Creatine and Androstenedione: Myth vs. Reality
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What if there was a drug you could take that guaranteed increased energy and strength? Not only that, but it came in an easy-to-swallow capsule, it could safely and naturally increase your level of testosterone, (the most potent of muscle building hormones), and it would be perfectly legal to buy and relatively inexpensive.
The sellers of creatine and androstenedione (pronounced androe-steen-die-own) make these sorts of claims although there are no long-term studies of the effectiveness or safety of these drugs. Nevertheless, retailers can’t keep them on the shelves. Their popularity has been aided by high profile athletes. Both drugs are chemicals naturally produced in the body and found in minute amounts in food, mostly red meat. But that is where the similarities end.
For many years, the world’s foremost studies of creatine and its effect on athletic performance were carried out in secrecy by communist Eastern-bloc countries. But after the fall of Communism, the training and experimental drugs used on Soviet and East German Olympic athletes was revealed. Aside from exposing the truth about illegal anabolic steroid use, there was the discovery of a "vitamin" called creatine, which was quickly introduced to the U.S. and marketed as an ergogenic, or energy-enhancing supplement.
Creatine was not a vitamin, however, but a synthesized blend of certain amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. The benefit creatine provides is increased energy for quick, anaerobic bursts of activity, such as are required in weightlifting. Athletes taking creatine can do more repetitions and sets of exercises than they could without it. Essentially, it speeds up the process of adding strength and size to the muscles by intensifying the workout. It has been compared to the way a marathon runner might saturate his muscles with carbohydrates before a race to provide endurance except that creatine strictly helps in anaerobic activities like muscle contractions.
Creatine is made in small amounts by the body, and aids a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which controls all types of muscle contractions, from bench pressing 400 pounds to blinking an eye. To contract a muscle, the ATP molecule releases one of the three phosphate groups. Creatine comes into play by attaching to the free-floating phosphate and reforming into ATP. Thus, energy is provided until the creatine in the muscle is depleted. Thus, the effect of a creatine supplement is to provide the muscles with more creatine than the body can produce on its own and thus increase energy.
Furthermore, creatine allows the muscles to retain more water. The advantage of this is that the muscles, which are 75% water to begin with, will work more efficiently and recover from the abuses of weightlifting more quickly. For bodybuilders, an added plus is that the water will make the muscle appear larger.
Little is known about the long-term effects of using creatine, but it has not been shown to be in anyway unsafe in the short term. Studies in animals where creatine is removed from the muscles have shown that the muscle quickly atrophies and weakens, signaling that creatine may be an essential chemical in muscular usage. One side effect of supplementation, however, is that the body, not used to such large quantities of creatine in the muscle, shuts down its own natural production of creatine. Such an effect is also seen when testosterone is artificially taken to build muscle through the use of anabolic steroids, often to disastrous consequences. Whether or not such a stoppage of creatine production is permanent or harmful is unknown.
While creatine is a supplement that only provides more energy to aid in workouts, androstenedione is designed to actually build muscle tissue by raising the body’s level of testosterone. Androstenedione is a precursor molecule to testosterone, which means it is a step along the biological chain that produces testosterone. In fact, it is the last step before testosterone is produced with the only difference being a single hydrogen atom. Theoretically, when androstenedione is digested, the liver adds that atom of hydrogen and produces testosterone. Unlike anabolic steroids, which one can use intravenously to pump the body full of as much testosterone is desired, when testosterone is produced through digestion, the body can control the amount produced. For this reason, sellers of androstenedione claim there is no danger of getting too much testosterone and experiencing the side effects of anabolic steroids, which include loss of hair, outbreaks of acne on the body, and impotence, to name a few.
But what is often left unsaid in advertisements for the drug is that there is no guarantee androstenedione will be converted to testosterone because it is also a precursor molecule for the female hormone, estrogen. Which hormone androstenedione eventually becomes depends on many factors and is not entirely understood. One important variable, however, is a person’s percentage of body fat. The danger for men who take the drug in an effort to lose fat while building muscle may be the effect of producing estrogen instead since a high percentage of body fat increases the likelihood that androstenedione will convert to estrogen. Not only will estrogen not increase muscle size, but it could lead to the growth of mammary tissue and female sexual characteristics.
Studies of androstenedione, which date as far back as 1935, have shown, in some cases, to do what its sellers claim, that is boost the level of testosterone. In men, it can raise levels by 300% and in women, up to 600%. However, the effect is short-lived with testosterone levels returning to normal in about an hour. In the 1970’s, East German athletes attempted to use this short burst of testosterone to their advantage, by taking androstenedione in a nasal spray shortly before an event. Any subsequent drug testing, therefore, would show their testosterone levels to be normal. This apparently had no benefit on the athletes’ performance, however, and many of them simply complained of sinus-headaches.
In fact, throughout its life span of over 60 years, no study has shown androstenedione to be of any benefit to athletic performance. Numerous precursor molecules have come and gone as fads in the dieting and supplementation industry. One reason many are unconvinced about their effectiveness is that another basic precursor molecule to testosterone is readily available in the American diet. It is called cholesterol. Dr. Michael Colgan, author of the book Optimum Sports Nutrition writes, "I see a lot of fat folk who eat enough cholesterol to stuff a mattress. But it has no effect on their testosterone or muscle, because multiple body controls prevent it." A well-respected scientist in the field of nutrition, Colgan likens precursor molecules to no more than dietary snake oil.
Even though its benefits are suspect, most professional sports ban the use of androstenedione. Major League Baseball, of course, is one exception, having opted for a comprehensive study of the drug (currently being completed by scientists at Harvard), before making it illegal. Until then, many people will think Mark McGwire’s record of 70 home runs is tainted due to his use of androstenedione. McGwire, who hit more than 50 home runs a few seasons ago, before he ever heard of the drug, dismisses such criticism by asking why all the guys at Gold’s Gym don’t hit 70.
But whether or not androstenedione should be banned from baseball, McGwire’s other supplement of choice, creatine, is not going anywhere. Since it is basically classified as a food, its use is accepted in every professional, collegiate, and Olympic sport. It is believed to have no direct impact on the performance of an athlete but instead, it simply allows athletes to train more efficiently and enhances their performance through weightlifting. It has shown to be somewhat effective in clinical studies in speeding up recovery from workouts, adding lean muscle mass, and it is quickly becoming as popular as multivitamin supplements, at least among athletes, though whether creatine is safe in the long term remains to be seen.
Androstenedione, on the other hand, has not shown the effective results of creatine, and the risk of increasing the body’s level of testosterone has caused many to write it off as a legal steroid. The nation’s leading health food chain, General Nutrition Centers, does not sell Androstenedione citing safety concerns. Other stores and gyms do sell it, however, and it is readily available on the world wide web. The most comprehensive study on the drug is currently underway, but until it is complete, many young athletes may start taking androstenedione in hopes of becoming the next Mark McGwire. And McGwire himself may have set his sights on a new goal — beating new records such as Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs, or Babe Ruth’s .690 slugging percentage, neither of which was achieved with the help of performance enhancing drugs. In truth, the mechanics of baseball do not always make the biggest and strongest players the best. The latest fad to hit the sports nutrition industry may have mixed results before making you a success.