Androstenedione home run or hype?

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Weighing the benefits and risk

Over the past few years, several hormones have become available over the counter, including pregnenolone (preg), DHEA, and androstenedione (andro). These hormones are made mostly in the adrenal glands, ovaries or testicles, brain, skin, and other organs. These hormones are also very close relatives. For instance, pregnenolone is the parent of DHEA, which, in turn, is the parent of androstenedione.

Availability and dosage. Andro is available in health-food stores in capsules of 10, 25, 50, and 100 mg. You'll also find several of its cousins being sold over the counter, including androstenediol (A-diol[*]), norandrostenedione, and others.

What are andro's benefits? Some bodybuilders anecdotally report that they notice increased strength when they use andro. Most take andro only on the days they work out. Others use andro occasionally to boost sex drive or overall well-being. Those who are young and already have naturally high levels of testosterone or andro in their body are not likely to notice much of a sex-boosting effect. Middle-aged and older folks may notice the benefits more easily.

A new, highly publicized study indicates that andro may not live up to its hype. The study, published in a June 2, 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, compared 300 mg of andro with a dummy pill in 20 men ages 19 to 29 during an eight-week weightlifting program. Researchers found no difference in strength between the two groups of men. Even though this study did not find obvious benefits with andro use, more studies are needed with different dosages, with individuals in different age groups, and also with women, for us to get a clearer idea of the benefits and risks of andro.

Andro is banned by the International Olympics Committee, professional tennis, the National Football League, and the National Collegiate Athletics Association. It remains legal in professional baseball, where Mark McGwire's admission to using it during the 1999 season -- when he hit a record 70 home runs -- boosted its popularity. However, this summer McGwire announced that he had stopped using andro. As to why he stopped taking it, the New York Times reported that he didn't like being portrayed as the endorser for the product, and that he didn't like the fact that young kids were taking it because of him.

Side effects. Andro can have androgenic side effects when used regularly. These include ache, scalp hair loss, hair growth on the face (in women), aggressiveness, and irritability. It can also raise levels of estrogen, something that could lead to enlarged breasts and an increased risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. Prostate enlargement could be a concern in older men. Long-term effects of regular use are currently unknown.

Future potential. Doctors sometimes prescribe testosterone to middle-aged and older men and women in order to increase libido and well-being, along with possibly increasing bone strength. Andro, being chemically close to testosterone, may be an over-the-counter alternative. The dosage used for hormone replacement may be very low, such as 5 mg or less.

At this point, based on our limited knowledge of andro, it is difficult to make any firm recommendations for its use. If you are planning to lake andro, either for its body-building potential (which is not proven), or its sex-boosting effects (which not everyone notices), limit your dosage to no more than 30 mg, and take it only temporarily -- that is, for a few days at a time. Have off periods of a few weeks or months between use in order to minimize any potential side effects. Supervision by a healthcare practitioner is recommended.

* Editor's Note: Some research suggests that A-diol works by stimulating the body to produce self-limiting amounts of its own natural testoterone -- which may be a safer approach.

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By Ray Sahelian, M.D.

Adapted by M.D.

Ray Sahelian, M.D., is the bestselling author of book on Kava, Creatine, 5-HTP, Melatonin, DHEA, Glucosamine, Pregnenolone, Saw Palmetto, and CoQ10. New books include The Common Cold Cure and The Stevia Cookbook. See his web site www.raysahelian.com.

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