According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sports nutrition comprises 14 percent of the global dietary supplement market, and as much as 1 out of 5 college students report the use of supplements to enhance muscle size and strength. The possibility of bigger, more defined muscles and improved athletic performance without the side effects normally associated with performance-enhancing substances; where do I sign up? Leading this new generation of sports nutrition are selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs). If you are among the throngs of iron-pushers searching online for some dietary “assistance”, compounds such as Andarine, Ostarine, and Cardarine are probably popping up progressively higher on your Google search, but caveat emptor, they are approved for medicinal purposes only and little is known about the consequences of long-term use.
Research into substances that can bind to androgen receptors (proteins found in numerous key tissues in the human body that regulate “male” hormones, such as testosterone) and induce muscular growth date back nearly a century, when chemists first discovered how to modify the testosterone molecule. In the late 1990’s, after decades of manipulating the testosterone molecule in an effort to develop SARMs, a privately-funded team of scientists developed a series of substances that were both non-steroidal (not derived from testosterone) and exhibited anabolic (promoting lean tissue growth) properties. With technological advancements aimed at improving oral bioavailability and decreasing toxicity, today virtually all major pharmaceutical companies produce variations of SARMs, specifically to address hormone abnormalities, muscle-wasting conditions, and age-related deterioration.
Research has shown that use of anabolic steroids can overtax vital organs, stress the hypothalamus-pituitary-testes axis (endocrine glands that are important for normal reproductive and immune system function), promote degradation of soft tissue, and intensify emotional and psychological issues. But due to their ability to be selective about their targets (in theory), SARMs may not have comparable harmful or permanent side effects. Furthermore, many SARMs can be taken orally (while most anabolic substances need to be injected). They also may not suppress the natural production of hormones and therefore not require as extensive of a recovery cycle, and there is some evidence to suggest they may promote soft tissue health. So does this mean SARMs offer all the muscle-building and metabolism-stoking benefits of anabolic steroids without the side effects?
While the research regarding the effects of SARMs in humans is limited, there have been a handful of clinical trials. The data is, almost unequivocally, not as encouraging as the marketing claims. Two studies have provided strong evidence that, while improving lean body mass, SARMs use does result in significant decreases in free and total testosterone levels, and a third study suggests that this effect may last for several years after use has ceased. In fact, the data suggesting SARMs use decreases endogenous production of hormones associated with male functions is so powerful that there has been some investigation into possibly using them as contraception. Other experimental research suggests that SARMs use may increase risk for some chronic health conditions. Even more ominous, recent research suggests that more than 60 percent of substances marketed as SARMs or “SARMs-like products” are not what the label and ingredient list suggest, and another 10 percent do not even have any active ingredients. Despite the hype as being a safer alternative to increase lean mass, all SARMs are currently illegal for use in dietary supplements and listed among the banned substances by the World anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and every other major amateur and professional sporting organization. Without groundbreaking evidence suggesting they are safe for long-term use, this is unlikely to change.
Due to recent findings suggesting that many products marketed and sold legally as dietary supplements are illegally adulterated with SARMs, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning about the use of substances claiming to promote lean muscle mass gains. As the leading trade association for the dietary supplement and functional food industry, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) has taken a proactive approach to raising awareness about the possible dangers of SARMs use with their “SARMsCanHarm” campaign.
The siren song of anabolic steroid results without the needle or the side effects may be powerful, but be an informed and responsible consumer; heed the warnings of the FDA and choose only supplements from trusted sources with scientific validation that promote long-term health.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders.