Western Washington University, published in the official ACSM journal, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Vol. 31, No. 5, May 1999.
According to Dr. Brilla, “A group of competitive NCAA football players who took ZMA nightly during an 8 week spring training program had 2.5 times greater muscle strength gains than a placebo group. Pre and post leg strength measurements were made.” The strength of the ZMA group increased by 11.6% compared to only a 4.6% increase in the placebo group.
“The muscle strength increases may have been mediated by the anabolic hormone increases in the ZMA group. The ZMA group had 30% increases in free and total testosterone levels compared to 10% decreases in the placebo group. The ZMA group also had a slight increase in insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) levels compared to a 20% decrease in the placebo group. This study shows that anabolic hormone and muscle strength increases can be induced in already strength-trained athletes by using a novel zinc-magnesium preparation”, said Brilla.
It’s important to note that the ZMA IP rights holder, SNAC Systems (again, in which Victor Conte has a financial stake) funded the above study. When the developer of a product pays for a study, that always gets my Spidey senses tingling.
Contradicting the above, a 2004 study funded by a research grant from Cytodyne (a supplement company which, somewhat ironically, had a ZMA product on the market) with 42 resistance trained males showed that “ZMA supplementation had no significant effects on total and free testosterone, IGF-1, growth hormone, cortisol, the ratio of cortisol to testosterone, or muscle and liver enzymes in response to training. No significant effects were observed in changes in strength, upper or lower body muscle endurance, or anaerobic sprint capacity.”
What is not in dispute are the benefits of Zinc and Magnesium, especially in hard-training athletes who tend to lose these minerals in their sweat.
Zinc is essential to numerous chemical reactions in the body, including protein synthesis and cellular energy. Its immune system values begin with zinc’s ability to regulate the production of testosterone cells. Zinc also helps provides critical protection to the liver, assists in deterring enlargement of the prostate gland, and is essential in maintaining reproductive organ health.
Magnesium is essential for normal heart function, transporting neurochemicals essential in muscle function and mood regulation, and in the critical balance of sodium and potassium within our cells. Despite its vital contributions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 74% of people take in less than the recommended Daily Value of 400 milligrams (for men).
So, putting all that aside, why do I take ZMA? Because I sleep like the dead when I’m taking it. Perhaps I’m getting some of the other claimed benefits, perhaps I’m not. What I do know is that when I take ZMA my sleep is incredibly deep (and I have really vivid dreams, which I quite enjoy!) To me, the recovery/sleep aspect alone is enough to justify this inexpensive supplement. I don’t take ZMA all the time, in fact when I resume taking it tonight it will be the first time I’ve used it in years.
Feel free to post your thoughts and personal experiences with ZMA below!