Chuck, thanks for debunking the myths of certain natural products to build muscles and increase libidos. So do any work? – Sincerely, Tom F., Alaska

Ever since the Food and Drug Administration banned anabolic steroid-based products and pulled them from store shelves in 2005, a lot of testosterone-boosting, muscle-building products touted as natural miracle alternatives have flooded the marketplace.

Last week, I shared information about some bogus “muscle in a bottle” claims and ingredients. I listed a half-dozen or so ingredients (including herbs) to avoid when purchasing supplements, based upon health reasons and risks (I also would add dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, and L-arginine to those).

We must resist the temptation to succumb to tantalizing claims and quick fixes. We must not be so eager to gain muscle and mojo or lose weight and fat that we subject our bodies to harmful agents and are willing to jeopardize our health.

At the same time, we must remember that as men grow older, testosterone levels diminish, which is directly related to other aging adversities, ailments and health risks, such as decreased muscle mass, energy levels and libido and increased belly fat, risk of benign prostatic enlargement, risk of prostate cancer and even risk of dementia.

Hence, there is some justification for seeking natural means of boosting levels of testosterone and growth hormone – the body’s two most potent muscle-building hormones. Here are some ingredients that do work, according to Men’s Health magazine and many other medical and university journal studies:

Multivitamin/multimineral formula. The basics often are overlooked but so critical to muscle growth and health. Regardless of how good your diet is, odds are you aren’t getting all the nutrients your body and muscles need. Vitamins and minerals are used in every facet of metabolism, muscle development and protein synthesis.

Vitamins C and E. In particular, these vitamins (indeed, antioxidants) can minimize the damage that free radicals impose upon your exercising body and are used to speed up exercise recovery by reducing post-workout inflammation.

L-glutamine. As the most abundant amino acid in muscle tissue, it can be up to 40 percent depleted after a strenuous workout. Foods containing L-glutamine include egg whites, cottage cheese, milk, peanuts, barley, beef, corn, cabbage, poultry, raw parsley, raw spinach, soy and yogurt.

Creatine (powder, not liquid). Creatine is an amino acid that helps to supply energy to all cells in the body, primarily muscle. Repeated studies (e.g., in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise) have shown that creatine boosts muscle mass and strength. Paul Greenhaff, Ph.D., professor of muscle metabolism at the University of Nottingham in England, told Men’s Health that because creatine is an “osmotically active substance,” it pulls water into your muscle cells, which increases protein synthesis. But that also results in weight gain (about 2 to 4 pounds of water in the first week of supplementation) before subsequent muscle gains in proportion to one’s workout; otherwise, it’s all water weight. Greenhaff and other experts recommend paying for quality, 100 percent pure creatine powder – rather than mixes with electrolytes and other ingredients – and stirring it into fruit juices, which raises insulin levels and aids creatine upload into the muscle.

Beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate, or HMB. The branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine constitute more than one-third of muscle protein. Leucine is responsible for multiple important roles, such as protein metabolism, insulin action, glucose homeostasis and recovery from exercise. HMB is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine and, like creatine, boosts energy, metabolism and protein synthesis. A 2003 review of studies on 250 nutritional supplements, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, concluded that only two supplements, creatine and HMB, had evidence to support their use as lean muscle builders. Moreover, a 2008 extensive analysis in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism of a host of HMB studies concluded similarly regarding HMB’s efficacy. To be fair, however, some studies conflicted with those positive results, leaving experts to vary on HMB’s overall effectiveness.

A few years back, Iron Man magazine highlighted how there are natural (plant-based) testosterone boosters, too, which have been around for centuries, including extracts such as chrysin, nettle root, Mucuna pruriens, red maca and certain plant lignins, which inhibit the aromatization (conversion) of testosterone to estrogen or offer some other testosterone-boosting effects. But each one must be considered on its own merit and claims, backed again by reputable research.

And as far as mojo is concerned, according to Dr. Natasha Turner – founder of Clear Medicine, which is a wellness boutique in Toronto, and also the author of the best-selling book “The Hormone Diet” – “two herbs in particular, maca and ashwagandha, have shown promise for increasing libido in both sexes.” Korean Panax ginseng (particularly the red variety) also has shown considerable promise for men, according to The Journal of Urology. Men’s Health reports that ginseng also increases testosterone, which also suppresses the hormone prolactin, which can cause impotence.

But remember that nothing beats a balanced diet with all the basic food groups. Supplements are exactly what they denote: supplements. And if you can’t verify their claims by legitimate scientific and medical studies and experts in the fields of health and fitness endorsing them, then that’s three strikes against them, and they should be out of your reach for consumption consideration.

Most of all, before you add or make any major changes to your diet, including supplements, consult your physician, pharmacist or health practitioner, especially if you are mingling with hormone levels and taking any medication regularly. Lastly, check out, which writes reviews on muscle supplements.

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