Will ecdysterone help you build muscle faster? Or is it just another in the long line of supplements to promise more than it delivers? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is Ecdysterone?
Ecdysterone is one of a family of compounds known as ecdysteroids, which control moulting and reproduction in animals like insects, spiders and crabs (known as arthropods).
Some common names for ecdysterone include ecdisten, ecdysone, isoinokosterone, 20-hydroxyecdysone and beta-ecdysterone.
Ecdysteroids are produced naturally not only by arthropods, but also by many plants, where they combat insect predators by disrupting their development, molting, and reproduction .
Is Ecdysterone a Steroid?
Technically, ecdysterone is a steroid hormone. Ecdysteroids get their name because a) they have a steroid backbone and b) they’re associated with the process of molting, known as ecdysis.
However, just because something is classified as a “steroid hormone” doesn’t automatically mean it’ll make your muscles bigger.
An ecdysteroid produced naturally by an insect or plant is not the same as an anabolic-androgenic steroid like dianabol, winstrol or trenbolone, which are the kind of drugs most people are referring to when they talk about “steroids.”
What Is Ecdysterone Supplementation Supposed to Do?
Supplements containing ecdysterone are marketed as “natural anabolic agents,” promising to increase protein synthesis, boost strength and increase muscle mass during resistance training, reduce fatigue and accelerate recovery.
Many have compared the anabolic effects of ecdysterone to those obtained from anabolic androgenic steroids like dianabol, or selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs), but without the need for post-cycle therapy (PCT).
As far back as the 1970s, ecdysterone (the so-called “Russian secret”) was reported to possess anabolic properties .
In the 1980s, when Russian scientists compared ecdysterone with the anabolic steroid dianabol, both were found to have a similar effect on skeletal muscle tissue 
More recently, researchers tested the effects of ecdysterone (5 mg per kilogram of bodyweight) on rats, and found that it triggered a faster rate of muscle hypertrophy than a similar dose of anabolic drugs .
Things got even more interesting in 2019, when scientists from Cologne, Germany recommended adding ecdysterone to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of banned substances because of its steroid-like effects on strength and lean muscle mass.
Their recommendation was based on a 10-week study of 46 men, who were given either a placebo or a daily supplement containing ecdysterone .
The men were assigned to one of four groups:
- Low-dose ecdysterone (2 capsules per day)
- High-dose ecdysterone (8 capsules per day)
- Control (2 capsules per day)
As well as taking the supplement, the participants also trained with weights three times a week. Participants in the control group took the supplement, but did no training.
Both ecdysterone groups gained lean muscle mass – 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms) in the low-dose and 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) in the high-dose groups respectively.
Gains in muscle mass in the high-dose ecdysterone group was significantly greater than the placebo group.
What’s more, all three training groups got stronger, increasing their 1-rep max in both the squat and bench press.
- Placebo group + 15.5%
- Low-dose ecdysterone group + 17.8%
- High-dose ecdysterone group + 19.4%
Although the high-dose ecdysterone group made the biggest gains, there was no statistically significant difference between the groups.
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It was a different story in the bench press, where strength increases in both ecdysterone groups were significantly greater compared to the placebo.
- Placebo group + 3.6%
- Low-dose ecdysterone group + 11.5%
- High-dose ecdysterone group + 9.5%
Based on previous studies involving ecdysterone, the researchers expected the supplement group to outperform the placebo group, but not by that much.
This led them to recommend “the inclusion of ecdysterone in the list of prohibited substances and methods in sports in class S1.2 “other anabolic agents.”
“Our hypothesis was that we would see an increase in performance, but we didn’t expect it to be that big,” says study co-author Maria Parr. “We recommended to WADA in our report that the substance be added to the doping list. We think that if it increases performance, then that unfair advantage should be eliminated.”
Did Ecdysterone Have Any Side Effects?
There were no side effects to speak of either. Ecdysterone supplementation had no adverse effect on various biomarkers of liver and kidney function.
The researchers also wanted to see how ecdysterone affected hormone levels, so they looked at:
- Estradiol (a form of the hormone estrogen)
- Luteinizing hormone (which stimulates the production of testosterone)
Here’s how the researchers sum up their findings:
“No significant alteration of urinary steroid hormones was detected. This suggests that the anabolic effect of ecdysterone is based on a mechanism that is different than that of testosterone, DHT, and synthetic androgenic anabolic steroids.”
The only significant difference between the groups was in IGF-1 levels, a hormone that does have an effect on growth. Levels dipped in the placebo group, but remained more or less unchanged in subjects taking ecdysterone.
The researchers couldn’t pin down a precise mechanism of action, so they don’t really know how ecdysterone works. However, they do speculate that ecdysterone binds estrogen receptor beta, which does have an anabolic effect on muscle tissue [9, 10].
There’s also some evidence to suggest that ecdysterone enhances muscle protein synthesis via direct or indirect stimulation of the PI3K/Akt signaling pathway .
Why I Still Don’t Recommend Ecdysterone
At first glance, ecdysterone is ticking all the right boxes.
You’ve got more muscle growth. More strength. Zero side effects.
What’s not to like?
All this talk of three times greater strength gains here and anabolic pathways there might sound very promising. But there are several good reasons why I’m not stocking up on ecdysterone just yet.
For one, there aren’t many high-quality studies to look at how ecdysterone supplementation affects muscle growth in humans.
There have been many supplements over the years, where the early science looks promising, only for follow-up research to show that it’s a dud.
You need multiple studies, ideally from scientists acting independently of each other, before it’s worth sitting up and paying attention.
There were also some findings that strike me as odd.
For one, the placebo group ended up losing muscle, rather than gaining it.
Why would a group of young men in their twenties, lifting weights three times a week for 10 weeks, end up losing muscle? It doesn’t make any sense.
One limitation with the study is that bioelectrical impedance analysis (the technology used in body fat scales) was used to track changes in muscle mass. It’s a notoriously inaccurate way to assess body composition, and could have skewed the results.
Why did both ecdysterone groups outperform the placebo group in the bench press, but not the squat? Remember, there was no statistically significant difference between the groups in terms of squat 1-rep max.
If ecdysterone was exerting some kind of steroid-like effect, you’d expect to see gains across the board, not just in the bench press.
The findings are also in stark contrast to those from a 2006 study, where ecdysterone (30 mg of 20-hydroxyecdysone per day) had no significant effect on muscle mass or maximal strength in the bench press and squat after eight weeks of training .
How Much Ecdysterone Are You Getting?
The product used in the study was supposed to contain 100 mg of ecdysterone from spinach extract, along with 100 mg of leucine (one of the branched-chain amino acids).
But when it was tested, the researchers found that it didn’t contain the amount of active ingredients it was supposed to. Instead of 100 mg of ecdysterone, each capsule contained a dosage of just 6 mg.
Volunteers in the low-dose group took two capsules per day. This was supposed to give them 200 mg of ecdysterone. In reality, the dosage was just 12 mg.
The high-dose group took eight capsules. This was supposed to provide 800 mg of ecdysterone per day. The actual dosage was just 48 mg.
This can be a problem with supplements, where the level of quality control often leaves a lot to be desired.
So even if you do decide to use ecdysterone, you have no way of knowing how much of the stuff you’re actually getting. Studies show that the ecdysterone content of supplements is generally much lower than what is claimed on the label .
Ecdysterone and the WADA Monitoring Program
The fact ecdysterone has been added to the WADA Monitoring program has given many people the idea it must be powerful.
It must work, they think to themselves, or WADA wouldn’t be interested.
Having worked at a supplement company for almost a decade, I can tell you that one of the best ways to generate a blizzard of sales is to get an expert or organization like WADA to say that a particular product should be banned.
The combination of authority (the experts want to ban it so it must work) and scarcity (it’s going to be banned soon so I need to buy it now) is incredibly powerful.
If you’re a supplement company selling ecdysterone, you must be over the moon at the decision. Much of your marketing has been done for you, by WADA, for free.
For me, the addition of ecdysterone as a potential anabolic agent to the WADA watch list is another red herring.
WADA has both a Monitoring Program and a Prohibited List.
- The Prohibited List “identifies the substances and methods prohibited in and out of competition, and in particular sports.”
- The Monitoring Program includes “substances which are not on the Prohibited List, but which WADA wishes to monitor in order to detect potential patterns of misuse in sport.”
WADA added ecdysterone to the 2020 Monitoring Program, which means they’re now testing for it and thinking about adding it to the Prohibited List.
Here’s how they explain their decision:
“Ecdysterone was included in the Monitoring Program to assess patterns and prevalence of misuse. While other ecdysteroids exist, most data (especially concerning effects on athletic performance) and stakeholder comments centre around ecdysterone, and consequently it was added to the Monitoring Program of 2020.”
To be clear, ecdysterone is not currently on the Prohibited List. WADA thinks the potential is there for it to enhance performance, but they’re not sure.
If ecdysterone is comparable to anabolic steroids (which I don’t for one minute I believe it is, unless your definition of comparable encompasses “a lot less powerful than”), WADA would have put it on the Prohibited List by now.
In fact, there were calls for ecdysterone to be added to the Prohibited List back in 2015, more than 7 years ago. Why the delay? If ecdysterone has such a high level of anabolic potency, how come it’s not banned already?
Ecdysterone Is Not New
Remember, ecdysterone is not some new chemical that’s only just been discovered.
There was research published more than thirty years ago purporting to show that ecdysterone increases anabolic activity in muscle. It was also aggressively promoted as a muscle-building supplement back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
So the lack of human data doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
After all, if there’s a natural substance comparable to anabolic androgenic steroids in terms of its effect on skeletal muscle, and that substance has been known about for decades, you’d expect to see more published data to show that it has a reliable and consistent effect on protein synthesis and muscle growth.
Creatine, for example, has been the subject of thousands of published studies. Its benefits have been demonstrated numerous times, in many different settings, across a large number of subjects.
Not so with ecdysterone.
There are a few papers, published in obscure Russian journals, with no way of being able to evaluate the design and quality of the research, purporting to show that ecdysterone has a miraculous effect on pretty much everything – muscle mass, fat loss and endurance to name but a few .
One study, published in the Scientific Sports Bulletin in 1988, claims that a group of highly trained male and female athletes given ecdysterone saw dramatic changes in body composition.
And by dramatic, I’m talking about a 6-7% increase in muscle tissue and 10% reduction in body fat. All in just 10 days!
It’s just not credible. Even anabolic drugs don’t work that well.
Once you strip away the animal studies and dodgy Russian research, you’re left with two human trials. One shows that ecdysterone works, the other that it doesn’t.
Other studies may well have been done, but never published, because they didn’t show what the supplement company funding the study wanted them to show.
Supplement companies will often pay research groups to test their product. If the results are positive and show that the supplement works, they’ll use those results in subsequent promotional material.
If the results of study are negative (meaning that the supplement didn’t work) some form of non-disclosure agreement signed in advance means the results will remain tucked away in a desk drawer, never to see the light of day.
Ecdysterone has been on the market for many years, but never really took off. Much of the research has been done on animals, and the results can’t be extrapolated to humans.
There’s very little in the way of credible scientific evidence to show that ecdysterone is comparable in effectiveness to anabolic drugs, or that it has any kind of meaningful effect on muscle growth, strength or fat loss.
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