Why Some Athletes Use Drugs
Athletes face enormous pressure to excel in competition. They also know that winning can reap them more than a gold medal. A star athlete can earn a lot of money and a lot of fame, and athletes only have a short time to do their best work. Athletes know that training is the best path to victory, but they also get the message that some drugs and other practices can boost their efforts and give them a shortcut, even as they risk their health and their athletic careers.
As far back as ancient Greece, athletes have often been willing to take any preparation that would improve their performance. But it appears that drug use increased in the 1960s. The precise reason for the increase is uncertain, but we do know that anabolic-androgenic steroids were made available for sale during this period and the East German government began giving drugs to its athletes in an attempt to excel on an international level [source: The Guardian] [source: Sports Injury Bulletin]. Athletes may also misuse drugs to relax, cope with stress or boost their own confidence.
Athletes may have several reasons for using performance-enhancing drugs. An athlete may want to: build mass and strength of muscles and/or bones; increase delivery of oxygen to exercising tissues; mask pain; stimulate the body; relax; reduce weight or hide the use of other drugs.
The classes of drugs used for these purposes are shown above. Most of the drugs shown are banned outright in Olympic competitions. However, some of these drugs, such as cortisone and local anesthetics, are allowed with certain restrictions in Olympic competition because they have legitimate clinical uses. We'll look at each major class of drug and tell you about the dangerous side effects.
Building Mass and Strength
Mass- and strength-enhancing drugs used by athletes include:
- Anabolic steroids
- Beta-2 agonists
- Human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG)
- Luteinizing hormone (LH)
- Human growth hormone (HGH)
- Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1)
A steroid is a chemical substance derived from cholesterol. The body has several major steroid hormones -- cortisol and testosterone in the male, estrogen and progesterone in the female. Catabolic steroids break down tissue, and anabolic steroids build up tissue. Anabolic steroids build muscle and bone mass primarily by stimulating the muscle and bone cells to make new protein.
Athletes use anabolic steroids because they increase muscle strength by encouraging new muscle growth. Anabolic steroids are similar in structure to the male sex hormone, testosterone, so they enhance male reproductive and secondary sex characteristics (testicle development, hair growth, thickening of the vocal cords). They allow the athlete to train harder and longer at any given period.
Anabolic steroids are mostly testosterone (male sex hormone) and its derivatives. Examples of anabolic steroids include: testosterone, dihydrotestosterone, androstenedione (andro), dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), clostebol, nandrolone.
These substances can be injected or taken as pills. Anabolic steroids have a number of possible and well-known side effects, including: jaundice and liver damage because these substances are normally broken down in the liver; mood swings, depression and aggression because they act on various centers of the brain.
In males, the excessive concentrations interfere with normal sexual function and cause baldness, infertility and breast development.
In females, the excessive concentrations cause male characteristics to develop and interfere with normal female functions. The drugs can stimulate hair growth on the face and body, suppress or interfere with the menstrual cycle -- possibly leading to infertility; thicken the vocal cords, which causes the voice to deepen, possibly permanently; interfere with the developing fetus in pregnant women.
Beta-2 Adrenergic Agonists
When inhaled, beta-2 agonists relax the smooth muscle in the airways of asthma patients by mimicking the actions of epinephrine and norepinephrine, substances that are secreted by sympathetic nerves. However when injected into the bloodstream, these drugs can build muscle mass (anabolic effect) and reduce body fat (catabolic effect). The anabolic effect appears to directly affect building proteins in the muscles, which is independent of nervous or cardiovascular effects. Some examples of beta-2 agonists include:
Some of these substances are permitted in inhaler forms with written medical consent.
The major side effects include: nausea, headaches and dizziness because these substances constrict blood vessels in the brain; muscle cramps because they constrict blood vessels in muscles; and rapid heartbeats or flutters because they stimulate heart rate. We'll look at human growth hormones in the next section.