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Bodybuilding Pharmacology: Psychobolic Effects?

Drug-using bodybuilders vs. their so-called natural counterparts.

To say that anabolic steroid drugs increase muscle protein synthesis and muscular growth hardly rates a headline. On the other hand, how anabolic steroids affect exercise performance and recovery is less publicized. Drug-using bodybuilders and other athletes appear to train harder and recover more efficiently after intense workouts than their so-called natural counterparts. Some have attributed that training phenomenon to the psychological effects of steroids. According to the theory, steroids make you aggressive, which enables you to focus on greater training intensity. By increasing self-confidence, steroids may also foster more enthusiastic workouts.

According to a new study, however, the effects of anabolic steroids on training efficiency transcend any perceived psychological effect.1 In the study one group of rats was given anabolic steroids, and another group was given just one dose of Deca-Durabolin, an injectable steroid, one week before an exercise session. The dose was 3.75 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight, or the equivalent of 337 milligrams in a 200-pound man.

To examine the effects of this steroid on exercise performance and muscle cell metabolism, the researchers used thymidine, a constituent of DNA. To follow how the drug affected muscle proteins, they radioactively tagged leucine, a branched-chain amino acid found in muscle tissue. They also measured creatine kinase, an enzyme released when muscle is damaged through exercise.

The results showed that levels of creatine kinase increased in both the drug and natural groups 30 and 60 minutes following exercise, indicating muscle cell damage. The rise in creatine kinase was significantly less in the steroid group, which showed that this group experienced less muscle damage than its drug-free counterpart.

The steroid-using rats lifted a greater total amount of weight than the naturals. The naturals had 90 percent higher levels of thymidine, pointing to more extensive muscle cell damage following exercise. The steroid group had an 80 percent higher uptake of leucine into the muscle at rest, and the level of leucine uptake following exercise recovered 33 percent faster. Those results point to more efficient amino acid uptake and subsequent muscle protein synthesis.

The steroid rats showed a greater level of muscle fatigue resistance, which would translate into the ability to train harder without inducing muscle fatigue.

This study indicates that using anabolic steroids stabilizes muscle cell membranes, protecting them from excessive damage induced by intense training efforts. That accounts for the lower creatine kinase release after exercise observed in the steroid group. The increased leucine uptake favors upgraded muscle protein synthesis and increased muscle hypertrophy, or size gains. Thus, anabolic steroids do increase training tolerance, efficiency and recovery factors’at least in rats.

Synthetic Muscles?

A disquieting trend among some competitive bodybuilders during the past few years has been to inject various types of oils and other fatty substances directly into muscles to promote the appearance of increased size. Many of those preparations are commercially available, sold under such names as ‘Pump ‘N’ Pose,’ or ‘Synthol,’ which sounds more like an automobile oil additive. While such products aren’t supposed to be used for muscle enhancement, the implication is obvious.

Sometimes the injections produce larger-appearing muscles, but they also give new meaning to the word freaky. One bodybuilder who never admitted using intramuscular fat injections nonetheless appeared in contests with peaks in his posterior deltoids. A cursory glance at any anatomy text will show that peaks like that aren’t natural. Equally unusual bumps and projections have appeared on other competitive bodybuilders, often eliciting a reaction of ‘What the hell is that?’

While the aesthetic benefits of fat injections are debatable at best, the real issue is the effect they have on health. If the product is injected improperly, it can easily result in the equivalent of a fat embolism, or a fat globule that travels in the blood. If the glob of fat occludes an artery, it could lead to a heart attack or stroke. In the lungs it could become a pulmonary embolism.

At least one report has surfaced of a well-known professional bodybuilder who nearly died from a misplaced fat injection. Apparently, his near-death experience with this garbage hasn’t discouraged others from using it. While few reports in the medical literature pertain to injected fat for muscle enhancement, one case study details how a 48-year-old German bodybuilder injected himself with sesame seed oil because he had heard it was a common practice of competitive bodybuilders in the United States.2

The man showed up at a hospital dermatology department with nodules that could be felt just under the skin of his pectoral muscles. Although he had first noticed them two months earlier, he ignored them, since they didn’t produce any pain or other symptoms. One bump did begin to hurt when touched, prompting his hospital visit. Over a three-month period he had injected himself in the chest with a total of 1,500 milliliters of sesame oil, or 20 milliliters at a time, before training his chest.

The doctors aspirated, or sucked out, one of the nodules with a needle, finding that it contained an oily liquid and was encapsulated by a rough, fibrous covering. The area surrounding the nodules contained dead tissue and ‘amorphous’ material, much of which was calcified, or hardened. The diagnosis was oleoma with calcification: The body forms a hardened capsule composed of calcium around the injected material to sequester it from other, normal tissues. A similar phenomenon occurs with breast implants, making them feel like bags of concrete attached to the chest.

No one knows the long-term effects of calcified globules of fat, but the mere idea of having artificial foreign bodies existing in the body (with apologies to those with breast or penile implants) should be enough to discourage any rational person from contemplating any type of injected fat-muscle augmentation. Besides, it looks like crap.

A New Technique for Growth Hormone Release

Many bodybuilders who have attempted to boost growth hormone release through nutritional methods have been disappointed. The nutritional route to upgraded GH release usually involves some type of amino acid supplement. Amino acids, such as L-arginine and L-ornithine, provoke considerable GH release, most reliably when provided by injection or infusion in doses of about 30 grams. Most food supplements touted as GH releasers don’t contain anywhere near that level of arginine or other known GH-releasing amino acids. Even if they did, the amino acids would likely be degraded in the liver or produce unacceptable side effects.

GH-releasing supplements fail for other reasons. They must be taken on an empty stomach, preferably under relatively low blood glucose conditions, to confer any benefit on the human body. Other amino acids (such as those from a protein-rich meal or food supplement), carbohydrates or fats in the blood will totally nullify any effect of GH-releasers. You need to wait three to four hours after a meal before taking GH-releasing supplements, and the best time for that is usually just before bed. The greatest GH release normally occurs during the first 90 minutes of sleep, when you enter deep sleep stages.

According to a researcher from the University of Southern California School of Medicine, using two easily obtainable nutrient supplements can produce highly variable results. Elevation of evening GH release may range from a little to a level resembling acromegaly, a disease characterized by progressive enlargement of face and extremities and associated with a tumor on the pituitary gland, where GH is synthesized.3

The two nutrients involved in this process are acetyl L-carnitine (ALCAR), 500 milligrams, and L-ornithine, 20 to 100 milligrams, both taken just before going to sleep, with the last meal eaten at least three hours earlier. The researcher who tested that nutritional combo notes that it only works when taken at night just before sleep. The greater the amount of L-ornithine, the greater the level of GH release. Neither nutrient taken alone leads to appreciable GH release. The two nutrients work in combination; they also continue to work indefinitely.

Both ALCAR and ornithine exist naturally in the human body. ALCAR is produced from the amino acid by-product L-carnitine and has certain advantages over common L-carnitine, such as the ability to more easily pass the blood-brain barrier and thus enter the brain. Ornithine is made in the body from arginine, and studies have shown that it’s about twice as effective as arginine in provoking GH release.

Among the effects of using this combination is a slight swelling of the facial cheeks, which subsides. Some bodybuilders who’ve used the drug version of GH have experienced that level of swelling. Other changes during the first few weeks are a slight darkening of hair color and increased rates of hair and nail growth. The researcher who discovered this nutrient combo told 12 people about it, ages 26 to 88. They tried the combo on their own and reported similar effects.

If the dose of ornithine is gradually increased from 25 to 45 milligrams, the nighttime sleep requirement drops from a typical seven to eight hours to six and then 4 1/2 hours without any apparent impairment of workout intensity or recovery levels. The nutrient combo also promotes better sleep, but taking more than 45 milligrams of ornithine makes it difficult to fall asleep because, according to the author, ‘tiredness isn’t experienced.’ In fact, if you take more than 45 milligrams of ornithine, you may find yourself waking up after only about 1 1/2 hours of sleep, drenched in sweat. The author attributes that to a large ‘GH burst of fat liberation.’

When the author tried using doses of 200 to 300 milligrams of ornithine along with the standard 500 milligrams of ALCAR, he experienced profound insomnia, extreme physical discomfort and a 20 percent drop in his serum level of IGF-1 the next day’indicating a drop in GH release. The author thinks that may have occurred as the body responded to a virtual flood of GH release by upgrading the destruction of IGF-1 in the liver.

So precisely how does this technique work to upgrade GH release? Ornithine blocks the release of the main inhibitor of GH release in the brain, somatostatin. The ALCAR works by rejuvenating the activity of cellular structures called mitochondria, where cellular energy is produced. More mitochondrial efficiency somehow influences the release of GH in the brain, as does ALCAR, which works through a feedback loop involving increased fat release from GH at night. Or so goes the hypothesis offered by the author.

The feedback process, like GH release, drops with advancing age. Supplementing the two nutrients works to restore lost GH-releasing potential. Since the technique appears to work in those as young as 26, its effectiveness is apparently not limited by age. Supplement entrepreneurs thinking about marketing the nutrient combo should know that the medical researcher who devised the technique for inducing GH release has already obtained a pending use patent on it. That doesn’t limit anyone else from experimenting with the combo: You just can’t sell it. IM


1 Tamaki, T., et al. (2001). Anabolic steroids increase exercise tolerance. Am J Physiol. 280:E973-E981.

2 Darsow, U., et al. (2000). Subcutaneous oleomas induced by self-injection of sesame seed oil for muscle augmentation. J Am Acad Derm. 42.

3 Parr, T.B. (2001). A new technique to elevate nighttime growth hormone release and a potential growth hormone feedback control loop. Medical Hypotheses. 56:610-613.

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