'Andro' muscles into spotlight Substance's benefits,harm open to debate

August 30, 1998|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

As debate swells over slugger Mark McGwire's use of a "performance-enhancing" substance, many doctors say there's little reason to believe the compound is playing a significant role in the lofty home run totals he is putting up this year.

Put away the asterisk, they say.

Many who study the effects of hormones on athletic performance say the substance known as androstenedione (AN-dro-steen-DIE-own) probably adds little punch to someone who, for years, has shown himself to be one of the most powerful hitters in the game. Some even suggest that the compound's greatest value might be as a placebo -- a psychological push more than anything else.

"Andro," an over-the-counter product available by mail and in some nutrition stores, is the same chemical the body produces and later breaks down to form the muscle-building hormone testosterone.

Many doctors say the body already carries large stocks of androstenedione -- and swallowing bucket loads might do little to raise a person's testosterone levels.

"It's like taking coals to Newcas

tle," said Dr. Mitchell S. Harman, an endocrinologist at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore.

Dr. Charles Yersalis, a Penn State professor who has studied performance-enhancing drugs for 19 years, said there is no evidence that the body can use the amounts supplied by the capsules. There's a good chance, he said, that the body excretes most, if not all, of what people take in by mouth.

"There's a long distance between the claims being made and whether this is a performance-enhancing drug," said Yersalis.

The view is not universal, however. While nobody claims that the substance can turn a singles hitter into a slugger, some doctors have speculated that it might give hitters a slight performance edge -- perhaps enough to nudge a proven slugger like McGwire past Roger Maris' elusive record of 61 homers.

"Andro is not going to turn a punch-and-judy hitter into a home run hitter, but it might help build a little lean mass and then, I think, its real value might be to help a person from running down in the long haul," said Dr. Andy Tucker, a family physician with the University of Maryland Medical Center who is also a team physician for the Baltimore Ravens.

Dr. Bill Howard, a surgeon at Union Memorial Hospital with a long-standing interest in sports medicine, said women might get a larger boost than men because their bodies naturally produce less of the substance.

Trouble is, there are no studies showing whether the supplement works, or whether it poses health hazards. Perhaps, this is because it has been available in the United States for only a year or two. And while athletes in Eastern Europe have used it since the 1970s, many combined it with powerful drugs like anabolic steroids -- making effects hard to discern.

The McGwire furor has only boosted consumer interest in the product.

Jason Cohen, a Baltimore body builder and model who markets "andro" capsules through his company, Performance Biomedical Laboratories, said his phones started lighting up as soon as the McGwire story broke.

The core market is still body builders, weightlifters and fitness enthusiasts, he said.

"It's helping them out primarily in the gym to maintain a leaner, stronger body," said Cohen, who advertises in muscle magazines and on his company web site. He said the substance helps people work out longer, lift more and recover faster.

At Gold's Gym in Glen Burnie, personal trainer Thomas Coughlin said androstenedione's use was confined to hard-core body builders until the McGwire story broke. Now, people "out of the blue who never picked up a weight in their life are all of a sudden asking about it."

The gym collects orders from members, and sends for supplies on a weekly basis. In this area, Coughlin said, the drug is obtained mainly from mail-order suppliers -- not from retail stores.

General Nutrition Centers, a national chain, instructed its 3,700 stores in June not to sell "andro" because of inadequate safety data.

Theresa Hessler of Baltimore, a professional fitness competitor, said she has been using it for about a year without any ill effects. "It increases my strength but not by a whole bunch," she said. "It makes it a little easier to go through my routines. It's easy for someone who is not an athlete to sit back and criticize. We're trying to perform to the best of our ability."

It should come as no surprise that Toronto Blue Jays designated-hitter Jose Canseco is a user of androstenedione.

Blue Jays teammate Jose Cruz also uses it and several more Blue Jays are planning to try it during the off-season, but the club's medical staff has placed it on their list of supplements that are not suggested.

"I don't recommend it to the players because, in my mind, the jury is still out on it," said Brian McNamee, the Blue Jays' strength and conditioning coach.

Although permitted by Major League Baseball, the compound is banned by the NFL, the International Olympic Committee, the NCAA and the Association of Tennis Professionals.

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