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Snake Oil & the Development of Muscle

By Wesley James

There are three principle reasons for engaging in the effort to increase the size of ones muscles. The first is rehabilitative, the second prophylactic and the third, enhancement. The first goal is addressed by the field of physical therapy, the second by Sports Medicine. The third, while touched by Sports Medicine, has no truly aligned science. This has left the field open to a host of quacks and charlatans with little to keep them in check. The primary focus of this journal will be the enhancement function and the pseudo-science currently surrounding it. We'll explore the abysmal state of affairs that currently exists and what you, as a consumer, can do.

The enhancement function breaks down into four categories: strength, performance, aesthetics and health. The strength and performance areas have, to an increasing degree over the years, become the domain of coaches, trainers and the Sports Medical specialist. The aesthetic and health functions have and continue to be the fertile soil of the entrepenuer, and unfortunately, the fast buck artist. At one end of the spectrum this harbors the hardcore bodybuilding publications; at the other, the multitude of products offered via TV commercials and "infomercials". There is scant little regard for the actual merit, health or aesthetic benefit that can be derived from their devices or preparations. Profit, in many cases, is the sole consideration. We also see a plethora of nutritional products of at best dubious value touted as the secret of big, healthy, attractive muscle with strength, vigor and sex appeal thrown in for good measure.

I don't mean to suggest that these problems are limited to the enhancement related field. Physical therapists and the medical doctors they work with are notorious in misjudging the recuperative capacity of their patients. Knowledge of nutrition and nutritional supplementation is as scarce among physical therapists as it is among medical doctors. Moreover, among the few who do profess to know there is little science and a lot of folklore. Doctors of Sports Medicine, conversely, driven by the financial considerations of the sports teams and promoters they serve, are too often cavalier with the long term effects of injury on their patients. It has been observed that few professional football players leave the game without bad knees. Few boxers exit their careers without cerebral damage and the number of baseball pitchers driven from the game by elbow and shoulder problems is higher than it should be by any measure, based on our current level of knowledge. Still, as you're reading this newsletter, your concern is aesthetic muscular development. That being the case, let's focus on how you can separate the legitimate from the fake, the true scientist from the charlatan, in our chosen field, bodybuilding.

A few examples will clarify. There is no glandular extract or processed glandular tissue, no matter how its processed, that can survive the digestive system with enough integrity to be of any targeted efficacy. It follows that any orally administered product that predicates any part of its effect on a glandular tissue or extract is, to the extent that it so claims, fraudulent. The same statement can be made for all products based on plant sterols. No plant sterol has ever been demonstrated to produce a clinically significant steroid like effect. Further, no sterol has demonstrated anabolic, anti-catabolic, lipolytic or any other hypertrophic or hyperplastic effect in the form in which it can be legally sold. It can be fairly said that all such products are modern day "snake oil".

Beyond glandulars and sterols separating useful nutritional products and substrates from junk is a difficult task. It is, nevertheless, necessary. Dietary protein from food or supplement has never been demonstrated to be the slightest bit anabolic, though it is provably anti-catabolic. The fact is, no known non-prescription substrate or combination of substrates is proven to be anabolic in healthy adults. The odds are that if one were it would be as regulated as steroids. Before you start writing letters about GH releasers, Creatine, HMB, DHEA, CLA or what ever your favorite potion is, let me point out that a true anabolic would produce either hypertrophy or hyperplasia without any other form of stimulation. Anabolic has no legal definition. The term has significance only in a medical, bio-chemical and pharmacological context. It has come to be used by ad copy writers because it suggests that whatever they're describing as anabolic producers an effect like anabolic steroids. This is simply untrue. The only real, in vivo, anabolic is Testosterone. All anabolic steroids are essentially mimics of Testosterone. What GH releasers do is not raise Testosterone levels but lower Prolactin levels. This creates a higher level of Testosterone relative to Prolactin. This might be considered anabolic potentiation but hardly anabolism. GH releasers are anti-catabolic and lipolytic and those are benefits of considerable significance. They are not, however, anabolic.

Because the task is so difficult you must do, at least, what medical doctors do with new drugs, read the research. That means demanding the research be made available. It should never be sufficient for a company to state, "Use the Russian secret" or "Boron can dramatically increase your testosterone levels up to 300%" or even "Controlled clinical trials showed that for plateaued athletes a 5% increase in muscle weight is possible in just 25 days." Each of these examples are drawn from actual ads. If there is scientific evidence, let it be fully revealed. Boron, for example, raised Testosterone levels only in post-menopausal women. What is the clinical definition of a "plateaued athlete" and if 1 in 10,000 gained 5% it could be called possible but it would hardly be statistically significant.

Companies making advertising claims should be willing to supply re-prints of the studies on which their claims are based. These studies, in there entirety, should have been published in peer-reviewed journals and peer comment, pro and con, should be included with the re-prints. Those companies unwilling to make such material available should be ignored. Buying a product based on unsubstantiated claims is like buying Dr Fudpuckers' Magic Elixir.

Even if you are persuaded by the research provided by a company you still have no assurance that the product being supplied is in fact what it purports to be. But that, as they say, is another story.

I wish there was a clear guideline I could give you that would enable you to separate the beneficial supplements from the snake oil. There is none. The FDA, FTC, AMA and a host of other entities have studied the problem. None of them have found a true solution. Medical doctors, with much more training than any of you can be expected to have, continue to write prescriptions for ineffective, under-effective and even dangerous drugs because they lack information, have incorrect information or haven't kept properly posted on the latest research. You can rest a little easier, perhaps, knowing that for the most part the nutritional supplement industry has not put outright dangerous products on the market. If label directions are followed there is only a small risk of harmful result. The same can not be said for the efficacy of some of these supplements. Be prepared to waste some money. Be very wary of claims, assertions or research referred to in ads. Be equally wary of mention of research by magazine writers. If the writer hasn't actually read the research and determined its proper interpretation, its existence means nothing. Find those few writer/researchers that have recommended products that you've found actually work for you. You will not find all "experts" in agreement on all products.

Copyright © 1996 Physique Tools and Wesley James

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