Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Pubdate:  Wed, 26 Aug 1998
Author: Rick Morrissey and Bruce Japsen
Section: Sec. 1, p. 1


Eleven weeks ago, or 24 home runs ago in Mark McGwire time, General
Nutrition Centers sent an internal memo to the managers of its 3,700 stores

The message was brief and direct: Don't sell androstenedione, an
over-the-counter nutritional supplement. Even though no definitive studies
had shown any dangerous side effects from androstenedione, GNC was
increasingly concerned about a product that was purported to raise
testosterone levels and thus enhance physical performance. Its own review
of scientific literature had raised questions.

"The decision was made on the lack of suitable short- and long-term
research demonstrating the safety of the product at various intake levels
and concern about the potential impact of product abuse," GNC said in a
June 9 memo obtained by the Tribune. "It was concluded that up through this
time, the use of androstenedione without risk of adverse events cannot be

The memo, confirmed by company officials, only adds to the debate
surrounding McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinals' star who along with the Cubs'
Sammy Sosa is pursuing Roger Maris' single-season home run record.

McGwire has acknowledged that he regularly takes androstenedione, a
substance that when taken orally is broken down by the body into
testosterone, the male sex hormone.

Producers of the supplement say it enhances energy and, in tandem with
exercise, encourages muscle growth.

Critics say the supplement is too new to understand fully and could have
harmful side effects. The voices are loud on both sides.

"I think potentially it is dangerous," said Dr. Gary Wadler, who has
written extensively on performance-enhancing drugs. "I think it's different
from other dietary supplements for a specific reason: It's a steroid
hormone that is converted in the body into testosterone."

"If somebody like a Mark McGwire is taking 100 milligrams a day, I don't
expect him to have any untoward side effects," said Dr. Robert Goldman, the
chief medical officer of the International Medical Commission.

In the meantime, McGwire might want to consider something else about

It doesn't work very well, if at all.

At least that's the conclusion of Tim Ziegenfuss and Lonnie Lowery, who are
among a handful of researchers examining androstenedione. They recently
found that the substance increases blood testosterone levels about 15
percent, which they say is statistically irrelevant.

"I wouldn't take this androstenedione any further in our research than what
I've taken it," said Ziegenfuss, an associate professor of exercise
medicine at Eastern Michigan University. "I don't think it would benefit
performance right now at the dose we studied--100 milligrams."

If anything, Ziegenfuss said, McGwire is taking the wrong compound. The
more potent pick is androstenediol, the next generation of androstenedione
and one that raises blood testosterone levels about 45 percent, he said.
That, too, is sold over the counter.

"If he's taking androstenedione, he made a bad choice," Ziegenfuss said.
"He's not talking to the right person."

Surely when Abner Doubleday worked to popularize baseball in the mid-19th
Century, he couldn't have foreseen the day when a player would be accused
of considering a medicine cabinet as standard equipment. But that's what
McGwire is faced with as he goes after Maris' record of 61 home runs.
McGwire had 53 as of Tuesday, but his road might have grown a bit rougher
with the accusation that chemicals are helping his ride.

Already in its short life in the United States, androstenedione has had a
troubled existence. Critics say it's a drug. The federal government says
androstenedione is closer to a food and therefore doesn't need to be
regulated. The International Olympic Committee, the NFL and the NCAA have
banned it. Major League Baseball has not. The question is, what exactly is

The substance was introduced in the United States in the summer of 1996 by
Patrick Arnold, a chemist from Seymour, Ill., near Champaign. Arnold had
noticed that a German patent on the supplement didn't cover it being taken
orally, so he began manufacturing it here.

He recently became partners with MetRx, one of the leading health and
nutrition supplement companies in the country. MetRx has combined
androstenedione and androstenediol into one product.

Androstenedione raises the level of testosterone for about an hour after
ingestion. Raising the testosterone level can raise aggressiveness and help
during weight training. In essence, it is tricking the body into making
more testosterone, although in some men it produces an even bigger trick:
It produces estrogen, the female sex hormone.

"Its use is not really as an anabolic agent," said Arnold, 32. "Its use is
more of a pick-me-up, a short-term stimulator of testosterone to perhaps
heighten concentration and aggressiveness prior to an event. With that
usage, we suspect there are little adverse effects, since you're only
having a small increase in testosterone for a very short period of time.
That's generally how most people use the stuff."

But athletes and especially bodybuilders often believe that more is better,
that if 100 milligrams is called for, 300 would be three times better. And
critics especially are concerned about young athletes taking a substance
with such a brief history simply because McGwire does.

"Steroids all have one unique quality: The side effects don't show when
you're taking it," Wadler said. "They show up months, years and decades
later. . . . Example: People who take testosterone years later after
abusing steroids wound up with liver tumors, cholesterol problems,
cardiovascular problems, malignancies. The list goes on.

"Here's a substance that's in that same category, but people who are taking
it are under the belief that it's some innocuous substance. There is no
safety requirement because there are no claims being made that it's a drug.
However, the body is smarter than the FDA. The body recognizes that it's a
steroid hormone and converts it."

Androstenedione retails for between $25 and $40 for a bottle of 60
capsules, depending on the potency. Despite GNC's ban, it is available in
the Chicago area. Sherwyn's Health Food Shops sells it, pointing to medical
journals that say androstenedione hasn't been proved to cause serious
health risks.

"Peer review journals and biochemists have been very conclusive," said
Peter Maldonado, vitamin department manager at Sherwyn's. "It is not a drug
and doesn't prove to have the same health risks as anabolic steroids to
include liver toxicity."

Whether androstenedione is a benign muscle enhancer or a dormant hazard
remains to be seen. Whether it works is also up for debate.

In the end, one expert says, any benefit gained from androstenedione may
lie in what consumers think they will get from it.

"I am reminded of that old Latin business term, `placebo,' which means, `I
shall please,' " said Dr. Alan Rogol, of the Bethesda, Md.-based Endocrine
Society. "There's no proof anywhere that it is effective improving athletic
performance. (But) if you think it's going to help you, it may."

Ziegenfuss' data will be presented at a conference in Finland in November,
well after the home run chase is over. He and his partner are planning to
study the long-term effects of androstenedione on the body. Some wonder if
it won't come too late for McGwire and others who use it.

"Unfortunately, as is normal, athletes are, I'm certain, abusing this
substance and taking tons of it, and we just don't know what the effects
are at this point," Ziegenfuss said.

Meanwhile, the producers of androstenedione aren't complaining about the
McGwire debate. Business is good. Asked whether it helps when organizations
such as the NFL or IOC ban a substance, Arnold said:

"Yes, I'd imagine it does. Even if the substance really has no efficacy,
people will want to check it out."

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Checked-by: Joel W. Johnson