Nov. 21, 2000 -- Several studies in recent months have shown that the over-the-counter dietary supplement androstenedione, commonly known as "andro," does not improve athletic performance and may cause serious harm to the body. Researchers reporting in the Nov. 22 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association may have found another reason not to take the substance: Andro can contain a contaminant that tests positive for a banned steroid.
"Our findings question the purity of over-the-counter steroids," says study author Don Catlin, MD, of the Olympic Analytical Laboratory at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Very small amounts of steroids are absorbed by the body, so even a tiny amount of contaminant can result in a positive test."
Catlin notes that competitive athletes are scrupulously watched these days. "If you take this supplement and you test positive, you could be out of competition for two years," he tells WebMD. "The bottom line for athletes is that it is not safe to take anything."
Researchers divided 37 healthy men aged 20 to 44 into three groups to test how their bodies reacted to andro. The first group took 100 mg a day for a week, the second group took 300 mg a day for a week, and a third group did not consume andro at all.
Surprisingly, the urine of all 24 men who consumed andro contained 19-norandrosterone, a byproduct of the banned steroid nandrolone. Twenty of the men's samples contained enough of the steroid byproduct to test positive at the Olympics, according to Catlin.
"We wondered where the 19-norandrosterone came from, because it's not likely to be a metabolic byproduct of andro," he explains.
Catlin and colleagues decided to analyze the content of the andro capsules. What they discovered was that each capsule contained enough trace contaminant to produce a positive urine test for steroid use.
Catlin says the manufacturer of the andro cannot be blamed since the amount of the byproduct is far below the FDA levels for regulated drugs. And not all andro may be similarly contaminated, he says.
Yet, Catlin says the take-home message is that unregulated over-the-counter supplements may contain many unadvertised impurities. When Catlin's team tested seven different brands of andro, they found that actual amounts of andro differed from what advertisers claimed, and one dose contained testosterone, which is illegal, he reports.
"What dietary supplement customers are buying isn't always what they are getting," he says. "This is a case where the buyer must beware."
Andro has been alleged to increase muscle size and strength, and the supplement garnered headlines two years ago when baseball slugger Mark McGuire admitted using it. While Major League Baseball is reviewing the product, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Football League, the National Gym Association, the North American Boxing Federation, and professional tennis have banned the supplement.
Despite the controversy, the FDA allows andro and related products to be sold over the counter at health food stores, gyms, and grocery stores.
"We've seen a large rash of athletes testing positive for 19-norandrosterone in the last few years," Catlin says. "Many claimed they didn't take anything, but later admitted that they'd used andro or something similar."
Cynthia Kuhn, PhD, of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., reviewed the report for WebMD. She says the levels of nandrolone found in the andro capsules are not enough to be medically hazardous. But the important point is that actual contents of the supplements differ from what is advertised, she tells WebMD.
"This has been often speculated, but rarely tested," says Kuhn, who is professor of pharmacology in the department of pharmacology and cancer biology, and has written a book about supplements. "What is in these supplements is not what the advertisers say, and there are trace elements that can cause athletes trouble."
She says, "These supplements are drugs, even if people don't think of them as drugs."
The National Institutes of Health, the NFL, NCAA, U.S. Olympic Committee, Major League Baseball, and the Major League Baseball Players Association supported the study by Catlin's group at UCLA.