Performance Enhancing Drugs – The Basics
About PEDs and Their Risks
Performance-Enhancing Drugs (or PEDs) are drugs thought to have the capability to boost one’s athletic performance and prowess for a short duration. In a fiercely competitive environment, the satisfaction of winning a medal, trophy, title or prize money for oneself, one’s team or country can be immense and the benefits of gaining an advantage enticing–even if it means breaking the rules.
According to the USADA: “PEDs have the ability or potential to drastically alter the human body and biological functions, including the ability to considerably improve athletic performance in certain instances. These drugs, however, can be extremely dangerous and, in certain situations, deadly. The negative effects these drugs can have on one’s body make USADA’s mission paramount as to why no athlete should ever have to consider PED use to succeed in sport.”
The Mayo Clinic has put together an excellent basic overview of PEDs. Below are some of the most typical performance-enhancing drugs used today and their risks, which we have culled from the Mayo Clinic’s official pronouncements available here.
What are Anabolic steroids?
Some athletes use steroids to increase their muscle mass and strength. The main anabolic steroid hormone produced by your body is testosterone.
Testosterone has two main effects on your body:
- Anabolic effects promote muscle building.
- Androgenic effects are responsible for male traits, such as facial hair and a deeper voice.
Some athletes take testosterone to increase their performance. Often, the anabolic steroids that athletes use are synthetic variations of testosterone.
The origin of these synthetic chemicals are medical in nature, though improving athletic performance is not one of them. They can be taken as injections, pills, or topical treatments.
Besides increasing muscle mass, anabolic steroids may help athletes recover from a hard workout quicker by reducing the muscle damage and strain that occurs during the workout. This allows athletes to work out harder and more frequently without exhaustion symptoms.
Perhaps the most dangerous class of anabolic steroids is the so-called “designer drugs” — synthetic steroids that have been illicitly created to be undetectable by current drug tests. They are made specifically for athletes and have no approved medical use.
Many athletes use steroids at potentially lethal doses, and most of what is known about the drugs’ effects on athletes comes from observing users.
Currently, it is impossible for researchers to design studies that would accurately test the effects of large doses of steroids on athletes, because giving participants such high doses would be unethical. This means that the effects of taking anabolic steroids at very high doses haven’t been well-studied.
Anabolic steroids, however, are known to result in serious physical side effects as well. Men may develop:
- Prominent breasts
- Shrunken testicles
- Prostate gland enlargement
Women may develop:
- A deeper voice
- An enlarged clitoris
- Increased body hair
- Infrequent or absent periods
Both men and women might experience:
- Severe acne
- Increased risk of tendinitis and tendon rupture
- Liver abnormalities and tumors
- Increased low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol)
- Decreased high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Heart and circulatory problems
- Aggressive behaviors, rage or violence
- Psychiatric disorders, such as depression
- Drug dependence
- Infections or diseases such as HIV or hepatitis if you’re injecting the drugs
- Inhibited growth and development, and risk of future health problems in teenagers
Taking anabolic-androgenic steroids to enhance athletic performance, is not only prohibited by most sports organizations it is illegal. In the past 20 years, more effective law enforcement in the United States has pushed much of the illegal steroid industry into the black market.
This poses additional health risks because the drugs are either made in other countries and smuggled in or made in clandestine labs in the United States. Either way, they aren’t subject to government safety standards and could be impure or mislabeled.
What is it?
Androstenedione (andro) is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, ovaries and testes. It’s a hormone that is normally converted to testosterone and estradiol in both men and women. Andro is available legally only in prescription form and is a controlled substance.
Manufacturers and bodybuilding magazines tout its ability to allow athletes to train harder and recover more quickly. However, its use as a performance enhancing drug is illegal in the United States.
Scientific studies that refute these claims show that supplemental androstenedione doesn’t increase testosterone and that your muscles don’t get stronger with andro use.
Side effects of androstenedione in men include:
- Diminished sperm production
- Shrinking of the testicles
- Enlargement of the breasts
In women, side effects include:
- Masculinization, such as deepening of the voice and male-pattern baldness
In both men and women, andro can decrease HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol), which puts you at greater risk of heart attack and stroke.
Human growth hormone
What is it?
Human growth hormone, of HGH, also known as gonadotropin, is a hormone that has an anabolic effect. Athletes take it to improve muscle mass and performance. It hasn’t been shown conclusively, however, to improve either strength or endurance. It is available in the United States only by prescription and is administered by injection.
Adverse effects related to human growth hormone range in severity and may include:
- Joint pain
- Muscle weakness
- Fluid retention
- Vision problems
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Impaired glucose regulation
- Enlarged heart (cardiomegaly)
- High cholesterol (hyperlipidemia)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
What is it?
Erythropoietin is a type of hormone used to treat anemia in people with severe kidney disease. It increases production of red blood cells and hemoglobin, resulting in improved movement of oxygen to the muscles. Epoetin, a synthetic form of erythropoietin, is commonly used by endurance athletes.
Erythropoietin use among competitive cyclists was common in the 1990s and allegedly contributed to at least 18 deaths. Inappropriate use of erythropoietin may increase the risk of thrombotic events, such as stroke, heart attack and pulmonary embolism.