Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Snake Oil

I was at Rite Aid yesterday picking up a few items and I happened to walk down the "Sports Nutrition" aisle. One product in particular caught my eye, in part, due to its outrageous price tag.

Alphatest from Muscletech is supposedly a "Super-Concentrated Performance and Testosterone Stimulant." The bottle makes the claims, "Anabolic, Anti-Catabolic, Performance." Well first off, if something is anabolic, by nature, it has to be "anti-catabolic." These supplements always make me wonder... Who comes up with this stuff? It's like they have a list of 10 key words that they have to choose from to put on the bottle.

For demonstration purposes only, I took photos of the product (shown below). I certainly do not endorse MuscleTech, and I cannot acknowledge any conflicts of interest.

Looking past the ridiculous name, claims, and price tag; what do we actually have in Alphatest? Here again, we have to look beyond the bombastic rhetoric like, "Testosterone Stimulant Complex" and "Testosterone to Cortisol Ratio Performance Matrix," to unearth proprietary blends of herbs and minerals. So the question then is; Do these ingredients increase testosterone levels in healthy individuals? If the supplement meets this criteria, there should also be several follow up questions like; Is it safe? Is it legal? Is it ethical? Is it worth the price? Will the product increase free testosterone? Will an increase in free testosterone lead to improved performance?

So, let's take a closer look at these ingredients and decipher whether or not this could be an effective supplement.

Zinc gluconate
Saw Palmetto
Astaxanthin - via haematococcus pluvialis (algae)
Ginko Biloba
Boron citrate

When considering a supplement, the first place I go is the Australian Institute of Sport's website. Here they have a list of supplements, classifying them as effective, undecided, ineffective or dangerous/illegal.

Not surprisingly, none of the ingredients make the Group A or Group B classification. Ginseng and Rhodiola are included in Group C. Supplements in this group, "have not been proven to provide a worthwhile enhancement of sports performance. Although we can't categorically state that they don't 'work', current scientific evidence shows that either the likelihood of benefits is very small or that any benefits that occur are too small to be useful." Because the supplement claims to be a testosterone booster, it is classified as a Group D supplement. Group D supplements, are "banned or are at high risk of being contaminated with substances that could lead to a positive drug test."

In summary, we have a mix of ingredients that have not been definitively proven to improve sports performance and the supplement as a whole may be at a high risk of being contaminated.

Turning to the Research
Mytosterone is the blend of saw palmetto and astaxanthin. A quick Google search will turn up a study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (Angwafor & Anderson, 2008). And at first glance, it appears that the proprietary blend of Mytosterone could decrease conversion of testosterone to estradiol by inhibiting aromatase, subsequently increasing serum testosterone. But look who funded the research - Triarco Industries (Mytosterone manufacturer). Further, where did the research take place? It was completed at the University of Yaounde, Cameroon. A PubMed search for the first author will turn up one other article, but it is unrelated to endocrinology or sports performance.

My quick thoughts: Triarco needed some data to support their new product, Mytosterone. They outsourced the research to whoever they could manipulate in Cameroon. And what do you know, it works! We could also look at the subject pool (37-70 year olds, average of 59 years) and the reality that there was no control group, but then we would have to assume that the data is legitimate...

An excerpt from Kreider (1999):
"The rationale for this [boron supplementation] was primarily based on an initial report that boron supplementation (3 mg/day) significantly increased b-estradiol and testosterone levels in postmenopausal women consuming a diet low in boron. However, subsequent studies that have investigated the effects of 7 weeks of boron supplementation (2.5 mg/day) during resistance training on testosterone levels, body composition and strength have reported no ergogenic value."
Prasad et al. (1996) found weak correlations between cellular zinc concentrations and serum testosterone levels. And zinc supplementation only augmented testosterone following a zinc-restricted diet in young adult males. Koehler et al. (2009) found that zinc supplementation, in the form of the supplement ZMA, did not significantly effect serum testosterone levels in subjects who consume a zinc-sufficient diet.

One study (Zhang et al., 2009) examined the effect of a Rhodiola and Ginko supplement on serum testosterone and cortisol. This study found that 7-weeks of supplementation significantly decreased serum cortisol concentrations. Sounds great, but upon further examination - the study was funded by Integrated Chinese Medicine Holdings Ltd., which has a patent on the supplement in question. A review from Walker and Robergs (2006) concludes, "Studies conducted in Western Europe and in North America have indicated that Rhodiola rosea may possess substantial antioxidant properties but have produced mixed results when attempting to demonstrate an ergogenic effect during exercise in humans." Note that the product in question contains Rhodiola crenulata, not rosea and  there is even less research on the crenulata species.

See above. Further, Markowitz et al. (2005) found that two weeks of Ginko biloba supplementation had no effect on serum cortisol or testosterone concentrations.

In Summary:
First off, a preliminary screening of the supplement via the AIS database should deter you from purchasing any sort of "testosterone booster." If that doesn't do it, I hope a further investigation of the research on the supplement's ingredients does. Don't believe everything that you read.


Angwafor, F., 3rd, & Anderson, M. L. (2008). An open label, dose response study to determine the effect of a dietary supplement on dihydrotestosterone, testosterone and estradiol levels in healthy males. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 5, 12.
Koehler, K., Parr, M. K., Geyer, H., Mester, J., & Schanzer, W. (2009). Serum testosterone and urinary excretion of steroid hormone metabolites after administration of a high-dose zinc supplement. Eur J Clin Nutr, 63(1), 65-70.
Kreider, R. B. (1999). Dietary supplements and the promotion of muscle growth with resistance exercise. / Complements nutritionnels et augmentation de la masse musculaire grace a la musculation. Sports Medicine, 27(2), 97-110.
Markowitz, J. S., DeVane, C. L., Lewis, J. G., Chavin, K. D., Wang, J. S., & Donovan, J. L. (2005). Effect of Ginkgo biloba extract on plasma steroid concentrations in healthy volunteers: a pilot study. Pharmacotherapy, 25(10), 1337-1340.
Prasad, A. S., Mantzoros, C. S., Beck, F. W., Hess, J. W., & Brewer, G. J. (1996). Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. Nutrition, 12(5), 344-348.
Walker, T. B., & Robergs, R. A. (2006). Does Rhodiola Rosea Possess Ergogenic Properties? International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism, 16(3), 305-315.
Zhang, Z. J., Tong, Y., Zou, J., Chen, P. J., & Yu, D. H. (2009). Dietary supplement with a combination of Rhodiola crenulata and Ginkgo biloba enhances the endurance performance in healthy volunteers. Chin J Integr Med, 15(3), 177-183. 

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