The use of performance-enhancing drugs is all too common amongst athletes, whose desire to win leads them to ignore the severe side effects of these substances. There are many types of performance-enhancing drugs available, and they come in different forms such as pills or ointments. We see tests occurring in various sports, from Olympic athletes to major league baseball players. The different types available produce different benefits for the athlete (along with different risks), so the chemicals used will be determined by the desired outcome. In this article, we’ll take a look at how some of the most common performance-enhancing substances work.
Anabolic steroids are often used by various athletes, including those involved in track and field, weightlifting and American football, to increase muscle strength and power. They are substances which resemble testosterone and other male hormones, which can be injected or taken as a pill. Anabolic steroids work by stimulating the receptor molecules in the bones and muscles to activate specific genes to produce new protein. Research suggests that the effectiveness of anabolic steroids is increased by heavy resistance training, as this increases the number of unbound receptor cells that the drug can stimulate.
Athletes who have used these substances reported being able to train harder and recover more quickly, which may be because anabolic steroids block the effects of hormones such as cortisol which is involved in the breakdown of tissues during and after exercise. Unfortunately for the athletes, the results reverse when they stop taking the chemicals, and they also come with risky side effects such as liver damage and depression.
Beta-2 adrenergic agonists refers to a collection of drugs including clenbuterol, terbutaline, salbutamol, fenoterol, and bambuterol. They are often used to treat asthma, as when inhaled they relax the muscles surrounding the lungs, causing dilation of the vessels and permitting more air to enter the lungs. However, when injected into the bloodstream or taken orally, the substances can build muscle mass and reduce body fat. They do this by limiting protein breakdown in the muscles. Therefore, beta-2 adrenergic agonists are commonly used amongst athletes involved in strength and endurance.
They are consequently banned amongst athletes except for in an inhaler form for the treatment of asthma. While they assist with increasing muscle mass, the substances come with several adverse side effects including nausea, headaches, dizziness, muscle cramps and rapid heartbeats.
Human growth hormone (HGH) occurs naturally in the body and is produced by the pituitary gland. It helps with cell reproduction and promotes physical growth by stimulating the liver and other tissues to make protein. While HGH is essential for healthy development, excessive levels increase muscle mass by stimulating protein synthesis, strengthen bones by encouraging bone growth, and reduce body fat by stimulating the breakdown of fat cells. It is therefore used by athletes to increase lean body mass, increase speed and endurance, and aid swift recovery from muscle fatigue or injury.
While the effectiveness of HGH on improving athletic performance has not been proven, it has been banned amongst athletes since the early 1990s; however many athletes have chosen to use it regardless as it is difficult to detect, and has no significant side effects if it is properly dosed.
The term stimulant refers to various drugs that impact the central nervous system. They have been commonly used amongst athletes to reduce tiredness and fatigue and increase endurance, alertness, competitiveness, and aggressiveness. They work by speeding up areas of the brain and body, which in turn increases the heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and body temperature. The most used stimulants amongst athletes are amphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy, and methylphenidate. They can be taken by snorting, injecting or as a pill, depending on the drug, and effects vary between each one; however, the general effect is the same. Although nicotine and caffeine are also classed as stimulants, they are not banned; however, they are monitored to detect any possible misuse. Side effects vary between each substance; cocaine, for example, can lead to panic attacks, paranoia, addiction, and even heart attacks in extreme cases. Amphetamines can damage the liver, kidneys and cardiovascular system, and also affect areas of the brain involved in memory and emotion.
Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone, which is secreted by the cells in the pancreas. High blood sugar levels trigger the release of insulin to reduce the body’s glucose levels and prevent the liver from releasing more. Insulin is usually prescribed to treat Type 1 diabetes; however, it has been used by athletes in an attempt to increase muscle mass and definition. The hormone plays a role in the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Therefore, athletes use it under the belief that it will stimulate protein synthesis and store higher amounts of carbohydrates and amino acids in the muscles.
It is often used alongside other performance-enhancing substances such as anabolic steroid and human growth hormone. Not only is insulin use banned for athletes, but can also cause low blood sugar which in turn may lead to shaking, nausea, weakness, shortness of breath, drowsiness, brain damage, coma, or even death.
Erythropoietin (EPO) is an example of a protein hormone which is used by athletes to enhance their performance. It is a naturally occurring hormone which is secreted by the kidneys in response to low oxygen conditions. EPO stimulates the bone marrow stem cells to produce new red blood cells, to deliver more oxygen to the kidneys. Runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes have been known to use EPO to increase their oxygen supply by up to 7-10%, as EPO is challenging to detect. However, the increased density of red blood cells, caused by EPO, can cause the blood to thicken.
This thickened blood does not flow through the blood vessels as smoothly, so the heart has to work harder to pump it, which puts the athlete at risk of heart attacks and strokes.