Whoever came up with the drum-banging, sunglasses-wearing pink bunny that epitomizes reliable, never-ending energy is a marketing genius. But that’s just my opinion.
Like battery-powered electronics, the human body needs reliable energy stores to function, even for involuntary muscle activity like the heartbeat and breathing. Most people do much more than breathe, though, and for those who have a full-time work schedule and regular workout routine, energy in the form of caffeinated beverages can become more necessity than choice.
Although caffeinated beverages are certainly helpful for adding pep to your step, ribose is sort of the rechargeable battery power of the body. Ribose is a carbohydrate that is key in energy production and storage in muscle tissue, and it’s naturally made in the body. By definition, then, ribose is a nonessential nutrient, but supplementing with ribose can help the natural energy-production process along, not to mention bolster cellular-energy stores. Ribose supplements also help athletes by promoting immune-cell function and fighting free-radical damage.
The Science of Energy
Ribose is what’s known in science-speak as a naturally occurring pentose carbohydrate. Basically, it’s a simple sugar that the body can produce on its own, and it happens to have five carbons (hence the “pentose” part of its compound moniker). This particular carb has piqued scientific interest because of its role in energy metabolism, among other things. In that “other” category, supplemental ribose has been shown to ease the symptoms of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and restless legs syndrome, as well as improve heart function in patients with heart disease. More important to athletes, though, researchers have been busy over the years looking to clarify the carb’s role in energy production and, consequently, figure out how it affects athletic performance.
Although energy production is anything but simple, the short story about ribose is that it is produced in the body to help replenish stockpiles of cellular energy. Stored energy comes in the form of what are known as nucleotides, which as a group are responsible for transporting and transforming cellular energy. Each three-piece nucleotide contains a base, a sugar (like ribose) and a phosphate.
Among the body’s more important nucleotides are an alphabet-soup-like jumble including ATP, ADP and AMP. Spelled out, the acronyms stand for adenosine triphosphate, adenosine diphosphate and adenosine monophosphate, respectively. True to their defining characteristics, all three contain an adenine nucleobase, a sugar and a phosphate, and each is intimately involved in cellular-energy metabolism. The body’s TAN pool — that is, total adenine nucleotides — is basically the body’s store of nucleotides, which reside in muscle tissue in the skeletal and heart muscles.
As any athlete knows, you can only work out for so long before fatigue sets in, and it can stick around and stymie the next day’s workout, too. This has a very real correlation to what’s happening at a cellular level — high-intensity and repetitive exercise depletes the TAN pool, as noted in a 2004 report in Medical Hypotheses. Luckily, according to this and similar research published in 2006, supplementing with ribose can augment the TAN pool and help replenish ATP in skeletal muscles.
When ATP and the TAN pool are depleted, such as after exercise, the body has to re-synthesize its cellular-energy stores, which is where ribose comes in to play. Ribose naturally replenishes ATP levels in muscle tissue — a big reason it’s popular among athletes who are looking for some extra oomph in their workouts.
In fact, the amount of ATP that can be synthesized depends on how much ribose is available, according to a team of researchers in Denmark. For the 2004 study, participants did regular high-intensity workouts, and testing showed that they all had drops in ATP levels immediately after exercise. After a week of workouts, participants took 200 milligrams of ribose per kilogram of bodyweight or a placebo three times a day for three days. At that point, the athletes who took ribose had restored muscle ATP levels, similar to the levels they had before the exercise regimen started. The athletes in the placebo group still had lower ATP levels, which led the researchers to conclude that supplemental ribose helps replenish cellular-energy stores more quickly after exercise.
Dozens of researchers have been looking to prove the link between taking ribose supplements, boosting muscle ATP and the overall TAN pool and improving exercise performance. The link has been somewhat elusive to date, but some studies have shown that enhancing ATP availability and restoring the TAN pool during exercise can increase exercise capacity.
In addition to its effects in energy production, ribose also has protective effects at the cellular level. Research has linked ribose to improving immune response and fighting off free-radical damage, both of which are important during exercise.
Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, studied ribose’s effects during cellular-immune response because of its role as a critical building block for nucleotides and its part in energy metabolism. The researchers guessed that ribose may be required in higher amounts when cells need to proliferate or differentiate — like during an immune response. Their laboratory study, published in the November 2008 Nutrition Research, involved adding ribose to a cell culture that modeled the maturation of immune cells called neutrophils. Because ribose enhanced cellular differentiation and function, the researchers concluded it may be conditionally essential — meaning supplemental ribose is necessary — when the immune system is challenged.
Ribose also has proved its protective nature as an antioxidant, which in itself is a good reason for athletes to use it. Free radicals are a natural byproduct of exercise, and these rogue molecules roam the body pilfering electrons from healthy cells. This theft, known as oxidative stress, influences the function of the victim cell, and one side effect is prolonged recovery from exercise. However, ribose can stymie free-radical damage during and after exercise, which may lead to faster recovery.
One study specifically investigated the effects of ribose on exercise-induced free-radical damage. For the 2009 report in the Journal of Medicinal Food, seven healthy adults took 7 grams of ribose in 25 milliliters of water before and after a 25-minute cycling test, and then they rested for an hour. Testing showed that ribose lowered specific markers of oxidative stress.
The Simple Truth
Despite the fact that ribose is naturally produced in the human body and has proved its protective effects, researchers have been intently interested in how safe ribose is. And the supplement has passed safety tests with flying colors.
Researchers in Minnesota looked at how safe ribose is for athletes and published their results in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. For the study, 19 healthy adults took 10 grams of ribose twice daily for two weeks, at which point they had no toxic changes in any of the biochemical or hematological measures that the researchers tested.
With an assurance of safety in hand, athletes can feel good about taking ribose. The science behind the carb’s role in energy metabolism may be complex, but this natural supplement simply keeps energy stores going and going and going.