Hormones Used in Dieting

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I n 2004, Forbes magazine reported that the thirty-two teams in the National Football League had an operating income of 851 million dollars on revenue of 5.3 billion dollars. As a result, players on professional sports teams are making millions. In 2003, the average salary for a Major League Baseball player was 2,555,476 dollars, amazingly high but not even the highest in professional sports. Players in the National Basketball Association in 2003 brought in an average of 4.5 million dollars a year. This is big-time money, and the players in these leagues are big-time athletes who work hard to keep their bodies at the peak of physical performance. Many times, players do more than just eat right and exercise to stay physically competitive; they look for alternative means to enhance performance. Most often, these alternatives come in the form of supplements ranging from simple protein shakes to manufactured hormones. However, it is not just these professional athletes using hormone supplements. Rather, many "ordinary" people are using them to lose weight and increase muscle mass. Whether it's a "weekend warrior" who wants to make a big play on his company's softball team or a "soccer mom" wanting to fit into a dress for a high-school reunion (or indeed a soccer dad or a female weekend warrior), hormone manipulation has become big news and big business in dieting culture.

The most important aspect to this new method of dieting is an increase in knowledge regarding the body. The understanding of the human body and all the many ways it works has improved recently. This increased knowledge has provided people with the ability to manipulate their bodies in new and more effective ways. We now better understand how the body utilizes carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and what this means for the performance and development of the body. With scientific discoveries over the past century, we also better understand how hormones control the body, and scientists now have the ability to artificially produce hormones. As a result, the use of artificial hormones in the sporting world has become a major concern for owners, coaches, players, fans, and legislatures. In March 2005, Congress held a special hearing on the use of steroids in baseball. Their concern was about fairness in the game but also about the message that doping controversies send to young fans. According to Democratic Representative Henry A. Waxman from California,

There is an absolute correlation between the culture of steroids in high schools and the culture of steroids in major league clubhouses. Kids get the message when it appears that it's okay for professional athletes to use steroids. If the pros do it, college athletes will, too. And if it's an edge in college, high school students will want the edge, too.

(Waxman 2005)

In the human body, steroid hormones are derived from cholesterol. The most common hormones used by professional and amateur athletes today are steroidal hormones, thyroid hormones, and human growth hormones (hGHs). Understanding the way hormones work is imperative to understanding how they give athletes an edge in body shaping and athletic performance. While these hormones are commonly found in the human body at a regulated level, athletes exploit normal hormonal effects by taking artificially produced hormones and, thereby, greatly increasing the amount of hormones in the body. It is at this point that hormones begin to change the physical composition of the body.

The steroids used for performance enhancement are termed "anabolic steroids." These are converted into testosterone by the body. Steroids can be administered by mouth, injection, or in cream form. Users of steroids often administer the steroids in "cycles," which consists of taking steroids for a period of time then stopping for another period and starting again. Often users combine various types of steroids, hoping for an increased effect. The use of steroids can be dangerous with a long list of possible side effects, ranging from balding and mood swings to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

There are two main steroid hormones used by athletes: cortisol, produced in the adrenal cortex, and testosterone, produced by the gonads. These two steroids have different functions and affect different parts of the body. Cortisol is produced by the body in times of stress and helps the body quickly create extra energy. In excess, cortisol stimulates glucose production, which is then converted to fat. There are products marketed to help reduce the amount of cortisol in the body, therefore, reducing the amount of glucose production, fat storage, and overeating. These products, such as Relacore and CortiSlim, are classified as herbal supplements and claim to balance cortisol in times of stress but have not been proven effective. Cortisol is used by people looking to lose weight. Testosterone, on the other hand, is carried through the blood to muscle tissue; there the steroids stimulate protein synthesis and act to increase muscle size and strength.

Steroids can produce dramatic muscle changes. For example, one study showed that supraphysiologic doses of testosterone, especially when combined with strength training, increase fat-free mass, muscle size, and strength in normal men . . . [t]he combination of strength training and testosterone produced greater increases in muscle size and strength than were achieved with either intervention alone. The combined regimen of testosterone and exercise led to an increase of 6.1 kg in fat-free mass over the course of i0 weeks.

This is one of the effects athletes and bodybuilders are looking to achieve when using steroids because increased muscle size and strength leads to hitting balls farther, running faster, jumping higher, and lifting more.

A third hormonal supplement, hGH, also known as somatotropin, is synthesized and secreted by the anterior pituitary gland. hGH can directly affect cells that have a receptor specific for hGH and more importantly it has an effect on the liver, stimulating it to produce IGF-i (insulin-like growth factor 1). IGF-i has important effects on body mass and size; it stimulates bone growth, as well as protein synthesis in muscle cells. hGH is essential for postnatal growth and development, and its prevalence generally decreases in the human body with age. When hGH is used as a supplement, it can act to eliminate fat and increase muscle. One study found, for example, that "administration of GH alone or in combination with IGF-I caused a greater increase in fat-free mass and a greater reduction in fat mass than those achieved by diet and exercise alone" (Thompson et al. 1998: 1481). This result is the reason hGH is used by those looking to lose weight and gain muscle.

hGH is not available over the counter, but many companies offer supplements that supposedly increase the secretion of hGH. One in particular, GH+Releaser, claims to increase hGH levels by 402 percent and strengthen the immune system, reduce wrinkles, heighten sexual potency, enhance energy, improve sleep, sharpen the memory, reduce fat, increase lean body mass, and promote healing (GH+Releaser 2003). hGH has been proven to be effective in promoting weight loss and increases in muscle mass, but the long-term effects of hGH have yet to be discovered. Supplements claiming to increase hGH release have not been proven effective and may hold little or no benefit and also may be dangerous.

Finally, people may also use and abuse thyroid hormone, which has a major effect on metabolism, mainly on fat and carbohydrate metabolism. It acts within the small intestine and on fat cells to raise metabolic rate. Diet companies rely on these claims to promote products that they claim will act on the thyroid. For example, bodybuilding.com makes a claim that using thyroid supplements is great because you can regulate and optimize your thyroid so it performs at a higher level than it can on its own. And when you do this, suddenly body fat will make like the office slacker when it's time to work weekends—it'll be nowhere to be found.

(Anon. Fat Loss Help)

This is the type of statement many people use to justify the use of thyroid supplements, but the efficacy and safety of these supplements is not proven. Thyroid hormone is prescribed by doctors to treat hypothyroidism, but its use for anything other than this is not recommended.

People take a risk each time they use one of these performance-enhancing hormones or supplements. Not only are they banned by most athletic organizations, some of them are illegal without prescription, and ultimately they can be very dangerous. Those using hormones and supplements may be putting their health and life in danger to achieve a level of physical performance or physical feature. These hormones are essential at normally regulated levels, but when artificially increased they can wreak havoc on the body.

SLG/Darren Johnson

See also Hormone; Metabolism

References and Further Reading

Anon. "Fat Loss Help," bodybuilding.com, available online at <http://bodybuilding.com/store/fatloss.htm> (accessed November 28, 2006).

Bhasin, S., Storer, T.N., Berman, N., Callegari, C., Clevenger, B., Phillips, J., Bunnell, T.J., Tricker, R., Shirazi, A. and Casaburi, R. (1996) "The Effects of Supraphysiological Doses of Testosterone on Muscle Size and Strength in Normal Men," New England Journal of Medicine 335 (1): 1-7.

GH+Releaser (2003) available online at <http:// www.pureghreleaser.com/index.html> (accessed November 28, 2006).

Thompson, J.L., Butterfield, G.E., Gylfadottir, U.K., Yesavage, J., Marcus, R., Hintz, R.L., Pearman, A., and Hoffman, A.R. (1998) "Effects of Human Growth Hormone, Insulin-Like Growth Factor I, and Diet and Exercise on Body Composition of Obese Postmenopausal Women," Journal of Clinical Endocrinological Metabolism 83 (5): 1477-84.

Waxman, Henry W. (2005) "Restoring Faith in America's Pastime: Evaluating Major League Baseball's Efforts to Eradicate Steroid Use," Committee on Government Reforms. U.S. House of Representatives, 108th Congress, March 17, available online at <http:// www.businessofbaseball.com/steroidhearings/Wax-manOpeningStatement.pdf> (accessed March 11, 2007).

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