Easy Come, Easy Go
Available at: http://www.egypttoday.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=7558
Photo By: Khalid Habib
Sure, a pill or powder can drop the kilos or build muscle faster than the old-fashioned way (i.e. exercise), but is it worth risking your health? By Ethar El-Katatney
Everyone wants to be healthy. Everyone wants to look and feel great. But most of us are too lazy to find alternatives for our carbohydrate-laden, swimming-in-ghee meals, or find the time to visit the gym and actually sweat our way to being fit. Wouldn’t it be convenient to just magically shrink into that designer dress or grow muscles to rival Arnold Schwarzenegger’s?
The appeal of taking a little pill, powder or potion that ‘magically’ does just that — with no effort whatsoever on our part — is devilishly tempting. Add to that the fact that these physique-altering drugs are sold dirt cheap and can be bought by a 12-year-old with no raised eyebrows or any questioning whatsoever, and the temptation becomes almost impossible to resist.
Supplements are anything taken to either make up for a deficiency or strengthen the body. Pills, tablets, powders, bars and injections are all supplement forms readily available in the Egyptian market. They are split up into five main types: proteins, amino acids (the basic building blocks of proteins), fat burners, anabolics and steroids.
Anabolics and steroids are considered the most dangerous: they are listed as controlled substances in a number of countries and are banned by all major sports bodies. They are not, however, illegal in Egypt, although they are recognized as drugs. Their side effects can include acne, depression and insomnia, with the more serious potential effects being increased risk of kidney and liver problems, high blood pressure, pancreatic failure and infertility.
The other types of supplements, although far less risky to take, still pose a danger when taken without following instructions.
With barriers to imports decreasing every day, more and more supplements are flooding the market. Little education about the effects of these supplements, and little concern about what they do to their bodies on the inside as long as they look great on the outside, has created a generation of body-obsessed youth that could be facing serious health problems in the future.
Anabolics and Steroids
A stroll into any pharmacy will provide you with a dizzying array of vitamins, protein shakes, and more worryingly, anabolics and steroids, which are used to treat kidney problems and other serious health concerns. Unfortunately, many of these are abused by 18-40-year-old males who buy them to bulk themselves up, with the biggest offenders being in the 18-25-year-old age group, health experts say.
Dr. Mahmoud El-Shemy, a pharmacist at the Heliopolis branch of the national El-Ezaby chain, believes that the problem is much more widespread than people let on: “[I would say] that only one out of 1,000 people who buy anabolics such as Deca-Durabolin or Sustanon are doing so for medical reasons.”
Deca-Durabolin, an anabolic steroid more commonly known as “Deca,” is sold at all major pharmacies for a mere LE 8. Medically, it is used as treatment for those who have had organ transplants, and in particular kidney transplants.
Sustanon produces testosterone and helps build muscle mass. Unfortunately, this may result in hypogonadism, where the body decreases or stops production of the hormone naturally since it receives it from an outside source. Therefore, when the drug use is stopped, muscle percentage decreases and fertility problems may ensue.
A 23-year-old bodybuilder interviewed for this story found out after marriage that his sperm count was extremely low as a result of taking steroids. After a year of treatment, he had lost two thirds of his muscle mass.
Egypt Today purchased Deca-Durabolin over the counter at a local pharmacy without a single question being asked.
The more serious complications of abusing steroids —including kidney and liver problems — usually do not surface for three or four years. In addition, with most young Egyptians marrying only in their late 20s, many do not discover infertility problems until it is too late.
“Unfortunately,” continues El-Shemy, “in Egypt [males don’t care about the side effects] because they think [in the short term]. If they take a Deca injection combined with a Sustanon one [a certain number of] times a day, [they could] increase [their body weight by] 10 kilograms  in a week.”
Hany Abou Shady, head fitness manager at the Maadi branch of Gold’s Gym, agrees, adding that the desire to gain muscle mass is coupled with a lack of knowledge of what these drugs really do: “A-class [people] don’t [take anabolics or steroids] because they are educated. They read, [and] go online to check out side effects Education does make a difference.”
The degree to which people are educated is reflected in their decision to take anabolics and steroids. The highly educated understand the effects these supplements would have on their bodies, and are able to look beyond the bodybuilders in adverts, understanding that they did not end up looking the way they do by simply drinking a few protein shakes a day.
“Think logically,” explains Abou Shady. “The size of [their] muscles do not [result] from workouts, [good] nutrition and sleeping eight hours a day The size of an arm like that does not come from good sleep, good food, [and] drinking warm milk before they sleep.”
Sahar El-Guindy, a certified sport performance nutritionist (SPN), has been a nutrition manager for 10 years at Gold’s Gym, and is also certified by Apex — one of the most elite fitness groups in the world — as a fitness professional for compensation nutrition. She believes that bodybuilders understand and accept the side-effects that anabolics and other steroids have on their bodies in return for money, fame, and position.
“And don’t forget,” she adds “that [a] bodybuilder [is] a product. He has an army of doctors and nutritionists who test him all the time [to tell him what to take], they [tell] him the right cycles, [tell him] when to stop taking this and start taking that what things should not go together and things that should.” The average person, however, does not have such a luxury.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that there is no legal way to stop these consumers from buying these products. Medicines are given to anyone with the means to pay for them and the enforcement of prescriptions is not even on the horizon. Even if it was, pharmacies are not the only sources for buying supplements.
In the underground world of hazy sports politics, much goes on that reinforces the image that steroids aren’t bad. Sports coaches encourage their young charges to take steroids, and such practices can lead to extreme cases. A water polo champion divulged that while he was training, his coach would give him insulin shots that are effective in the body for 90 minutes so he would gain weight, regardless of the fact that it put him at a higher risk of developing diabetes later on in life. He did gain 15 kilograms, but after he stopped his figure changed and his body fat percentage became much higher than before.
El-Guindy explains that therein lies the problem. How do you convince youth that these supplements are bad for them if their own coaches are advocating their usage? “This is a coach,” she exclaims. “What business does he have [talking about] fitness or nutrition? When I take [a coach] and tell him to be a one-man show — telling him you’re going to be the fitness trainer, the nutrition consultant, [and] the technical trainer, what will he do? He’ll make it up [as he goes along].”
Local gyms that have very low membership fees also stock supplements that are not 100% safe. There are dealers that travel abroad and bring back these same products in bulk, saying that they are for personal use, then trade them to bodybuilders, gyms and trainers once they are in the country. Many dealers are well known in the market, with names, addresses and telephones numbers. “Just like drug dealers,” shrugs El-Guindy. There are rumors that as security checks tighten, dealers enlist the aid of air stewardesses in transporting these supplements for a fee, though nothing of the kind has ever been proven.
Protein and Amino Acid Supplements
It’s clear that anabolics and steroids are dangerous and that their usage is unhealthy and unwise, but what about proteins and amino acids, which have traditionally been touted as healthy?
The truth is that protein supplement usage, if moderated, is harm- less, and is even healthy in many cases, much like vitamins. However, incorrect usage may cause more harm than good. Without knowing their proper protein intake level, people may take far more than they need.
17-year-old Samir* started taking protein supplements when he was just 16 (*Name changed to protect privacy). Weighing in at 110 kilograms at the time, he wanted to lose weight and decided to take the healthy road — going to the gym and changing his eating habits. He lost 20 kilograms but realized that he now had a lot of extra, loose skin, and decided to gain more muscle to fill it out. He started drinking protein shakes, finding that they helped increase his muscle mass. Pleased with the results, he wanted to try more.
“I started buying muscle magazines which featured supplements advertised by amazing bodybuilders,” he explains. “So I ordered a nitrogen-based supplement online, and for the first couple of weeks I made such amazing muscle gains I started [mixing it] with other supplements. I took them for the recommended cycle of 12 weeks, but then I started having irregular heartbeat rhythms, and I felt light-headed and aggressive.”
His personal trainer then noticed that his eyes started getting red after workouts and found out that he had been mixing two very different types of supplements: one that widened veins and one that constricted them.
“My trainer told me I should get tested,” continues Samir. “So I did and I found out that my white blood cell count was below normal, as well as some other anomalies. I stopped taking all supplements and for a while I couldn’t train.”
Samir was lucky to have an observant trainer who was knowledgeable enough to realize that something was wrong, and lucky to be young enough that there would be no long-lasting effects. But not everyone is as fortunate.
Even if the supplements are not mixed, there is still a risk. Quite often even the ingredients may be harmful on their own. The product Hydroxycut, a weight loss supplement (marketed as a fat burner) taken mainly by men to increase metabolism and energy and by women to lose weight, includes ephedrine, which increases body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and palpitations, plays on the central nervous system and results in insomnia. Following significant criticism abroad for containing this ingredient which is traditionally used to treat asthma, Hydroxycut has now repackaged itself as ephedrine-free. However, few have noticed that it still contains the herb ma huang, which contains ephedrine as its principal active ingredient.
Fat burners are used mainly by females, who are sucked in by promises of losing weight and attaining the perfect body. Dietitians recommend them and they are available in pharmacies, despite the fact that many of these fat burners have not been certified by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
It would be unfair not to mention that the two most popular fat burners, Meridia and Xenical, are approved for use by the FDA. However, they do have side effects because of the way they work. Xenical, for example, works by preventing fat that is eatenduring meals from being broken down and absorbed by the body; the fat is instead excretedin the feces, which may result in severe diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urinary tract infections and gallstones.
The dangers posed to women through use of fat burners is decidedly less than the danger posed to men who take anabolics and steroids, and their use is far less widespread.Fat burners, when taken in recommended dosages and their effects closely monitored, are perfectly safe to use. It is only when their usage is abused, or they aren’t certified by the FDA, that they become just as dangerous.
It should also be mentioned that not all dietitians have their patients’ best interests at heart. A clinically obese 21-year-old was transferred to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and spent three days in a coma for very low blood circulation. The cause? Advice from her dietitian to take Thyroxine, a hormone secreted by the thyroid gland, in a desperate attempt to lose weight rapidly.
What to Do?
The picture painted of the use of these supplements is grim, and it is true that their consumption will harm people both in the short and long term. But with education, awareness and common sense, we can all avoid falling into the trap and mindset that we can look great without doing anything to get there.
Ultimately, anabolics and steroids are dangerous drugs. Other supplements are marginally safer, but can still cause problems if taken unsupervised.
Pharmacies and doctors also have a big role to play. El-Shemy explains how the concept of ‘patient consultation’ is catching on, where doctors in the pharmacies do their best to advise those who look like they are taking the drugs for non-medicinal purposes, explaining to them the side effects of the drugs and the danger of mixing them with others or taking them for a prolonged period of time.
It makes sense that what was easy to attain will also be easy to lose. Anabolics and steroids are short cuts that will just end up getting you lost, and protein supplements, if used incorrectly, may make you flounder for a while. Whether it’s an injection into your bloodstream or a peach-flavored powder that can be made into a hot or cold drink, yogurt, pancake, pudding or oatmeal, nothing will ever beat the long term, wholesome results gained from hard exercise and good eating habits. et