Every now and then a supplement comes along that defies the odds. In other words, it actually works the way its advertisers claim and at the dosages recommended on the bottle. This is far from the norm, though. Let's be honest. Over the past decade, how many sports supplements have attained universal, unprecedented acceptance as being effective? One? Two? Remember, we said to be honest. In our opinion, the only clear-cut anabolic and ergogenic aid to come out of the 90s is creatine.
And the nice thing about this supplement is its simplicity. Creatine is a single ingredient - no magical delivery system is required to realize its effects - and has an extremely low toxicity / side effect profile. Just knock back 10-20 grams a day for one week (or three grams per day for a month) and experience measurable gains. It's effects are pretty phenomenal, indeed.
But hold on a minute. What about whey protein, glutamine, ribose and methoxyisoflavone? Four words here, comrades, and all in the form of a question: Is there available data in resistance athletes? Despite these products' almost widespread acceptance as performance / physique enhancers, there are no data in bodybuilders to support this contention. Hey, don't shoot the messenger! We actually think some of the new stars may work, but until we have "population-specific data" (i.e. effects in athletes) to point at, these supplements will continue to get the fuzzy eyebrow from skeptical consumers and exercise scientists. Anyway, wouldn't it be fascinating to start 2002 by finding a safe supplement with a surfeit of research that has been somehow overlooked?
As fate would have it, we recently got our hands on a few inches worth of Soviet-translated research on a water soluble, sugar-like derivative of cholesterol. According to these data, it's orally active, effective at low dosages (assuming the proper starting material is used prior to extraction), non-toxic, and in some people exerts noticeable effects in less than 10 days. No kidding. This may just be a legitimate - yet forgotten - performance enhancer. It's called 20-hydroxyecdysone (20-EC), and we can honestly say this stuff is intriguing.
What Is It?
As a group, ecdysteroids are naturally occurring, polyhydroxylated plant sterols that have a plethora of non-hormonal anabolic and ergogenic activities in mammals. Their structure includes three hexane (6 carbon) rings and one pentane (5 carbon) ring. Initially thought of as merely "specialized insect hormones" that promoted molting, recent research has suggested that ecdysteroids should be considered a new class of sterol-based essential vitamins (Slama et al., 1996).
The most biologically active form of the ecdysteroids is thought to be 20-EC and turkesterone, both of which are harvested from Rhaponticum carthamoides, or Leuzea, a thistle-like, perennial herbaceous plant that grows in parts of Central Asia (mainly Southern Siberia and Bulgaria).
Like many of its herbal brothers and sisters, 20-EC has been used for centuries as a folk remedy to treat general weakness, fatigue and to improve recuperation after various diseases. But unlike most other herbs, 20-EC has a bevy of experimental evidence supporting its effects. In fact, 20 years ago the Ministry of Public Health in the former Soviet Union granted 20-EC permission to be used for "raising the mental and physical working ability" as a pharmacological preparation (Slama et al., 1996). Too bad it took the US two decades to get a clue.
What Does It Do?
In contrast to anabolic-androgenic steroids that exert their effects hormonally, 20-EC and turkesterone appear to have several different mechanisms of action. In a nutshell, they appear to act as potent "adaptogenic" compounds, enabling athletes to increase their workloads, improve recovery and stimulate gains in strength and stamina during periods of intense physical activity. In other words, they appear to promote a "super training" effect.
Typically, purported wonder supplements like this one are teased out of research from other species and / or from trauma patients, which can be quite different from the typical trainee. Not so with ecdysterone. During the past 20 years, at least seven different Eastern Bloc scientific teams have completed comprehensive research studies on 20-EC. As a result this research, data have been collected on mice, rats, cats, birds, cattle and, yes, humans - top level male and female athletes, to be exact.
Here is a list of some of the effects observed from ecdysterone supplementation (Chermnykh et al., 1988; Syrov et al., 1977; Kuzmenko et al., 1999; Slama et al., 1995; Mosharrof et al., 1987; Turova et al., 1974; Gerasyuta et al., 1980; Syrov et al., 1988; Syrov et al., 1985; Kurmukov et al., 1988; Smetanin, 1986; Simakin et al., 1988; Semeykin et al., 1991):
Effects Observed From Ecdysterone Supplementation:
- Increased synthesis of fast and slow twitch muscle fiber proteins
- Increased body weight via enhanced muscle to fat ratio
- Improved removal of lactic acid
- Increased muscle glycogen concentrations
- Enhanced ATP and PCr resynthesis
- Increased appetite
- Increased red blood cell number
- Improved quality of sleep
- Improved tolerance to thermal stress
- Stimulation of osteogenesis (bone growth)
- Improvements in cardiac function
- Anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects
- Mild anti-coagulant effects
- Enhanced resistance to infections
- Improved food conversion index (amt of food required to produce a constant unit of living mass)
- Slight stimulant effect on the CNS without elevating blood pressure
Are There Any Side Effects?
The most intriguing part about 20-EC is that, despite its wide spectrum of biologic activities, the benefits seem to occur without causing androgenic (body hair, male pattern baldness, etc.) or anti-gonadotrophic (testicle-shrinking) side effects. This is not totally unexpected considering that 20-EC does not appear to bind to androgen or estrogen receptors. Therefore, men can use it without risk of developing gynecomastia ("bitch tits"), and women can apparently use it without risk of masculinization.
In fact, the safety of 20-EC is unquestioned in Eastern literature, even at doses much higher than the 30-50 mg / day necessary to induce anabolic and ergogenic effects. As far as we are aware, not a single athlete in any research study to date reported having subjective side effects during supplementation with 20-EC. There were also no objective changes in blood work routinely used to assess side effects (i.e., resting hormone levels, blood lipids or tissue [liver] enzymes).
At this point, some of the more suspicious readers are probably asking the million-dollar question: What's the difference (if any) between all the 20-EC products on the market? Very simply put - quality. You see, to extract 20-EC from Russian Rhaponticum is an expensive proposition; it costs about $6,000 a kilogram to do it right. This explains why knock-off products using inferior material (typically derived from Chinese sources) are widespread. There are even companies using Chinese 20-EC that reference the Russian data in their advertisements. Misleading? It is in our book. And the reason is simple: to enhance their profit margin (Chinese 20-EC is only several hundred dollars per kilo).
Do we need more data on the effects of 20-EC and turkesterone in bodybuilders? Of course - what supplement doesn't? And right or wrong, research published outside of the US always seems to get the fuzzy eyebrow. The "old school" folks in the industry are quick to point out that, even though turkesterone is new, ecdysterone is not - that it's the same crap that came out in the 80s. Absolutely not true.
The difference in the quality of the extract from then to now is enormous! As a matter of fact, in the 80s people tried ecdysterone, found out that it didn't work, and never bought it again. Today, authentic turkesterone exhibits sales that are largely from repeat buyers - which says a lot. We may be seeing a situation where those "in the know" continue to experience effects while others are left "out of the loop". Only products on the market that contain active fractions of both 20-EC and turkesterone - the latter of which may prove to be the most anabolic - appear advantageous. [Ed note: Pinnacle's EcDyBol appears to be the only ecdysteroid product to currently contain actual turkesterone with active fractions of 20-EC as well.]
Although more work needs to be done, real 20-EC and turkesterone appear to have promise as anabolic and ergogenic aids. And assuming you train hard and don't eat like George Foreman, you should feel its effects in less than four weeks of use. The bottom line is that, when it comes to supplements, it's not often that you get something (increases in performance) for nothing (lack of side effects). It happened with creatine, and it seems to be happening with certain forms of 20-EC.
Feedback from consumers suggests that to optimize the effects of 20-EC two things seem to be necessary: 1) a diet that consists of ~ 1 gram of protein / lb. of bodyweight, and 2) somewhat higher dosages than are listed on the bottle (especially for heavier athletes); this however, we cannot actually recommend.