Stepping into a gym or onto a playing field, one can’t ignore the allure of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). They’ve carved a niche within the realm of bodybuilding, athletic competitions, and even regular workouts. One such PED is the infamous prohormone, a seductive over-the-counter androgen that is advertised to sculpt muscles and incinerate fat. Even though they walk and talk like steroids, their legal standing in the US is a bit of a grey area.
From weightlifters flexing their biceps to bodybuilders strutting their ripped physiques, the appeal of steroids and hormone supplements, like prohormones, is hard to resist. For some, it’s the charm of instant muscle bulk-up, and for others, it’s the enticing prospect of gaining a competitive edge.
Prohormones, my dear, have an intriguing biology. Inside our bodies, they undergo an enchanting transformation through enzymatic processes to become anabolic hormones. These hormones play the knight in shining armor, stimulating protein synthesis and muscle growth, making you feel like a real-life Hercules.
Studies, like the one conducted by M. S, Calleja-Gonzalez J, Stojanovic M, show these supplements have a potential for sculpting a bodybuilder’s dream physique at a speed that might leave onlookers breathless. When bodybuilders flirt with prohormones, they can often witness a rapid muscle build and a decrease in body fat percentage.
But, as with all fleeting pleasures, the effects of prohormones are short-lived and come with a hefty price tag. Prohormones are notorious for accelerating testosterone levels, leading to undesirable side effects, akin to the infamous illegal anabolic steroids.
When it comes to the legality of prohormones, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has given them a cold shoulder, banning most, if not all, of these supplements. If you’re an athlete whose performance is scrutinized under drug tests, tread carefully. You must be aware of what’s permissible and what’s not. And remember, some manufacturers might sneak prohormones into supplements without listing them as ingredients.
Even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) keeps a watchful eye over dietary supplements, their rules differ from those for pharmaceutical drugs. Manufacturers are tasked with evaluating the safety and labeling of their products before they hit the market. This explains why prohormones, despite their health risks, are able to wink at the law and stay technically legal.
The love-hate relationship with prohormones dates back to 1996 when they first entered the market. Athletes, including Major League Baseball legend Mark McGwire, were quick to adopt them, only to land in the eye of a steroid scandal that left the sports industry shaken.
The Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004 clipped the wings of prohormones, deeming them illegal “controlled substances” on par with androgenic-anabolic steroids (AAS). But, the ban was short-lived as manufacturers found loopholes and brought prohormones back into the limelight in 2005.
While the US, Canada, and Mexico have turned their backs on prohormones, the ban hasn’t stopped these substances from being smuggled into the US from countries where they are not illegal.
One anabolic steroid, Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), that escaped the legal net when the 2004 law was amended, is still available in the US. Even though it is considered a controlled substance in other countries, it’s permitted in dietary supplements in the US. However, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) strictly prohibits its use in all sports.
Even in the face of legal restrictions, manufacturers continue their attempts to introduce prohormones into dietary supplements. Despite their present illegal status, they can still trigger the same undesirable side effects as they did before 2004.
So, you’re wondering, do prohormones actually live up to their hype?
Let’s delve into the scientific archives and check what they have to say about the allure of prohormones. Are they the secret to muscle mass and enhanced performance?
A study published in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology scrutinized the effects of prohormones on humans. They found that while these seductive supplements might provide some anabolic and performance-boosting effects, the gains are generally not sufficient to justify their use.
There were some unsightly side effects observed:
– Hormonal Chaos: Gobbling down doses equal to or more than 200 milligrams per day led to a testosterone surge, but also invited an unwelcome guest, estrogen. This can, rather unflatteringly, lead to breast development.
– Unhappy HDL cholesterol: Doses above 300 milligrams per day over a span of 12 weeks neither sculpted the body nor enhanced physical performance. Worse, it led to a drop in the good guy in town, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
The conclusion was that over-the-counter prohormones failed to impress in their mission to increase muscle mass and athletic performance. More worryingly, the risk-to-reward balance tipped unfavorably given these side effects.
Let’s turn to resistance training.
There was a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that investigated the effects of prohormones on young adults doing resistance training. It involved 30 healthy lads aged 19 to 29 who were not popping any nutritional supplements, steroids, or doing any resistance training.
The participants were divided into two groups. One group of 20 hunky males engaged in whole-body resistance training for eight weeks, and the remaining 10 were handed a single 100-milligram prohormone dose. Over the eight weeks, the resistance-training group was either given a 300-milligram prohormone dose or a placebo.
These researchers played detectives, analyzing changes in testosterone levels, estrogen concentrations, muscle strength, muscle fiber, body composition, blood lipids, and liver activities. The results, however, were a letdown. Neither the prohormone nor placebo groups reported any significant lean muscle growth or fat loss. In the prohormone group, HDL cholesterol took a nosedive after two weeks and didn’t make a comeback.
The bottom line? Adding prohormones to your resistance training routine is unlikely to boost your testosterone levels or give you an extra edge in muscle gain. Worse, it may invite unwanted health problems.
Let’s consider medicinal usage.
A study in 2017 published in the International Journal of Nephrology and Renovascular Disease pondered whether using vitamin D prohormones medicinally could be a knight in shining armor for patients with hyperparathyroidism, a condition caused by declining renal function in chronic kidney disease (CKD).
The outcome? Patients in the advanced stages of the disease saw little benefit from supplementing with prohormones. Only those in the early stages had some success with their medical treatment when adding prohormones to their regime.
In conclusion, supplementing medication with prohormones could show some promise in specific phases of certain health conditions. It may be particularly beneficial for those dealing with muscle wasting or vitamin deficiencies.
Alright, let’s talk about the darker side of prohormones.
Just because prohormones can be legal doesn’t mean they come without risks. Like any supplement, they can pack a punch and potentially cause some serious side effects, my friend. These effects can differ from person to person, but for some, they can be just as rough as steroid side effects.
Here’s a rundown of side effects tied to prohormone use:
- Headaches that make your head pound
- A heart that beats faster than normal
- Feeling nauseous
- Pain in the stomach
- Trouble catching those precious z’s
- Anxiety ramping up
- Tiredness setting in
- Acne flaring up
- Mood swings, from slight grumpiness to big shifts in personality
- Losing your precious locks
- Testicles shrinking (yes, you read that right)
- Unleashing the inner beast and acting aggressively
- Your sex drive cranking up or down
- Guys developing breasts (yes, it happens)
- A sudden lack of drive to do the things you once loved (kind of like what happens with depression)
The side effects don’t just end there. The long-term side effects can include increased risk of heart disease, irreversible damage to your liver and kidneys, and spiked cholesterol levels.
So, who should steer clear of prohormones?
Given these side effects and the lack of convincing evidence, tread lightly around over-the-counter prohormone supplements. Always chat with your healthcare provider before diving in.
Prohormones can be particularly dicey for the following groups:
- Individuals under 18
- Breastfeeding mamas
- Those who are pregnant or trying to conceive
- Anyone trying to shed pounds
Are prohormones for you?
The research doesn’t quite give a confident thumbs-up to prohormone supplementation yet. We need more solid, scientifically-backed trials to confirm that prohormones can indeed pump up muscle mass. Until then, look towards proven methods to build those gains.
According to the American Heart Association, the golden ticket to muscle growth is moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activities, such as weightlifting or bodyweight training, at least twice a week. Also, get off your rear end more often and gradually crank up the intensity of your workouts. If boosting testosterone is your aim, there are plenty of safer, non-prohormone supplements out there.
If you do decide to try prohormones, remember it’s a bit of a gamble. Not only might you flush your cash down the drain, but you could also suffer side effects that could be a real knock to your health.
And finally, a little nugget of wisdom.
Before diving headfirst into a muscle-building regimen, you might want to tap the knowledge of healthcare professionals and registered dietitians. They can help figure out what works best for your body.
Consider any meds you’re on and ask your doctor about potential interactions with prohormones. And be aware, some medications may not play nice with intense workouts.
A healthcare pro can also help you figure out the right amount of protein and nutrition you need to achieve your body goals safely and effectively.
- From the venerable National Institute on Drug Abuse: A comprehensive research report shedding light on the murky history of anabolic steroid use.
- Penned by M. S, Calleja-Gonzalez J, Stojanovic M in the enlightening volume Steroids – Clinical Aspect (2011), edited by Abduljabbar H: An in-depth look at steroid prohormones and their effects on athletes’ body composition. doi:10.5772/28543
- An intriguing 1997 study by Bobyleva V, Bellei M, Kneer N, Lardy H, published in Arch Biochem Biophys: A dive into the effects of the ergosteroid 7-oxo-dehydroepiandrosterone on mitochondrial membrane potential and its potential link to thermogenesis. doi:10.1006/abbi.1997.9955
- An insightful review by Ziegenfuss TN, Berardi JM, Lowery LM, published in 2002 in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology: A sobering look at the effects of prohormone supplementation in humans. doi:10.1139/h02-037
- The reputable U.S. Food & Drug Administration: A valuable resource on Dietary Supplements.
- From the Uniformed Services University’s Department of Defense Dietary Supplement Resource: “Operation Supplement Safety”, a guide to prohormones and “Legal Steroids.”
- ESPN’s compelling report: McGwire’s heartfelt apologies to La Russa, Selig.
- The Uniformed Services University’s Department of Defense Dietary Supplement Resource’s take on DHEA: A guide asking the crucial question – can I use it?
- A trailblazing study by King DS, Sharp RL, Vukovich MD, and others, published in JAMA in 1999: Probing the effect of oral androstenedione on serum testosterone and resistance training adaptations in young men. doi:10.1001/jama.281.21.2020
- A 2017 piece by Friedl C, Zitt E in the International Journal of Nephrology and Renovascular Disease: Examining the therapeutic use of vitamin D prohormone in the management of secondary hyperparathyroidism in chronic kidney disease patients. doi:10.2147/IJNRD.S97637
- An eye-opening study by Granados J, Gillum TL, Christmas KM, Kuennen MR, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2014: Highlighting how the prohormone supplement 3β-hydroxy-5α-androst-1-en-17-one can enhance resistance training gains but compromise health. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00616.2013
- The ever-authoritative American Heart Association: A guideline featuring their recommendations for physical activity in adults and kids.