Strong Medicine

An Interview With Dr. Eric Serrano

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In the old days, whenever a doctor said something anything it was pretty much taken as gospel. After all, they're all incredibly bright, they all pull down some serious cash, and, well, they're doctors.

Of course, those of us in our little field of kamikaze, theoretical, self-experimental bodybuilding have a different take on most physicians. How so? Well, most of us run away screaming when someone flashes his or her MD credentials. You can't blame us, though. Traditional medical education has taught doctors that steroids are a poison on par with strychnine; that any amount of protein greater than the RDA will practically cause your kidneys to fall out; and that creatine needs further research (even though there are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies supporting its use).

Happily, there are always exceptions. Nowadays, there are doctors who are elbow-deep in the area of bodybuilding and physique augmentation. And man, when you find someone like that, you've really got something.

Dr. Eric Serrano is one of these enlightened physicians. In fact, Serrano is so hip on supplements that more often than not, he prescribes over-the-counter supplements to his patients in lieu of drugs. He also conducts private studies on just about any new supplement that comes down the pike. Of course, he also has a deep-rooted personal interest in new supplements because he's a competitive power lifter who most recently set a record in a Midwest tri-state meet for total weight.

Serrano currently runs a private clinic in Columbus, Ohio, along with teaching classes at Ohio State's medical school. Although we did this interview over the phone, we just know he's sitting there in an extra-large, white lab coat with the sleeves torn off, in an office that has as many bench presses as it has EKG monitors.

T: Doctor Serrano, how did you get involved in sports nutrition?

DS: When I was doing my Master's in Manhattan, Kansas [in exercise physiology], I was working with a lot of people who wanted to lose weight, and at the U they had a weight loss program, and I started playing with different diets. Like a good researcher, I said no, the high carbohydrate diet is the one that works, and got all the papers, research that confirmed it, and put everybody on that diet. It was kind of funny because none of the people who were following the diet exactly lost any weight. I started playing with the numbers of the carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and I noticed that most females are more sensitive to carbs than males, and number two, more females are dependent on carbohydrates during their periods. After a while, about 3 months, I realized I loved doing this. I like making changes, I like seeing people change, and I applied to medical school at the University of Kansas.

T: How is it that you became such an expert on supplements? It's not like medical school teaches you about them?

DS: When I was doing my bachelor's degree I worked at the Vet school, and they were using creatine for horses way back then. That was a long time ago, and they knew creatine would improve the speed of the horse and these were horses that were worth millions of dollars. That piqued my curiosity and interest. I started buying supplements for myself so I could learn all about them.

T: Can you give me some examples of how you might prescribe supplements instead of drugs?

DS: Well, I'm talking health-wise here, but I have a lot of patients with diabetes, or congestive heart failure. I found that Co-enzyme Q10, combined with high dosages of vitamin B will increase their heart's pumping ability by 30 to 40%. I had a patient who had a virus she was only 38 and her heart started failing. Her ejection fraction was only 5%, and normal is between 60 and 70%. She was put on the list for a heart transplant. All I did was two things: we started with Q10; 50 mg. per day, and progressed to 100 mg. daily, coupled with 4 grams of taurine it's routinely used in Europe as a drug for congestive heart failure and also a combination of Vitamin Bs. This patient went from a 5% ejection fraction to 38% in two months. Now, she's at 48% and that's an incredible change.

T: Doc, given that you're a strength athlete yourself, and that you no doubt work with a lot of athletes who take steroids, have you ever considered using them yourself?

DS: To tell you the truth, I've been tempted. I see so many athletes, and I have a lot of 500-plus bench pressers in my office six of them. I think to myself, "Man, I work my butt off, and they work six months and bam, 500 pounds." I've met two people who can bench that much who say they are natural, but one of them is 6'8" and weighs 380 pounds.

T: What kinds of things do you generally take for yourself?

DS: I'm always investigating things, and I try to rotate everything; I want to see if this is going to work, I want to see if that's going to work. Aside from the things I experiment with, I always take a good multi-vitamin, and I'm going to recommend, believe it or not, a Weider vitamin called "Whole Food Base", made by Schiff. It's an excellent vitamin. There's also another company called Beverly International and they have a product called "Ultra 4" and I've analyzed it three times and every single time it's 100% of what it says. And, a company called Standard Process has a vitamin called "Catalyn", and it's a natural vitamin. What it is, is a whole bunch of food concentrates together in a capsule. You need three or four capsules, but I've seen people get better using them.

T: I understand you're a big proponent of glutamine?

DS: Glutamine has made a big difference in my patients, especially their immune systems, and glutamine gets rid of colds; it helps your joints; and it can increase your strength in one day. People will ask me where I'm getting this information from, but I've been playing with 11 patients with different dosages. Here's what I've come up with: you need .35 grams per kilogram of body weight. And you take it in one dose an hour before a workout. Tell me what happens during your workout. I don't care what type of workout it is.

T: What's the mechanism?

DS: Ahhhh. Very interesting question. I know that we chemistry people say it does this or it does that, but something else is going on. I think there are two mechanisms. For one thing, I think it's an excellent source of energy because the body can break it down to glutamic acid, which is kind of a sugar [although he wouldn't come right out and say it, Dr. Serrano intimated that the glutamic acid may serve as a powerful energy substrate, thereby increasing work capacity]. Number two, I have found out, and this is very important, glutamine is a marker of overtraining. If I take people, and I have them write down their workouts, and if their glutamic acid/glutamine ratio is over 10 to one, that person was invariably getting sick or developing soreness, or their performance was going down. I will tell you, papers are going to come out on it, because it's very interesting how this works. If the ratio is less than 10 to 1, you're overtraining. If I give you oral glutamine, you'll prevent overtraining. I have some theories about how it works, but I don't want to talk about them yet?if it works that way, great, but I don't want to give people the wrong idea.

T: Is glutamine something you would take every day?

DS: Because the cost is so high, I wouldn't take it every day. I might take a baseline dosage of 2 to 5 grams a day to keep my levels high, but if I'm going through an intensity phase or accumulation phase, like Charles Poliquin calls them, I will take a larger dosage .35 grams (times body weight in kilograms) and divide it into two dosages; in the morning, an hour before the workout, and the other half before bedtime to preserve muscle while I'm sleeping.

T: Charles Poliquin told me that you've run some experiments on Tribex-500?

DS: Yes! It's kind of funny because Charles called me and said you need to be using this, and I thought, "Oh no, some more crap." I started taking it, but I want to say that I feel your label is wrong. It says take it this way [three capsules, three times a day]. I tried it that way. I'm a scientist, okay? So I write down how I feel. I stopped taking everything else. I measured my baseline testosterone level. I was overtraining on purpose and my T level was 228. So I went ahead and started taking three, three times a day like it says on the bottle, and I noted everything, including my sex drive. Charles told me that every woman would start looking good to me, but I didn't notice any effects up to seven days after I started it.

I thought I'd change the dosage a little and cycle it. I took 4 capsules, two times a day. I took four an hour before a workout, and only during workout times, and an hour after a workout. Well, all of a sudden, my strength went up. My bench press went up by 2 reps, and I wasn't taking creatine or anything, and I was doing the same workouts. I could tell I was getting stronger, and my sex drive was going up; I was getting a hard-on every morning. And I went ahead and measured my testosterone levels. It went to 349. I should have measured my free testosterone too, though. That was a mistake. It's possible that one of the ingredients in Tribex, one of the herbs, can increase your free testosterone. That would be very interesting to find out. I took it for four days, followed by two days off. So, you need less than what the bottle says.

T: That's interesting, because that's one of the protocols we've been experimenting with. Speaking of hormone facilitators, are you experimenting with any other ones?

DS: Yes. We're going to do a study on something called the GH Stack, and I want to find out if this really works. We're going to take nine subjects and give them the GH stack and check them out [at different time intervals] to see what happens. I also started experimenting with 5-androstenediol. I wanna' say this: people say you're going to get bigger and this and that, but I got news for you. I think it converts more into estrogen than anything else. I'll tell you why. I tried it for four weeks, and my sex drive went down and I didn't get any stronger. I varied my dosage from 100 to 400 mg. a day an hour before workouts and I didn't see any changes, and 400 mg. is kind of a high dosage [and if you look at a standard endocrinology textbook, you'll see that that's generally the case. Additionally, the conversion rate allegedly rises as one gets older].

Right now, I'm trying 19-norandrostene, and I've been taking it for four days, and I will let you know in the next ten days if this stuff is working or not.

T: Tell me about some of the other supplements you've experimented on. For instance, what's your opinion of HMB?

DS: Oh my Lord, I was very disappointed with HMB, and I have nothing against it, but I tried 4 grams, 3 grams?man I bought so much and I sent so much money in, but nothing happened. I had 12 people on it, and one woman came to me and said it worked great, but this woman was over 38, she was taking two grams a day, and her strength went up, but she was the only one. Then I tried a higher dosage. We went to five grams, and nothing happened for a week. We went to ten grams and nothing happened, and then when we went to 12 grams or more, people were getting stronger and less sore. The problem is, if you calculate the cost of 12 grams per day, Bill Phillips will be very rich. I wouldn't recommend it right now for anybody unless your rich and you want to up the dosages. I found out that females need less than males, but still you need over 10 grams and that's too much.

T: The last time I spoke to you, you were very high on fish oil?

DS: That's another one you see results in just a week. Fish oils are very interesting. I use them a great deal for things like dry skin and psoriasis, headaches, etc. Fish oils are a very valuable strength builder, and the way to take them is 6 grams a day. They are very cheap, so I would buy a good quality fish oil like Dale Alexander, but I like Spectrum the best. If I want to increase my strength and lose fat, I will take 6 grams a day, 3 grams a day in divided dosages.

T: Are capsules okay, as opposed to straight oil?

DS: Yes, capsules. One thing I want to tell you, if you take the capsules, take them with food, because if you burp, my God, you can't kiss your girlfriend.

T: A lot of bodybuilders use flax seed oil and borage. How would you compare these to the fish oils?

DS: I think flax oil is excellent for health. I think everybody should use a little bit of it. For health, I recommend 1 teaspoon per hundred pounds; if I have someone over 35 years old, you take one tablespoon per hundred pounds, plus 6 grams of fish oil.

T: Why would the fish oil make me stronger?

DS: I wish I could tell you. We don't know exactly why it makes you burn fat, either. These mechanisms are uncertain at this time. You can call Porter Cotrell, who I work with, and you can ask him how much fat he has lost for the last three of four contests just by taking both flax seed oil and fish oil.

T: A few weeks ago, we theorized in one of our columns that it might be a good idea to take supplements with grapefruit juice. We suspect that a chemical in the grapefruit juice might block an enzyme in the body that breaks supplements down. What do you think of that?

DS: I think it's a great idea. Most things are absorbed through the liver. But, if you can stop the liver from breaking down certain pro-hormones and supplements, my God, think about it. You might actually be able to use affordable amounts of HMB. The problem is that many professional athletes use steroids, and if we're going to use something that prevents steroid breakdown, you might run into some problems. But, I can see using grapefruit juice with your Tribex. If you can increase testosterone levels, and you can prevent the breakdown of one of the chemicals or herbs, you can get more impact per pill and increase testosterone levels even more. I can see that as a great benefit.

T: Are there any supplements you stay away from?

DS: I'll tell you this?I stay away from the hype. I don't like certain companies out there who make claims about having the best products while what they are basically doing is making the same products as everybody else and maybe changing one ingredient. When they start talking about gaining 8 pounds in five days, or whatever? I have people using steroids, and I believe them when they gain 10 pounds of muscle in five weeks, but not 10 pounds with one super-duper creatine crap. I hate that.

T: Since we're talking about creatine, do you have any specific recommendations concerning its use?

DS: Sure. I want to tell people not to take creatine before a workout. It's completely wrong. It'll lead to cramps. Number two, always, always take it after a workout. That's when your body is ready for it. Number three, you should always cycle it. Number four, never take anti-inflammatories with it because it can increase your creatinine levels and it can also effect your kidneys that's the only time creatine can adversely affect your kidneys. Also, maintain a certain amount of hydration. With my athletes, I recommend .7 ounces of water per kilogram of body weight. As far as the precise method for cycling, I'll tell Testosterone readers later. I haven't got it specifically worked out yet, but I guarantee a 20% increase in your strength, and a 15% increase in your body weight by cycling it the way I'll recommend.

T: You're a teaser, Doc. All right, we'll wait to hear your specific recommendations about creatine cycling. You must run into a good deal of interesting people. Are you in touch with anybody else right now who's doing interesting work?

DS: One thing that's interesting right now, and I can't get too specific, because the guy is putting a patent on it, but there's a certain combination of amino acids that can increase your muscle weight, prevent soreness, and help you lose fat. Some people say whole proteins are better than amino acids, but not in all cases. For instance, most people don't believe in branched-chain amino acids. They take three or four little tablets and they don't work. Well, of course they don't work. But if you take between .25 and .35 grams per kilogram, my God, you will see a humungous difference in strength and stamina. For example, if you're doing sets of ten to 15, you can get your reps up to 20 by using that much branched-chain amino acids.

Testosterone readers will know first what this combination is. This guy is awesome.

T: That sounds interesting. Call us when you hear anything definitive. By the way, do you do telephone consulting?

DS: Yes, but all I tell my athletes is, don't tell the newspapers I work with you. Just tell the next athlete. That's the way I get new athletes. I have so many different e-mails every day, that sometimes I have to erase them. Right now, I'm doing telephone consultations with at least 4 Olympic athletes, a lot of professional fighters, a few baseball players, a lot of hockey players thanks to Charles and I also have a few athletes who I keep secret. I don't prescribe steroids, but I want to make sure athletes stay healthy if they're taking them. These athletes trust me, and I won't put anything on the chart, and anything we talk about is between him and me.

T: Doc, I'm trying to give you a plug here?

DS: To be honest, money doesn't buy happiness. If my family's healthy, it doesn't matter. And I'm doing well.

T: Doc, give us a telephone number?

DS: People can call me at 614-837-8384. I don't mind that.

T: Thanks for your time, Doc.

DS: Thank you.