Would you believe that a substance found in plants that seemingly helps them defend themselves against being eaten by insects could get you bigger, harder, leaner and fuller? Can the supplement derived from this so-called bug hormone safely provide “steroidlike effects” and performance benefits? It may sound ridiculous, but 20-betaecdysterone may be able to do just that.

Also known as ecdysterone, 20-betaecdysterone first appeared on store shelves in the 1990s. The product didn’t have much of an impact among bodybuilders or other athletes — directions for use didn’t call for high doses, as most supplement companies didn’t realize that larger amounts were required for it to be effective. Users weren’t taking enough to prompt substantial effects. Few bodybuilders continued to purchase it, and it fell off the list of popular supplements.

Today’s manufacturers know the correct dosage of ecdysterone necessary to induce muscle-blasting results. It’s rare for us at FLEX to be blown away by a supplement, but this isn’t the usual supplement.

Ecdysterone comes from a class of chemicals known as phytoecdysteroids. In the garden, some plants synthesize these chemicals, and they act as a defense against plant-eating insects. The greenery replicates hormones produced by insects and crustaceans that are used in the molting process, in which they shed their exoskeletons. When susceptible insects ingest these phytoecdysteroids, they can experience serious adverse effects — including death. However, when humans and other animals ingest phytoecdysteroids, the effects are advantageous.

In the 1960s, researchers discovered the potent anabolic property of phytoecdysteroids was due to the presence of the specific sterol 20-beta-ecdysterone. It was soon established that several types of plants (including spinach) were fairly rich in 20-beta-ecdysterone, which made it readily available for study. Scientists determined that the molecules were not toxic to animals, and further investigation showed a wide array of beneficial effects, most notably increased muscle growth.

Ecdysterone does not induce the expression of genes, like anabolic steroids do. Instead, it influences biochemical pathways outside the nuclei of muscle cells with the ultimate outcome being increased synthesis of muscle proteins — hence muscle growth. (Protein synthesis refers to the making of muscle protein by stringing amino acids together.)

In fact, numerous research studies have revealed that ecdysterone increases protein synthesis and prompts muscle growth, particularly when ample calories and protein are provided. In addition, some reports present evidence that even when calorie intake is reduced, ecdysterone supplementation can result in increased muscle growth. This makes it a great supplement to take during a mass-gaining phase or when cutting calories to get ripped. Either way, you’ll still end up gaining more lean mass. Anecdotal reports from bodybuilders also suggest that ecdysterone not only makes muscles larger, but harder, as well.

Ecdysterone has also been shown in clinical trials to enhance physical performance in three ways.

#1 It increases muscle ATP content. Since adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy currency of all cells, including muscle cells, having more ATP means more energy for exercise — whether it’s lifting weights, running or playing basketball.

#2 It may raise levels of critical chemicals in the brain. Specifically, this refers to chemicals that help the body deal with mental and physical stress. Handling stresses better can lead to enhanced overall performance.

#3 It may increase muscle response to the anabolic hormone insulin. When insulin binds to receptors located on muscle cells, a number of things happen. One is an increase in the uptake of glucose from the blood into the muscle cells. This allows muscles to store more glucose in the form of glycogen, which helps the muscles to operate longer. Another result when insulin binds to muscle cell receptors is a boost in the uptake of amino acids. This can lead to more muscle, as the amino acids assist in building muscle protein. The muscle cells also experience greater uptake of creatine and increased protein synthesis (insulin signals protein synthesis to occur in muscle cells). Therefore, ecdysterone not only directly boosts muscle-protein synthesis, but also indirectly increases it through the response to insulin.

All of these effects lead to greater muscle growth, muscle strength and overall athletic performance. If that’s not enough, ecdysterone has been shown to enhance sexual activity in both animals and humans, as well as improve sexual function in men — not that we’re saying you need that.

Ecdysterone usually comes from one of two sources: Rhaponticum carthamoides, also known as Maral root, an herb that typically grows wild at high altitudes in parts of Siberia, and Cyanotis vaga, another herb. Look for products that allow you to get two to three milligrams of 20-beta-ecdysterone per pound of bodyweight per day. That amounts to a daily total of 300-750 milligrams for bodybuilders who weigh between 150 and 250 pounds.

The best way to take ecdysterone is in multiple daily doses (it stays active in the body for only a few hours) with high-protein meals. To keep protein-synthesis rates maximized for optimal muscle growth, take the supplement three to six times per day with food. FLEX

Chuck Rudolph is a registered dietitian and holds a master of education degree in nutrition with concentration in biochemistry. He is a nutrition consultant/lifestyle dietitIan For ocfitnessbootcamp.com; director of sports nutrition at the Cutting Edge Athletics training facility in Lake Forest, California; and the founder of Dietsbychuck.com.