Steroidal saponins (known as saraponins) are the foundation of our own body’s ability to create natural steroids.
As opposed to anabolic steroids, saraponins are naturally occurring (and often botanical) steroids. In effect, they do a similar job to anabolic steroids by promoting lean muscle growth and increasing testosterone levels whilst being safe.
They sound like a dream come true but are they effective at increasing testosterone, are there any harmful side effects and are they truly legal?
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What are Steroidal Saponins?
To understand what steroidal saponins are, you first need to understand what steroids are.
In the sports world, steroids are commonly synthetic forms of hormones such as testosterone. Known as ‘roids’, these man-made anabolic compounds often have side effects such as mood swings, impotence and liver damage giving them a bad reputation.
Steroids occur naturally in the human body in many different forms and are an essential part of the way we function. The most common varieties of steroids are the human sex hormones, testosterone, progesterone and oestrogen as well as cortisone, vitamin D, cholesterol and bile acids.
Steroidal saponins have been found to replicate the steroids found in the human body and influence hormone production and control cell growth.
At a primary level, this useful chemical compound helps with protein absorption and is therefore important to cell replication and growth.
‘Sapon’ is an old German word for soap and, common to all steroidal saponins is the tendency of these compounds to foam.
They are defined pharmacologically as a class of chemical compound known as haemolytic agents due to their ability to effect blood clotting.
Most saponins are also known to resist the side effects caused by certain viruses, fungi and bacteria.
This has made them a popular component in the traditional arsenal of many traditional branches of medicine to treat such things as mushroom poisoning. In addition, the market for household products such as shampoo and detergent has also found a use for this interesting class of chemical.
Health Benefits of Steroidal Saponins
Ongoing research into the ability of steroidal saponins to inhibit the absorption of cholesterol (in particular LDL) and to reduce the effective growth of cancer cells is encouraging. Though the initial studies are positive and suggest that saraponins have anti-mutagenic and anti-tumour properties there is much work to be done to harness these benefits.
In the meantime, there is much evidence to support the claims that saraponins have a positive impact on the immune system as well as helping to boost testosterone levels.
Steroidal Saponins and Testosterone
It’s important to point out that because research into this area is relatively new and as such many of the benefits reported are hypothetical with small numbers of studies on humans being completed. However, initial results are encouraging and suggest that certain saraponins can positively impact testosterone levels in four separate ways:
- Promoting release of LH (luteinizing hormone)
- Increasing the sensitivity of body’s tolerance to androgens
- Boosting the levels of DHEA molecules (precursor to testosterone)
- Suppressing aromatase and negating the production of oestrogen
Animal research has shown that the furostanols found in fenugreek and tribulus terrestris possess anabolic traits.
Protodioscin (a common form of furostanol) was found to enhance libido and sexual health as well as boost testosterone.
Human studies have found limited evidence to support the claims that steroidal saponins boost testosterone; however, studies often find an increase even in healthy males but fail to report this as it is not deemed ‘clinically significant’ even at levels of over 15%.
Detractors of the findings believe that sufficient studies have not been undertaken using individuals who are not sub fertile or have impaired testosterone production. What is clear is that sufficient evidence exists in animal testing but needs to be expanded into suitable human studies.
Sources of Steroidal Saponins
Typically, steroidal saponins are found in plants with over 100 species containing notable quantities of these saraponins.
The most abundant of these is in legumes, yams and beans as well as herbs such as soapberry, soapbark and soapwort.
In the animal kingdom, you can find steroidal saponins in sea creatures such as starfish and sea cucumbers. You can find saraponins in a variety of health supplements which utilise extracts from a variety of sources; these include certain types of quinoa (saponaria), blue agave and yucca (shidigera) extract.
Despite being found in varying quantities in different plants the type of steroidal saraponin from a plant has very specific qualities with some containing greater amounts of oestrogenic (female sex hormone) steroidal saponins than androgenic (male sex hormones).
What is clear is that certain sources of steroidal saponins can actually inhibit healthy testosterone production so getting the right source is important.
Findings from studies on sub fertile men found that panax ginseng extract increased testosterone, dihydrotestosterone, luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone whilst reducing prolactin levels.
Those taking the supplements were also found to benefit from improved sperm counts and motility.
The active steroidal saponin in tribulus terrestris is protodioscin which has widely accepted aphrodisiac properties as well as having a powerful pro-erectile effect.
The effect on testosterone levels in lab rats is marked but is yet to be categorically proven in clinical trials using humans.
It is largely believed that the impact of steroidal saponins in tribulus terrestris is dose dependent with studies on doses of 10-20 mg/kg body weight having no marked effect on male hormone levels.
However a double blind study conducted in 2012 demonstrated a 16.3% increase in testosterone. This was not deemed significant enough to produce firm conclusions in the limited trial designed to assess erectile dysfunction.
Additional trials on athletes in Lithuania has also shown a positive impact on testosterone levels.
In a randomized, double-blind trial, 30 healthy men were given a branded fenugreek supplement (containing 50% Fenuside saponins) with positive results. After 4 and 8 weeks, body fat was reduced and testosterone levels increased.
It should be noted that other trials with fenugreek actually suggest that this source of saraponin results in a decrease of dihydrotestosterone.
The active steroidal saponin in licorice is glycyrrhizin which has been demonstrated in various studies to decrease testosterone levels by as much as 26%.
What are the Side Effects of Steroidal Saponins?
Thus far no clinical human trials have found any harmful side effects related to the use of steroidal saponins.
We have found no incidences of any country banning the use of steroidal saponins.
As they are a naturally occurring substance, it would be highly questionable whether any country wishing to ban their use could do so with any effective form of testing.