When you hear the word ‘steroidal’ being used to describe any food or supplement, it may well set off alarm bells. Of course a lot of guys would love to get many of the positive benefits of steroids in a safe and natural manner – but none of us want the increased body hair, the acne or the liver disease…
Rest assured that saponins are not steroidal in that sense but that also means they aren’t going to transform your muscle mass or your sex drive. Let’s take a closer look at precisely what saponins are and where the name comes from…
Saponins can be found in over 100 different plant families and sources include beans, legumes, yucca and yams. They can be processed into a foam, which allows them to be added to a range of products – including shampoos, soaps and more. Which doesn’t mean you should start eating soap…
The main health benefit of saponins is to help reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the blood and to lower LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol. This is the ‘bad’ kind of cholesterol that leads to heart disease, high blood pressure and various other health complaints and thus it is a good thing to try and reduce it.
There are more health benefits of saponins too – they are believed to reduce the likelihood of colon cancer for example by combating the build-up of acidic bile that can cause damage. They also appear to be anti-carcinogenic generally and can prevent the formation of tumors (1). All the more reason to get more legumes, nuts and plants in your diet!
The reason that saponins are considered ‘steroidal’ is that they may have some positive impact on levels of testosterone – the male hormone that increases muscle mass, fat burning and libido. The way this may work is by increasing the amount of good cholesterol in the blood. There is a link here, seeing as sex hormones are actually made in the body from cholesterol. Thus, by raising the availability of good cholesterol, it is possible to increase the amount of steroid hormones and thereby bring about the associated positive changes.
For these reasons, saponins can be considered ‘steroidal’ but it’s important to note that their effect is nowhere near that of steroids. In the best case scenario, you are looking at an increase in testosterone of around 30%, which isn’t likely to result in any visible changes in body composition. The reason that steroids can increase muscle mass is that they result in an increase of several hundred percent. This also carries a range of significant risks however, which saponins do not possess.
For these reasons, saponins are enjoyed as a moderate testosterone boosting supplement by many athletes, as well as men looking to increase their energy levels, libido and sleep. The most popular example of a steroidal saponin used for this purpose is tribulus terrestris, which is one of the most abundant ingredients in testosterone boosting supplements.
But does TT really raise T? (See what I did there?)
As is so often the case, we have a lot of contradictory evidence and research surrounding the use of this supplement that makes it very hard to pin down.
In one study, the effects of tribulus were evaluated in a number of animals to see if it could increase testosterone levels. It was shown to raise testosterone by 52% in primates and around 30% in rabbits and mice (2). It would likely be safe to assume similar results could be achieved in humans.
Another study though looked at the effect of tribulus terrestris on rugby players to see if it could increase muscle mass. The results of this study were less favourable and the participants were found to have no significant increase in muscle or strength (3).
So who should use this supplement?
In all likelihood, tribulus terrestris has some positive impact on male testosterone levels. However, this effect is also likely to be very small and particularly in healthy men with normal levels of T. For that reason, it is likely not going to be money well-spent if you are under 30 or if you are already very active. That said, it may be a harmless and inexpensive experiment for men who are suffering from symptoms of low testosterone and looking for a way to get a boost. And it might just lower your LDL cholesterol too!