During my research for my article "Anabolic Steroid, Part II," I came across a new theory that was too exciting not to report. This month's topic is not yet a known compound, but could potentially turn around the way we attempt to enhance muscle and connective tissue growth, both for traumatic injuries and for athletic application.
Natural nutritional alternatives to anabolic steroids are a multimillion and possibly billion dollar business. There are a wide variety of "aural steroid replacement substances" on the market. Protein, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and herbs are all touted by various companies to naturally stimulate the anabolic effects of steroids without the negative side effects: claimed effects include increases in intracellular nitrogen balance, natural stimulation of testosterone production, increases in micronutrient delivery, and enhancement of the metabolic process.
The big question is, what if the growth-inducing effects of steroids are only 25 percent anabolic and 75 percent anticatabolic, which is what researcher and author W.N. Phillips states.1 Every natural substance (those that work and those that don't work) attempts to mimic the anabolic effects of steroids. No company has attempted to design any natural products to block catabolism. Would natural athletic aids be more effective if, instead of trying to mimic the anabolic effects of steroids, they were designed to work anticatabolically, which may be anabolic steroids' major mode of action? The potential for the development of catabolic blocking agents could theoretically mean natural products that are much stronger than anything currently on the market.
The Cortisol Connecton
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid that accounts for 95 percent of the body's glucocorticoid activity.2 Cortisol secretion in the body is on a circadian cycle. Plasma cortisol levels increase during sleep and peak in the early morning between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.2 Guyton states, "It is amazing that almost any type of stress, whether it be physical or neurogenic, will cause an immediate marked increase in ACTH secretion, followed within a few minutes by greatly increasing adrenocortical secretion of cortisol."2 This includes "almost any type of trauma" as well as excessive exposure to heat, cold, infection, disease, psychologic stress, and exercise. When cortisol secretion is stimulated, oftentimes it will override both the negative feedback system and diurnal rhythms.3
Cortisol has many effects on the body:
- Causes amino acid mobilization from muscle tissue;3
- Protein, RNA, and DNA synthesis are inhibited;3
- Fibroblast growth is inhibited;3
- Collagen formation is inhibited;3
- Fibronectin formation is inhibited.3
Guyton states, "excess cortisol can cause marked muscular weakness."2 Poor wound healing and easy bruising are seen with high cortisol levels.3 (Do your patients under stress seem to heal slower? Mine do.)
Anabolic steroids bind at cortisol receptor sites. This prevents cortisol-induced muscle and connective tissue breakdown. Although I have not been able to do an exhaustive literature search on this theory, I was able to find some interesting papers.
Barron showed an increase in plasma cortisol in overtrained endurance athletes.4 Dohm showed an increase in protein catabolism in eccentric weight lifting movement.5 Cummings demonstrated that cortisol decreases testosterone levels in males. Animal studies have exhibited that anabolic steroids bind at glucocorticoid receptor sites.7
If anabolic steroids work purely anabolically, one would assume that high dose steroids use would build muscles with or without exercise. We know when teenage males enter their anabolic growth stage they gain muscle size and strength regardless of exercise. Furthermore, we know that steroid consumption without progressive resistance movements will not build Mr. Olympia muscles. This evidence supports Phillips, who feels that the majority of steroid effects are, in fact, anticatabolic.
There are ergogenic aids which are legal and can help the athlete gain muscle strength and size. However, there are no natural legal substances that remotely approach the power of anabolic steroids. Although good research is needed to further investigate this theory, if it holds true, nutritional support may undergo an historic change with the development of catabolic blocking agents being the nutritional supplementation of choice for our athletes who are training intensely and an important component of the nutritional support of injuries. The most exciting aspect of catabolic blockers is the chance that we could develop natural substances that, although they would not be as strong as anabolic steroids, would be considerably more effective at building muscle than any of the so-called natural anabolic substances now on the market. If a legal natural substance was even half as powerful as an anabolic steroid, it would be much easier for doctors, coaches, and trainers to have athletes stay natural.
- Phillips WN: Anabolic Reference Update. Mile High Publishing, Golden, Colorado, 27, 1991.
- Guyton. The Textbook of Medical Physiology. W.B. Saunders Company, 1981.
- Martin, Mayes, Rodwell, and Granner. Harper's Review of Biochemistry. ed 12. Lang Medical Publications, 1985.
- Barron, Noakes, Levy, Smith, and Miller. Hypothalmic dysfunction in overtrained athletes. Journal of Clinical Endocrinological Metabolism. 60:803-855, 1985.
- Dohm GL, Williams RT, et al: Increased excretion of urea and N-methyl-histidine by rats and humans after a bout of exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology. 52(1):27-23, 1982.
- Cummings DC, Quigley ME, and Yen SS: Acute suppression of circulating testosterone levels by cortisol in men. Journal of Endocrinological Metabolism. 57:671-673, 1983.
- Rogozkin VA: Anabolic steroid metabolism, in skeletal muscle. Journal of Steroid Biochemistry. 11:923-932, 1979.
G. Douglas Andersen, D.C.
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