On August 16, 1999, the Wall Street Journal published a report on General Nutrition Center (GNC) decision to carry androstenedione as a nutritional supplement. Oddly enough, this occurred hot on the heels of a paper in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by King et al, showing it to have no effect on body composition or exercise performance.
The gist of the article went on to recount GNC’s tale of scientific justification to carry a product that they felt to be both beneficial and free of risk. GNC solidified its position with references. What truly raised my curiosity was the citing of my research (from the Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition) to justify the product’s effectiveness and safety.
Why should I be curious? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that my research never examined safety or efficacy issues.
However, I did feel honored for a couple of reasons. First,as a scientist, it is nice to have your name and research associated with product development.
More importantly, however, I had now been elevated to a status in sports nutrition that is only rivaled by several countries. In a unique combination owing to –
(a) The findings of my research
(b) The poor interpretation by GNC of my data,
I was now achieving fame due to guilt by association. Yes, my name was now being championed in a marketing campaign that was up there with the ever-popular buzzwords for muscle enhancement-Russia, East Germany, and Bulgaria. For, as everybody knows (but never really tells), if you don’t have a product that works, you can always rely on these terms to promote your product due to the communist-guarded mystique associated with these former communist countries.
To say the least, the last few years in the natural products industry have been interesting. Still piggybacking the industry high brought on by creatine sales, more companies are continually scrambling to find the next blockbuster product. What makes creatine so great is that regardless of how much criticism you throw at it, science keeps giving it right back in terms of validating its safety and benefits.
Despite the myriad of prohormones that have captured the interest of the health supplement industry, the one thing that many of the prohormones do not have is adequate scientific evidence. Sure, we have an interesting study from 1962 in four women and intriguing in vitro findings. But we still have no evidence to support prohormones as being beneficial. In review, all prohormones either directly form testosterone or emulate testosterone by differing only modestly in molecular structure. So, why shouldn’t they be used? These are issues challenging both scientists and practitioners alike. After all, as everybody knows, more testosterone means more muscle-right?
Because androstenedione lies in such close proximity to testosterone in the body (one step away), it has become a popular nutritional supplement marketed for muscle growth. From a formation standpoint, the closer a hormone’s precursor lies within a pathway to the end product, the more pronounced the conversion to the end result should be. In essence, DHEA should produce greater quantities of testosterone than that of its upstream precursors, such as pregnenolone. Likewise, androstenedione should produce greater quantities of testosterone than DHEA because it lies one step away from testosterone, whereas DHEA is two steps away. In test tubes this appears to be the case. In an elegant series of studies using testicular incubations, the conversion to testosterone was more readily apparent from DHEA than any of its precursors and androstenedione was converted more readily than DHEA.
Whether this occurs in the body is not well determined and currently has produced conflicting results regarding its ability to increase testosterone concentrations. Formerly, the best available reports were testimonials gathered from former East German Republic Olympic athletes and one scientific paper examining the supplementation of androstenedione in women. In the former example, Olympic teams first reported the use of androstenedione during the 1970s.
In an effort to justify sales promotions, many companies quoted East German patent claims stating that 50 mg of androstenedione increased plasma testosterone concentrations from 140% to 183%. Better yet, 100 mg of androstenedione increased the concentrations from 211 % to 337%. A funny thing though, no evidence for this claim is readily available in the scientific literature. Well, here’s an information tidbit for you: Just because it appears on a patent doesn’t mean it has been scientifically validated. In truth, one can obtain a patent on novel theory alone. No real data are actually needed.
Recently, however, investigators at the University of Texas (Arlington) performed a double-blind, crossover, pilot study and found that androstenedione supplementation produced a slightly higher level of total testosterone (18-23%) after the ingestion of 200 mg of androstenedione. Although statistically significant, these results are not even close to patent claims and it is likely that these findings have no practical significance.
ln fact, a good weight training session alone will raise testosterone by over 30%. As more evidence has become available, contrasting reports show that androstenedione has no real effect at raising testosterone, increases estrogen concentrations, has no effect on muscle mass or strength, and even decreases net protein synthesis.
How this will affect future sales is currently a matter of debate. For now, based on the studies in hand, the industry has a hard time justifying the product. Fortunately, this does not fall under the ever-popular scapegoat of an FDA conspiracy. Instead, it is brought about and fully borne from the evidence derived through scientific inquiry showing the product to be ineffective. Hopefully, the industry will not ride out the storm while promoting all the other prohormones that have not accumulated any science because the reports will be coming out soon. Some have already begun as the non-androstenedione/diol products are now attracting scientific scrutiny.
Many of these prohormones do not even contain what is claimed on the label. If you are still tempted to ask yourself why the FDA is so determined to regulate our industry, perhaps you should ask yourself why we are so determined to extend such an open invitation to do so. It comes down to this either we regulate ourselves by doing the science or we have a government agency do it for us. It is just a matter of time.