SARM stands for selective androgen receptor modulator, and it’s a type of drug that’s chemically similar to anabolic steroids.
While steroids are known to promote muscle growth, they also cause many other physiological changes in the body, most of which are unwanted or harmful. Thorny issues like excessive hair growth, acne, balding, and testicular atrophy. Basically, steroids “carpet bomb” your body with powerful hormones, and your muscles are just one potential “target.”
SARMs are different. Instead of affecting a wide variety of organs in your body, SARMs selectively interact with only a handful of different tissues, mainly your muscles and bones.
That’s the idea, anyway.
While SARMs supplements seem like a holy grail for building muscle, they’re also largely unregulated and untested in humans. This means it’s impossible to predict exactly what SARMs’ side effects are or how they’ll impact your health in the long term.
What’s more, SARMs manufacturers can make more or less whatever claims they want, with little oversight from the government.
In this article, you’re going to learn:
- Whether or not SARMs are safe
- The most common SARMs side effects
- The different types of SARMs
- How similar SARMs are to steroids
- And more.
Table of Contents
Since then, SARMs have been studied as a therapy for . . .
- Hypogonadism (diminished activity of the testes or ovaries)
- Osteopenia and osteoporosis
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Benign prostatic enlargement
- Stress-induced urinary incontinence
- Sarcopenia (muscle and strength loss due to aging)
- Muscular dystrophy
- Cachexia (weakness and wasting of the body due to severe chronic illness)
Despite their many potential uses in medicine, most of the hype surrounding SARMs is focused on their ability to help build muscle and boost performance.
Supplement marketers claim that SARMs mimic the positive effects of testosterone in muscle and bone tissue, but have little effect on the other cells in the body, and thus the endocrine system as a whole.
In other words, SARMs can tell your muscle cells to grow without all the noise, mess, and collateral damage caused by anabolic steroids.
Technically speaking, SARMs accomplish this in two ways:
- They have a special affinity for certain tissues like muscle and bone, but not for others, like the prostate, liver, and brain.
- They don’t break down into molecules that cause unwanted side effects as easily.
This second point is rather significant.
One key characteristic of SARMs is they’re not easily converted into an enzyme called 5-a reductase, which converts testosterone into DHT, a driver of many of the undesirable effects of steroid use.
SARMs are also resistant to the enzyme aromatase, which converts testosterone into estrogen.
Finally, because SARMs are less powerful than regular steroids, they don’t suppress natural testosterone production as heavily, making them easier to recover from.
Bodybuilders usually take SARMs for one of two reasons:
- To “get their feet wet” with anabolic drug use before going into traditional steroid cycles.
- To increase the effectiveness of steroid cycles without exacerbating side effects or health risks.
Many bodybuilders also believe that SARMs are especially helpful for cutting because they help retain lean mass but don’t seem to increase water retention.
How well do these drugs work?
They’re also popular among athletes because they’re harder to detect in drug testing (although this is changing as regulatory agencies improve their testing methods).
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SARMs have only been around for a couple of decades and, unfortunately, haven’t been well-studied in humans.
We just don’t know enough about how they work and their potential long-term side effects, which is a very legitimate cause for concern.
Additionally, since all SARMs aren’t approved for recreational use, technically all SARMs sold online are black-market products. Thus, they’re not subject to any regulatory oversight and quality control is often poor or nonexistent. Mislabeling, contamination, and other shenanigans are common coin when it comes to SARMs.
So, are SARMs safe?
We don’t know for sure, but here’s what we do know . . .
One of the key selling points for many types of SARMs is the claim that they don’t blunt your body’s production of testosterone.
This is a lie. They absolutely do.
For example, in one study conducted by scientists at the behest of GTx, Inc., a pharmaceutical company that specializes in making SARMs, male subjects taking 3 mg of the SARM ostarine per day for 86 days experienced a 23% drop in free testosterone and 43% drop in total testosterone levels (during the trial).
As GTx, Inc. produces and sells SARMs, they had no incentive to make the results look worse than they actually were. If anything, they were incentivized to do the opposite and underreport the negative side effects of SARMs (there’s no evidence this was done, but you get the point).
Similar effects were seen in another study conducted by scientists at Boston University with the SARM ligandrol. In this case, 76 men aged 21 to 50 experienced a massive 55% drop in total testosterone levels after taking 1 mg of ligandrol per day for just 3 weeks. Disturbingly, it also took 5 weeks for their natural testosterone production to recover.
In fact, SARMs are being investigated as a male contraceptive because they lower your levels of luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone, which reduces your sperm count and testosterone levels.
All this isn’t surprising when you consider the basic physiology in play:
When you introduce androgens into the body, it recognizes the spike and responds by reducing its own production of its own similar hormones. In other words, your body is smart—if you’re getting plenty of hormones from drugs, your body doesn’t waste resources on making its own.
SARMs aren’t completely free from side effects—they just tend to be minimal at small doses.
Bodybuilders don’t generally take small doses, though, and that’s why they often experience many of the side effects associated with steroid use, including acne and hair loss.
This also applies to the suppression of testosterone you just learned about. The more exogenous (originating outside an organism) anabolic hormones you introduce into your body, whether from SARMs or plain ol’ testosterone, the more your natural production will fall.
And according to a study conducted by scientists at Copenhagen University, it’s possible that this decline in natural testosterone production may persist for years after you stop taking steroids (or SARMs).
Several large trials on the SARM cardarine had to be cancelled because it was causing cancerous growths in the intestines of mice
You may have heard of this, and that the doses used were much higher than us fitness folk would ever ingest, but that’s not true.
Rodents eliminate some drugs from their bodies much faster than we do, so they have to receive higher doses to see the same effects.
In the case cited above, the mice were given 10 mg per kg of cardarine per day, which, when adjusted for a human metabolism, comes out to about 75 mg per day for a 200-pound man.
Poke around on bodybuilding forums and you’ll quickly learn that many bodybuilders take considerably more than that.
Granted, you can’t extrapolate rodent research to humans (despite sharing ~98% of their DNA, we aren’t big mice), so it’s not clear if cardarine or other types of SARMs actually do increase our risk of developing cancer.
There’s also evidence that SARMs may actually inhibit certain kinds of cancer, so we just don’t know yet.
If you ask me, this is just another reason why I believe that SARMs are first and last a high-risk, low-reward proposition.
SARMs can only be legally sold as “research chemicals.”
In other words, the only people who are supposed to buy SARMs are scientists looking to learn more about how they really work and whether or not they have worthwhile therapeutic uses.
Of course, the vast majority of SARMs you see for sale online never wind up in a lab. Instead, they find their way into bodybuilders, athletes, and fitness buffs who want to get more jacked.
This opens the doors to all kinds of skulduggery, including:
- Contaminating the drugs with toxic chemicals due to poor quality control or cutting corners during production.
- Mixing them with weaker and sometimes harmful substances to increase profits.
- Mislabeling them to increase profits.
Damning evidence of this can be found in a study conducted by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that involved buying 44 SARM products from 21 different online suppliers.
The researchers also took things a step further by asking all of the sellers to provide what’s known as a “chain-of-custody” of the products, which identifies whose hands the products passed through once they were produced (and thus who had the opportunity to tamper with them).
After analyzing the products, the scientists found that . . .
- 52% of the products contained any traces of SARMs at all.
- 25% of the products contained doses significantly lower than what was on the label.
- 25% of the products contained no or just trace amounts of the SARM on the label, and instead contained unlabeled substances such as other SARMs and the estrogen blockers androstenetrione and tamoxifen.
The bottom line is the SARM market is a lawless free-for-all and that probably isn’t going to change anytime soon.
There’s currently no government agency forcing SARMs producers to toe the line, and as the study from USADA shows, many manufacturers are fully aware of this and are more interested in turning a profit than anything else.
Several recent case reports have found that SARM usage for between two and five weeks caused severe drug-induced liver injury. In every case, the SARMs were being taken as muscle-building supplements (and thus at fairly high doses).
Other symptoms presented by the participants included jaundice, anorexia, nausea, lethargy, weight loss, fatigue, and pruritus (itchy skin).
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There are quite a few SARMs on the market, and some are stronger and have a higher risk of side effects than others.
The most popular ones are . . .
- MK-2866 or GTx-024 (Ostarine)
- LGD-4033 (Ligandrol)
- GSX-007 or S-4 (Andarine)
- GW-501516 (Cardarine)
And if you’re wondering why they have strange alphanumeric names, it’s because SARMs haven’t been approved for medical use, so pharmaceutical marketers haven’t bothered naming them yet. Currently, they’re only sold as “research chemicals” intended for scientific use.
Search for SARMs reviews online and you’ll find many people raving about their wondrous benefits on forums, message boards, and the comments section of blogs.
The reason for this is that SARMs peddlers pay these people to plaster the Internet with positive reviews as a means of advertising their products. Nine times out of ten, these are fake reviews from people working for a company that sells SARMs.
The reason for this is that many companies aren’t allowed to openly advertise SARMs as aggressively as they’d like. Thus, SARMs sellers invest heavily in more subtle marketing methods (like paid reviews) that can’t be easily traced back to them.
So, when you see seemingly genuine SARMs users rhapsodizing about their benefits online, there’s a very good chance they’ve been paid to do so.
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Since SARMs don’t convert into molecules that cause unwanted side effects, like DHT and estrogen, they likely don’t impact your endocrine (hormonal) system as negatively.
SARMs also aren’t as anabolic as pure testosterone, which means they probably don’t suppress natural testosterone as much (although there isn’t enough research available to know for sure).
That said, if you take enough to experience significant benefits, you’re likely also taking enough to experience significant negative effects.
Furthermore, if you take enough SARMs to cause some of the more serious side effects such as hair loss, gynecomastia, and so on, they may be permanent—just as with anabolic steroid use.
Anecdotally, many people do report bouncing back from SARM usage faster than traditional steroid cycles. You have to take such stories with a grain of salt, though, as many of these people have also used significantly lower doses of SARMs than they ever did of steroids, so it’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison.
SARMs are prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and qualify as category S1 anabolic agents.
That said, many people who take performance-enhancing drugs only intend to do so for a short time, but end up “on the bike” for the long haul.
Unfortunately, the extra strength, energy, and confidence that people experience while taking drugs can become addictive, which is why research shows around 30% of steroid users developed a dependence syndrome.
It’s not clear whether the same can be said for SARMs, though it’s well within the realms of plausibility.
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