Last summer, Major League Baseball suspended New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez for the entire 2014 season for using performance-enhancing drugs, including a testosterone cream and injectable human growth hormone (HGH). Because similar-sounding products are readily available over the counter at sports nutrition stores, some consumers have misunderstood them to be the equivalent of these illicit drugs, and the confusion is giving safe, legal supplements a bad name.

Both testosterone and HGH circulate naturally in your body. Testosterone is an anabolic steroid—a hormone that contributes to male characteristics, including increased muscle mass. HGH is produced in the pituitary gland, activating receptors that signal muscle growth. Upping your levels of testosterone and HGH can have benefits that range from increased energy and libido to muscle mass and athletic performance. But in synthetic form, both testosterone and HGH set off alarms in drug tests, as both are banned in pro sports for their potential to give the user an unfair competitive advantage.

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“The performance-enhancement aspect is really at the heart of [the rules],” says Rick Collins, a partner at Collins, McDonald & Gann in Mineola, NY, and one of the foremost experts on supplement law in the country. “Testosterone and [other] anabolic steroids have been linked, and inextricably interwoven, with the idea of cheating.”

Outside of sports, both drugs have prescription uses, but anabolic steroids are considered Schedule III banned drugs by the DEA, and HGH laws can vary by state. “[HGH] is regulated under a specific law that limits its distribution and the reasons for which a physician can even prescribe it,” says Collins, and testosterone possession without a script could land you in jail. Using performance-enhancing hormones carries serious health risks, ranging from heart and liver damage to sexual dysfunction—including testicular atrophy (yes, it can shrink your balls). HGH use can cause joint pain and an imbalance between your good and bad cholesterol.

Synthetic testosterone and HGH can’t be found at your local supplement store, and what you do find there shouldn’t be mistaken for a banned substance. Supps like Novex Biotech’s TestroVax and Growth Factor-9, for example, which are available at stores like GNC, contain not illegal synthetic hormones but natural ingredients, so they’re regulated as foods.

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Photo Credit: David Carr

“The reason dietary supplements are regulated as foods, not drugs, is that their ingredients are naturally present as components of what people eat,” says Collins. “Amino acids, for example, are present in our foods. Supplement products made of these amino acids are very different from prescription drug products like testosterone and HGH. The supplement products help spur the body to naturally produce more hormones, while the prescription drugs are synthetic versions of the hormones themselves.”

Indeed, there’s ample proof that amino acids can naturally—not synthetically—boost both testosterone and HGH, increasing muscle mass and boosting athletic performance. A 2009 study in Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology showed that the amino acid D-aspartic acid (also called D-asparaginic acid), one of the main ingredients in TestroVax, enhanced the release of testosterone in the body. A study—first presented at the prestigious Obesity Society’s 30th Annual Scientific Meeting and later featured on The Dr. Oz Show—revealed that the specialized, patented (U.S. Pat. No. 8,551,542) oral amino acid complex contained in GF-9 is actually capable of increasing mean, serum HGH levels by 682% in both men and women of a wide age range.

“Dietary supplements don’t have active pharmaceutical ingredients in them,” says Dave Ellis, R.D., of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association. “There are lots of regulations that the supplement industry has to follow. They’re made of common ingredients that are out there on the market and then assembling them together under good manufacturing practices.”

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