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Are steroids worth the risk?
The obsession with pumped-up gym physiques and six-packs is leading a lot of young Indians to risk their health with steroid-laced supplements.
Anyone who has been following the news probably has a picture of the typical steroid user: a top athlete trying to get an edge over the competition, or a young tryout desperate to make the cut.
But while those cases make headlines, the stereotype may be largely off base. A peek into one of the makeshift gyms that have mushroomed in small towns or a swanky one in the metros where personal trainers are the norm reveals that young Indians are not averse to pumping themselves with steroids to look good. It maybe for a part in a reality show, a walking bit on the ramp, or just to impress the gals in class.
"The amount of anabolic steroids used by Indian film actors, TV actors and ramp models must easily be five times more than what an Olympic athlete uses, " claims Rahul Bhatt, the young son of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt who is attached to an upmarket south Mumbai gym as a trainer. "I don't condone its use and I don't prescribe it, but it (consumption) happens all the time. "' And, with impunity - there is no ban or disgrace here.
Pooja Makhija, a nutritionist who is popular with the Bollywood crowd, calls the use of steroids an occupational hazard in tinsel town. "There are times when actors don't have enough time to achieve the kind of body needed for a role so they resort to steroids. " And, yes, she has noticed many an actor going in for a hair weave because of hair loss caused by abuse of steroids.
In medical terms, anabolic steroids are a class of drugs whose main ingredient is the male hormone, testosterone. They can increase lean muscle mass and bone density even while stimulating the release of the growth hormone. They are prescribed for patients with certain bone and protein deficiencies under strict medical guidance. Their consumption in extra doses could result in thinning of hair, beefy looks and, worse, malfunctioning kidneys and liver.
In July last year, the Food Safety & Standards Authority of India put out an advisory that products containing steroid/steroid-like substances could be making their way to India after being banned in the US. Most of these products are distributed through the internet rather than through a distributor network, said the FSSAI notice, quoting a warning from the US Food and Drug Administration. A list of over 60 such banned steroid-containing supplements, including BOSC Enterprises' Magna Drol, Competitive Edge Labs' X-tren, Rage RV 5, etc, is available on the US FDA website.
Surf the internet long enough and it's easy to come across websites that promise 90 capsules costing $79. 95 for an "unbeatable price of $47. 99". Some promise a liver protection dose along with the banned-in-the-US supplements.
The key to this mainstreaming of steroids is vanity. And some unscrupulous trainers cash in by promising clients to make them like what they see in the smokedglass gym mirror.
It doesn't stop at steroids. Protein shakes (sometimes but not always laced with steroids) have entered the daily diet of most gym-goers. Even hole-in-the-wall gyms, including the ones that are run out of basements or spare rooms, have shelves full of jars labelled 'Anabolic Weight Gaining Formula' and 'Get Big Quick'. These also have a huge market in towns and hamlets in the North where bodybuilding can be the route to a job - preferably a government job in the police or the railways under the sports quota - or a private one as a security guard.
Kamal is a 19-year-old whose gym instructor in the upmarket Napeansea Road locality of Mumbai prescribed what the norm in India now is - whey protein. "But when I went to buy it from the vendor that my instructor recommended, I was shown 10 other supplements that could apparently help me build my muscles within a month, " he says. Rahul Bhatt says that the market for anabolic steroids is so vast and profitable that "even the Russian mafia is into it".
The use of supplements is the highest among young people getting ready for college, says one trainer. "They have never worked out before and want big biceps before college starts. " Supplements are the obvious shortcut.
Those who use steroids can gain muscle mass at phenomenal rates and this is what lures the younger crowd. It could just be a drug that contains nandrolone, an anabolic steroid that is legally allowed in India and banned in many other countries, or it could be dietary supplements with cheesy names such as Susta-Test Depot or Finadex (which were banned in the US two years back). Says endocrinologist Shashank Joshi from Mumbai's Lilavati Hospital, "Ideally, a registered dietician should recommend supplements but here anabolic steroids are recommended by gym instructors or by primary-care physicians as well.
"Preventive cardiologist Aashish Contractor, who was a member of the physical rehabilitation team overseeing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's health, says, "Youngsters are taking supplements left, right and centre but it's not illegal. They are not doing it unknowingly like some athletes claim they were. They are taking it knowingly and with full knowledge of what these supplements may contain. " The only reason, he feels, their use is rarely mentioned in the open is because "men like to claim their physique is natural".
The effects are already being noticed in hospitals emergency rooms. In the past two years, Ritika Samaddar, chief of dietetics at Max Hospitals, New Delhi has treated three youngsters admitted with adverse effects of steroids. "Steroids disturb the metabolic system and harm the liver and pancreas. Too much protein can also damage the kidney or result in formation of kidney stones. Young adults are developing diabetes because of prolonged use of steroids, " she says.
At least one or two of the patients that Pravin Saxena sees at his wellness clinic in Hyderabad every week are users of supplements like creatine or whey protein. "They come to me when they are unable to lose weight despite working out a lot and taking the supplements. When we conduct a urine test, we find high levels of albumin, which is not normally detected in the urine of people who don't take supplements, " he says.
Mumbai's much-sought-after fitness trainer Mickey Mehta says 30 per cent of gym-goers opt for supplements for quick results. While supplements are not dangerous, they can lead to several health problems if taken unmonitored, says Mehta, adding that his gyms only promote weight loss through natural means.
Experts are worried that people on the lookout for a shortcut are missing the healthy options. Those who work out need about 100 grams of protein a day which can be got by eating four to six egg whites, 250 grams of chicken or fish and a bowl of the humble dal every day, say nutrition experts. "Only if someone is vegetarian or has a busy work life can they be recommended protein shakes or other supplements, that too under medical supervision, " says Samaddar.
Time will no doubt eventually paper over the explosive charges involving steroid use by athletes, but a performance-enhanced generation of Botoxed, Viagraed, LASIKed, liposuctioned, tooth-whitened people will probably not stop at anything.
WHAT IS A FOOD SUPPLEMENT?
A supplement is something added to the diet, typically to make up for a nutritional deficiency. Ideally, it should be used as a substitute for eating well. Supplements include the following:
Vitamins I Amino Acids I Minerals I Herbs I Other Botanicals
COMMON SPORTS SUPPLEMENTS
Vitamins are essential for the body to function properly, but there may be a link between the Bvitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, B-12 and folate) and performance in high-level athletes.
Caffeine has been used by endurance athletes for years as a way to stay alert and improve endurance.
For some athletes, creatine supplementation improves repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise, such as sprinting, weight lifting, or power sports.
Research hasn't found any improvement in strength, endurance, reaction time, anaerobic capacity, or recovery time with ephedrine supplements.
Glucosamine has been used to treat osteoarthritis and helps stimulate cartilage. But does it help athletic performance?
Glutamine (L- Glutamine) is classified as a nutritional supplement and is not regulated or banned by most sports organisations.
Hydration and Sports Drinks:
Adequate fluid intake for athletes is essential for comfort, performance and safety. The longer and more intensely you exercise, the more important it is to drink the right kind of fluids.
Protein is a necessary nutrient to repair overworked and damaged muscles. Athletes often bulk up on protien to enhance their endurance.
There is clear evidence that shows an athletic performance benefit of ribose supplements.
(Additional reporting by Bharati Dubey, Neha Bhayana & Mansi Choksi)
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