The Facts About Androstenedione Supplements

Separating the Facts from the Marketing Hype

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Androstenedione is a steroid hormone produced mainly in the testes in men and in the ovaries in women, as well as in the adrenal glands. It plays a key role in the production of testosterone and estrogen.

Androstenedione is also available as an oral supplement, used specifically to increase testosterone levels. Referred to by athletes simply as "andro," the supplement is frequently touted as a natural alternative to anabolic steroids. By boosting testosterone levels, androstenedione is believed to enhance athletic performance, build muscle mass, increase energy, and improve sexual function and performance.

Androstenedione was the star supplement of the bodybuilding world in the 1990s but is today among the list of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) banned by the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency. It is also banned by both the National Collegiate Athletic Associations (NCAA) and U.S. military and, in 2004, was reclassified as a schedule III controlled substance.

Benefits

Despite its popularity and health claims, there is little scientific evidence that andro supplements can enhance either athletic performance or muscle mass.

While androstenedione can, in fact, increase testosterone levels in the blood, it only tends to do so at doses greater than 300 milligrams (mg). The problem is that as testosterone levels rise, so, too, does estradiol (a major female hormone).

A 2006 review of studies from the University of Nebraska Human Performance Lab concluded that androstenedione, taken orally in a 50-, 100-, or 300-mg dose, has no effect on muscles size, strength, or body fat.

Even at 300 mg, the short half-life of the drug meant that the testosterone "boost" was only transient, generally eight hours at most. The peak tends to occur two hours after taking a dose before dropping quickly at hour four.

The study supported earlier research from Iowa State University Department of Health and Human Performance.

In this study, 30 men (ages 19 to 29) were assigned to one of three groups. One group was prescribed andro supplements and an eight-week course of resistance training. The second also underwent eight weeks of resistance training but was given a placebo. The third received a single dose of androstenedione and performed no resistance training.

In neither of the andro groups was there an improvement in any of the key performance or body composition measures compared to men who had received a placebo.

The one effect androstenedione did trigger was a decrease in "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, a condition linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

To date, there has been no reliable evidence that andro supplements can boost libido or sexual performance. While increased testosterone levels can help alleviate fatigue and increase energy, androstenedione's short half-life and side effects make it an impractical and potentially hazardous form of therapy.

Androstenedione is not among the therapeutic agents used for testosterone replacement therapy in men or women with hypogonadism (low testosterone).

Possible Side Effects

As a synthetic androgen, androstenedione supplements alter the balance of hormones in the body. It is these changes that trigger common side effects.

In men, androstenedione can cause the organs that normally produce testosterone to shut down. At the same time, as testosterone levels are boosted, the body will try to maintain equilibrium by increasing the output of female hormones. (Strangely, this latter effect increases the more you exercise.)

Common side effects in men include:

  • Shrunken testicles
  • Mood swings and angry outbursts (a.k.a. '"roid rage")
  • Breast enlargement (gynecomastia)
  • Prolonged and painful erections (priapism)
  • Reduced sperm count

Women who take andro supplements often experience the opposite effect and develop male sex traits. Common side effects in women include:

  • Acne
  • Deepening of the voice
  • Abnormal facial or body hair (hirsutism)
  • Male-pattern baldness (androgenic alopecia)
  • Coarsening of the skin
  • Abnormal menstrual periods
  • Depression

There is also concern that andro supplements may increase the risk of heart disease, liver disease, and cancers of the breast, prostate, or pancreas.

Andro supplements should be avoided in anyone with hormone-sensitive conditions, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, benign prostatic hyperplasia, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Drug Interactions

Androstenedione supplements should not be taken if you are on estrogen pills, including Premarin (conjugated equine estrogens), ethinyl estradiol, and estradiol. Taking them together may result in excessively high estrogen levels (hyperestrogenism).

Androstenedione may also decrease the effects of the anticoagulant drug Coumadin (warfarin).

Dosage and Preparation

Androstenedione supplements are available in tablet form. There is not enough scientific evidence to suggest a "safe" or therapeutic dose.

Even though the effects of androstenedione are relatively short-lived, evidence of the drug (called metabolites) can be detected in drug screens for up to 28 days.

What to Look

You should not confuse androstenedione with other commercially available substances marketed as "andro supplements." These include 1-andro and 4-andro, both of which are legal DHEA supplements believed to boost testosterone and athletic performance. (As with androstenedione, the benefits of DHEA are largely uncertain and often exaggerated.)

There are other legal supplements commonly marketed to bodybuilders and athletes, including creatine, CoQ10 (ubiquinone), chromium picolinate, and even herbs like fenugreek. In most cases, the hype tends to exceed the actual benefits.

Although testosterone levels naturally drop as you age, healthy behaviors such as regular exercise, weight loss, good sleep habits, stress reduction, and limiting your alcohol intake may help protect against the decline.

If you're thinking about using any dietary supplement to boost your testosterone levels, speak with your doctor first to fully understand the potential risks and benefits.

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