Testosterone Production — The Elemental Facts
An Interview With Victor Conte
by Nelson Montana
As athletes, our workouts take precedence over just about anything. We may occasionally cut class or call in sick for work, but miss a workout? Not on your life. Likewise, we're so very, very careful about how we eat. Most of us know exactly how much protein is contained in a 3.5 ounce can of tuna, or how many grams of fat there are in an average chicken breast (skinless). Yep, we know what we're doing.
Read a book? Nahhh. But show us a new article about how the nasal hairs of a certain species of Mississippi mule raise testosterone levels, and we'll study it with all the intensity of a doctor preparing for his board exams. Yeah, there ain't much you can slip past us.
Well then, why is it that many of us have testosterone levels that approximate that of a campfire girl, and GH levels that are only one or two nanograms higher than a dead man's?
Nutritionist/scientist Victor Conte thinks he knows why. Conte and his company, Balco Labs, have found that, for all our attention to diet, most of us are deficient in a couple of key areas and when these deficiencies are rectified, increases of free testosterone of up to 30% are possible, along with impressive increases in IGF-1 (a marker of GH levels).
Now, this isn't some testosterone pie in the sky, hocus-pocus, typical supplement manufacturer scam either. He's got the studies to back it up, and it's more than likely that you could experience the same kind of increases in testosterone and GH production by using his very economically priced supplement.
What do you need to do to experience these tremendous leaps in T-production? The answer, my friend, is elemental:
NM: So, Victor, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and some background on Balco Laboratories.
VC: I'm the founder and executive director of Balco Laboratories in Burlingame, California. Balco has been in existence for about fifteen years now. We specialize in mineral and trace element assessment and do research with elite Olympic and professional athletes.
NM: That's pretty impressive. In what capacity do you work with the athletes?
VC: We provide a comprehensive mineral and trace element assessment and, based upon the athletes' test results, we make specific nutritional supplementation recommendations.
NM: And I understand you've also worked with some of the players on the Denver Broncos?
VC: Yes. In 1997, we provided testing and consultation for over 250 NFL players, including the entire Denver Broncos Super Bowl championship team, as well the entire Miami Dolphins team, including their coaches and trainers.
NM: Football players are often considered among the athlete "elite." Did you find that many of them had mineral deficiencies?
VC: Absolutely! For example, more than 70% of the 250 NFL players we tested were deficient in both zinc and magnesium. Assessing mineral and trace element status is a difficult task. So, we analyze the elements in several different biological fluids and tissues [red blood cells, plasma, whole blood, urine, etc.]. A different type of information is obtained from each of these compartments. In addition, if an athlete is very dehydrated or has used anabolic agents, they will have an elevated hematocrit [thickened blood] and this will effect their mineral balance.
NM: Now, I know that certain anabolic steroids like Deca Durabolin are known to thin the blood. Is this thicker viscosity caused by a backlash of coming off steroids?
VC: Probably not. We recently tested 24 professional bodybuilders that participated or attended the 1998 San Francisco Pro Invitational. We work with most of the top IFBB bodybuilders, including Flex Wheeler, Ronnie Coleman, Kevin Levrone, Milos Sarcev, Mike Matarazzo, etc. The morning after the San Francisco show, we collected blood samples from 21 of the competitors, and among this group we did not find many with an elevated hematocrit. I think there were only two bodybuilders that were above the normal range. We expected to see a higher percentage of red blood cells to total whole blood volume, but we really didn't find that.
NM: Interesting. So what you're saying is the use of anabolic steroids didn't have as much of a detrimental effect in the pro bodybuilders as you expected?
VC: Well, at least on that particular parameter. The most interesting finding with the professional bodybuilders was a significant reduction in HDL cholesterol levels. Out of 24 tested, six of these athletes had a less than detectable level! Now, when you combine that with the fact that some of these athletes had a total cholesterol level of around 300....
NM: Yikes! That leaves a lot of LDL!
VC: The normal ratio for cholesterol/ HDL is less than five to one. The mean average of the pro bodybuilders' HDL levels was 15 mg/dL, whereas the normal range is a level greater than 34 mg/dL.
NM: Obviously, most pro bodybuilders are on steroids almost non-stop. Have you tested athletes who have done occasional cycles?
VC: Some of the pro bodybuilders we've worked with had been "off" of anabolic steroids for as long as three months at the time they were tested. We found a very broad range of testosterone levels in this group. A few of the athletes' endogenous testosterone levels came back to within the normal range in just a few weeks. The normal range for serum testosterone is 260-1,000 ng/dL. One of the athletes, after being off of anabolic agents for over three months, was still very low at 77 ng/dL.
NM: No good. Then again, you never know how long they were "on" before that three month break.
VC: Exactly. However, we found a number of interesting things concerning serum total testosterone levels. One pro bodybuilder had a level of 21,000 ng/dL! Another bodybuilder had a level so low it couldn't be detected. The average testosterone levels of the 24 pro bodybuilders was about 3,500 ng/dL. We discovered that the bodybuilder with the undetectable level had been using Halotestin. This anabolic steroid should be avoided because it completely shuts down the production of endogenous testosterone and has long lasting and enduring negative effects upon the endocrine system.
Another interesting finding among the 24 pro bodybuilders is that 16 of them were also taking growth hormone. Eight of these 16 were also taking Nolvadex. What we discovered is that Nolvadex reduces the effect of the growth hormone—as measured by IGF-1 levels—by about 50%.
NM: So by using Nolvadex to avoid the aromatization of steroids, they were negating the effects of growth hormone supplementation.
VC: Absolutely. You would be much better off using Teslac [testalactone] to reduce the aromatization.
NM: What would be a normal growth hormone level for an average 30-year-old man?
VC: Growth hormone levels are age dependent. The levels begin to decline significantly about 30 years of age. The normal ranges are as follows: For ages 16-24 it's 182-780 ng/mL, for ages 25-39 it's 140-492 ng/mL, and for ages 40-54 it drops all the way down to 90-360 ng/mL. We recently conducted a study at Western Washington University with 18- to 24-year-old NCAA football players, and the average IGF-1 level was around 400 ng/mL.
NM: Would you recommend GH supplementation for older athletes?
VC: I don't condone the use of anabolic steroids or growth hormone. However, I know of a number of athletes who use growth hormone, and most of them are reporting tremendous benefits. A few NFL players who have been caught using anabolic steroids have switched to using growth hormone by itself. Some of the older players in their mid-30s are also using growth hormone.
NM: Only in pro football would somebody in their 30s be considered old!
VC: A few of the older athletes feel that GH supplementation has helped them extend their competitive career. I know a pro bodybuilder named Emeric Delezeg who's 47 years of age who supplements with GH, and he maintains a level of around 400 ng/mL. This is the level of a man twenty years younger.
NM: The problem with GH is that very soon after the cessation of its intake, GH levels drop right back down, do they not?
NM: What about the propensity for external intake of GH to accelerate tumor growth?
VC: If you have a very high level, that may be the case. But, a normal level of around 400 should not increase the risk.
NM: So, if a 40-year-old were to raise his level to that of a 20-year-old...
VC: I don't see much of a risk in that case. However, more research is necessary.
NM: Well, that's encouraging. Let me switch over to a related topic. I understand that Balco Laboratories has recently conducted research on an interesting new product called ZMA.
VC: Yes, ZMA is a special zinc-magnesium formulation. The study was conducted at Western Washington University under the direction of Lorrie Brilla, PhD. The title of the abstract is "A Novel Zinc and Magnesium Formulation [ZMA] Increases Anabolic Hormones and Strength in Athletes." It will be published in the Sports Medicine, Training and Rehabilitation Journal, November 1998 [in press]. Dr. Brilla has summarized the study results as follows: "A group of competitive NCAA football players who took ZMA nightly during an eight-week spring training program had 2.5 times greater strength gains than a group on the team taking a placebo. Pre- and post-leg strength measurements were made using a Biodex isokinetic dynamometer. The strength differences may have been mediated by the anabolic hormone increases in the ZMA group. The ZMA group had 30% increases in free and total testosterone levels, compared to 10% decreases in the placebo group. The ZMA group had a slight increase in IGF-1 levels, compared to a 20% decrease in the placebo group. This study shows that anabolic hormone and strength increases can be induced in already strength-trained athletes by using a novel zinc-magnesium preparation compared to a placebo."
NM: I guess the big question is, what makes ZMA different from a zinc and magnesium supplement I could buy at my local health food store?
VC: Probably the biggest difference is what ZMA does not contain. Let me briefly explain. We started out doing mineral assessments of elite Olympic and professional athletes. We determined what their deficiencies were and then made time- and dosage-specific recommendations. We even advised them regarding the forms with the best absorption. The oxides, glucates and sulphates are very poorly absorbed as compared to the aspartates, glycinates, and monomethionines, which have superior absorption. So, the athletes purchased some health food store supplements and took them as recommended. They returned to the laboratory after a period of 60 days and were retested. We found no change in their blood values and, at first, we couldn't figure what was going on. So, we asked them to bring their supplements to the laboratory so we could analyze them. Well, we found something quite amazing. Ninety percent of these products contained a level of calcium between 600-1,000 mg that was not disclosed on the label of the bottle. We contacted the manufacturers and asked them why the capsules contained extra calcium.
NM: Don't they use it as a binder?
VC: Yes, we were informed that they use either dicalcium phosphate or calcium sulphate as a filler. We were also told that this has been an industry standard for over 25 years. The problem is that calcium significantly inhibits the absorption of almost all other minerals and trace elements by a factor of up to 60-70%. So you could buy a very good form of chelated zinc and the absorption will be very low because of the calcium filler that is not disclosed on the label.
NM: If you are working with very specific ratios, should the supplements be taken on an empty stomach?
VC: That's a very good question. The answer is YES! Mineral supplements should be taken on a fasted empty stomach. The most effective way to administer zinc supplementation is at night, about 30 minutes before bedtime.
NM: Why is that?
VC: Zinc is a very anabolic element. Its effect on healing, tissue repair, and muscle growth is maximized during sleep. The largest daily burst of natural growth hormone occurs during stage 3 and 4 sleep (about an hour and a half after going to sleep). The chief synergists that potentiate the effect of growth hormone are insulin, testosterone, zinc, and magnesium. So, this is the time you want zinc and magnesium at a peak level in the bloodstream. I believe that the major reason we achieved such dramatic study results, in terms of increasing testosterone and IGF-1 levels, is because one, the product did not contain a calcium based filler, and two, it was taken on a fasted stomach 30 minutes before bedtime. Finally, I would like to state that eating a high-fiber cereal— which contains phytates—together with milk— which contains calcium—would not be a good idea when taking ZMA supplements because of the inhibitory effect it would have upon absorption.
NM: Allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment. Some people may say that it's just impractical to have no other nutrients present while taking supplementation. Aren't nutrients present for hours after eating?
VC: The general rule of thumb, regarding nutrient interactions, is consume competitive nutrients at least two hours apart. This will completely eliminate any inhibitory effects. Of course, in the real world, compliance with this recommendation may be difficult. If you take your ZMA supplements at least an hour after dinner, the absorption rate will be more than adequate.
NM: There is an argument that the high-protein diets that bodybuilders engage in will make calcium levels too low. What are your thoughts on that?
VC: It's true that high-protein diets cause calcium excretion, but resistance training causes a retention of calcium. I read a recent article in Flex magazine by Jerry Brainum that I believe contained information that is a tremendous disservice to their readers. He was saying that bodybuilders need to take extra calcium. The best way to measure calcium status is to measure bone density. There are over one hundred studies showing that athletes who routinely train with weights have a positive calcium balance.
NM: I understand that athletes can become depleted in magnesium because magnesium is lost through perspiration.
VC: Absolutely. So is zinc. If you train strenuously on a daily basis, you can expect to experience a mineral imbalance. There are several military research studies that have been conducted with Navy Seal trainees during what is called "Hell Week." The trainees were subjected to tremendous amounts of physiological and psychological stress. Their serum zinc and magnesium levels were reduced by 20-40% at the end of this week of very intensive training.
NM: What about the tendency for bodybuilders to overcompensate their supplementation? I know that too much magnesium can be stressful to the kidneys and zinc can be toxic in high dosages.
VC: Zinc can have adverse health effects at a daily dosage as low as 50 mg per day. This is the reason we selected a daily dosage of 30 mg for ZMA. I've retrieved every study that has ever been done on zinc supplementation and found that a daily dosage of 50 mg can significantly lower HDL levels, copper levels, and super oxide dismutase [SOD] levels in just 14 days. What I'm saying is that too much is just as bad as not enough. So, it's very important to determine what your zinc status really is.
NM: So, would you recommend that bodybuilders get a blood test to determine zinc levels?
VC: Absolutely. A blood test can provide valuable information. We see athletes that have great diets and supplementation programs that have a horrible biochemical profile. Everything from genetics to psychological stress can contribute to mineral deficiencies. When we worked with the Seattle Supersonics, we found that about 80% of the team was using an anti-perspirant instead of a deodorant. Anti-perspirants prevent sweating....
NM: Which in itself may not be a good thing.
VC: Right. But anti-perspirants also contain aluminum chlorohydrate as an active ingredient. Aluminum is antagonistic to magnesium and significantly inhibits its absorption and utilization. In areas that have hard water, like Texas, the municipal water is treated with sodium aluminate to prevent the build-up of calcium and magnesium deposits in the pipes. This could also lead to an elevation of aluminum levels and magnesium deficiency.
NM: Would a multiple vitamin/mineral provide any insurance for a healthy mineral balance?
VC: Basically no. Certain minerals must be taken at different times of the day to avoid competitive interactions. An athlete can maximize the absorption of minerals and trace elements as follows: Take chromium and copper together between breakfast and lunch. Take iron and selenium together between lunch and dinner. And take zinc and magnesium together just before bedtime.
NM: What about the ways these minerals occur in nature? Meat contains both zinc and iron. Are you saying that they would cancel each other out and you wouldn't absorb either nutrient?
VC: Well, elements do compete for absorption, even when consumed as a part of foods. That's what makes it so difficult. Let me give you an example. The highest food source for copper is mushrooms. We've had people try to eat mushrooms seven days a week, but because of the competitive interactions, their blood copper levels remained unchanged. However, if you have them take a daily copper supplement on an empty stomach, you'll see their copper levels normalize. In fact, IFBB pro Roland Kickinger worked with Balco Laboratories to correct his copper deficiency. After three weeks of appropriate copper supplementation, he said he no longer experienced any pain or inflammation problems in his knee.
NM: Speaking of copper, my grandmother swore that wearing a copper bracelet helped her arthritis. Any validity of copper being permeable through the skin?
VC: We used to think that was just an old wive's tale, but there have been studies that show that you can get transdermal absorption of copper. They now sell copper based creams.
NM: I guess the last question would be, how can people contact Balco Laboratories concerning mineral assessment and supplementation?
VC: They can call 1-800-777-7122.
NM: Victor, thank you so much for your time. I enjoyed our talk.
VC: My pleasure.
Although this interview covered a variety of topics, the one point that stands out is that many of us—because of diet and other extraneous factors—suffer from mineral deficiencies. And, simply taking a One-a-Day multivitamin isn't helping.
Remarkably, Victor Conte's ZMA formulation seems to allow the body to be the best that it can be, naturally. A university study showed that ZMA-using athletes increased free and total testosterone levels by about 30%, and experienced IGF-1 increases, while the placebo group experienced roughly a 20% decrease. Furthermore, the ZMA-using athletes experienced strength gains that were 2.5 times greater than the non-ZMA group.
You may not be impressed, but after reading this interview, Charles Poliquin, TC, and Tim Patterson began using ZMA. I think they're sold on the concept. Now, are you?