In the early 80s, rumors began to circulate about a new type of anabolic substance that was being used by elite Russian and East German athletes. This news was significant to American coaches and athletes because, at that time, Russian and East German athletes dominated most international sporting events. Not long after that, it was revealed that the mysterious anabolic substances used by the Russians were highly anabolic. When Russian articles about them were translated into English, it appeared that when compared to anabolic steroid drugs, the new substances were even more anabolic. This, as expected, soon got the attention of the bodybuilding community, who clamored to obtain the new Russian "anabolic." Some of that initial enthusiasm, however, was dampened when the Russian supplement turned out to be insect hormones. The typical reaction when learning that fact was "how can insect hormones possibly promote muscular growth?"
But a large body of literature from Russia appeared to prove that when compared to anabolic steroids, even popular steroids such as Dianabol, the substances, which turned out to be ecdysteroids, were even more potent than the steroids. The catch to this was that nearly all the published studies about ecdysteroids involved either isolated cell or in vitro studies or featured animals as study subjects. But a rule of science holds that what happens in a test tube or in animals isn't always replicated in human studies. Indeed, the results of most animal studies, especially that related to toxicity effects, often prove irrelevant to human physiology.
But a recent study that will be discussed later in this article appears to show that ecdysteroids do appear to offer anabolic effects. What caused initial confusion about them in this respect can be explained by early misconceptions of how ecdysteroids work. In insects, they are involved in a process called molting, which involves the shedding of the exoskeleton (insects wear their skeletons on the outside) that allows growth in the insect. As such, ecdysteroids in insects are clearly a growth-promoting hormone. But they also exist in plants, where they perform a different function. In plants, they serve to ward off, of all things, insects. As such, they are classified in plants as phytoalexins, or plant protecting substances. Another famous phytoalexin is resveratrol, which is found naturally in grapes, peanuts, berries, and red wine. Ecdysteroids first caught the attention of Russian chemists because they are similar in structure to steroids, such as testosterone, estrogen, and others. But they do differ from those human hormones and were not known to interact with either androgen or estrogenic receptors, although the latter isn't true anymore as we will see. Indeed, it's the interaction with a specific type of estrogen cell receptor called the estrogen-B receptor that explains all the possible anabolic effects that can be imparted by ecdysteroids. Of interest, other natural substances also interact with the estrogen-B receptor, such as soy products.
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