Maintaining a competitive edge and out-performing opponents on the court, athletic field, or in the arena underlies every contest. Attaining the medal, trophy and accolades can be a terrifically heady feeling, but when an individual’s scholarship, salary or future in a sport is at stake, how far will they go to maintain their competitive edge in a field that is oh-so competitive?
Some athletes turn to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to boost their strength, endurance, or other athletic attributes. While robustly policed in some sports, the use of PEDs is sometimes ignored or even quietly accepted in others. Drug use in sports often makes headlines when it crosses a line, but drug abuse in athletes isn’t just a matter of unfair play–or downright cheating; it can be dangerous for users.
Rampant Use of PEDs and Borderline Drugs
Some studies suggest that roughly three million people in the U.S. use PEDs. That’s about as many people who are living with Type 1 Diabetes. Performance-enhancing drugs encompass a wide range of substances, however. They may be medications, supplements or sometimes just substances labeled as “health aids.” Some sports leagues and organizations ban the use of some PEDs and not others. Many leagues, coaches, and athletes believe that using some types of PEDs is completely unethical–cheating. But what constitutes an unethical substance or the unethical use of a substance among athletes? That’s a matter of ongoing debate for both professional and amateur athletics stakeholders.
In some fields, the use of PEDs is rampant. During the Olympics, there is frequently a doping scandal that makes international headlines, but often the use of PEDs isn’t monitored with quite as much diligence as Olympic sports. And the truth is, as many as six out of 10 Olympic athletes rely on some form of sports-enhancing substances. Yet, even in recreational sports where no sponsorships or scholarships are at risk, the use of these substances is a serious problem that can lead to serious health problems for users.
What Are Performance-Enhancing Drugs?
As mentioned, performance-enhancing drugs include many different substances. Some of these substances occur naturally; some are manufactured. The use of some substances for athletic purposes is illegal, and many substances are banned among sports leagues. Some substances are sold with misleading claims or haven’t been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What types of substances (often billed as supplements) are allowed and what substances cross a line? While league regulators and legislators debate that question, drug abuse in sports continues with no sign of athletes’ drug use on the decline.
Among many sports government bodies, certain substances are approved of, and many coaches actually encourage athletes to use them. Supplements, minerals and vitamins may be on a sports league’s list of approved substances. Some of the most popular substances that have approval for use in many athletics include:
- Amino acids such as glutamine
Most of these supplements/vitamins are not banned but athletes should routinely check with their sports governing authorities as rules change frequently regarding the use of substances among athletes.
Performance-enhancing drugs are more intensely regulated, however, or outright banned among various amateur and professional sports leagues. While these substances may offer athletes various advantages to boost their performance in some manner, they may also cause dangerous health risks. The most commonly abused PEDs include:
- Anabolic Steroids: These substances are versions of testosterone, the male hormone, that are synthetically produced but banned (or are illegal) by most U.S. and international sports organizations. These substances can cause a wide range of health problems including life-threatening conditions like heart attack.
- Androstenedione: Known among users as “Andro,” this substance along with tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) produce effects that are similar to testosterone. These, like many anabolic-androgenic steroids, are banned by most sports governing authorities.
- Amphetamines: Highly addictive, amphetamines are also banned by most sports organizations. These drugs are stimulants that can increase energy and alertness. Some of the most common amphetamines include Adderall, Dexedrine, and Benzedrine. Drugs like these are highly addictive.
- Erythropoietin: This substance is naturally produced by the body’s kidneys for the production of red blood cells. However, some athletes inject this hormone. It is typically banned but has recently made headlines in the cycling world as a commonly abused drug.
What crosses a line for athletes when it comes to substance use continues to be up for debate. Yet, even if a substance is approved of among a sports governing body, is it still safe for athletes to use? And how much use? Does it cross a health line even if it’s not frowned upon by coaches or leagues? That’s a question that athletes have to consider before taking any PED or another substance that could impede their health in some way.
Dangers of Performance Enhancers
According to the Mayo Clinic, performance-enhancing drugs have health risks. That’s the straight dope from medical experts. These risks will vary depending on the drug class or drug in question. In some instances, especially among new designer PEDs, the risks aren’t even entirely known. The most common health risks for PEDs include:
- Liver abnormalities
- Heart problems
- Circulation irregularities
- Inhibited development / growth
- Increased LDL cholesterol
- Weight gain
- Muscle cramps
- Aggressive behaviors
- Mental health symptoms (i.e. depression)
- High blood pressure
- Other health risks (spread of infectious diseases) associated with needle sharing
Men may experience symptoms such as:
- Decreased sperm counts
- Sexual dysfunction
- Shrunken testicles
- Enlargement of breasts
Women may experience:
- Masculinization (i.e. deepening of their voice)
- Male-pattern baldness
- Increased body hair
- Interruption (or cessation) of menstruation
Many of these PED side effects can be quite severe and carry a risk of premature death. Yet, many athletes continue to take them because of the benefit or supposed benefit they offer. These “enhancements” may include: improved endurance, reduced fatigue, increased muscle or body mass, improved focus/alertness, suppressed appetite and decreased inflammation.
Are Some Performance Enhancers Addictive?
Some performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids are addictive, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The medical community recognizes steroid use disorder as a health problem, although it is unclear how many athletes may suffer from this condition. However, like other addictive substances, there are some clear signs that demonstrate when a person has become dependent on PEDs. These signs and symptoms may include:
- Cravings for the drug
- Continued use despite negative health effects
- Withdrawal symptoms (i.e. restlessness, fatigue, irritability)
- Spending large amounts of money on the substance(s) in question
- Trying to stop using and being unable to
Unfortunately, when a person becomes addicted to these substances, they also have an increased risk for some related-health conditions associated with needle sharing. They may heighten their risk to contract diseases like HIV and hepatitis.
What to Do If You Use PEDs and How to Stop
Athletes who experience athletic benefits after using PEDs may feel inclined to continue using these drugs on an ongoing basis. Of course, the longer a person uses a drug, the more likely they will develop a tolerance, increase their dose, and, ultimately, develop a dependence. If you suspect that you have a problem with these drugs and cannot stop using them, it’s important to seek treatment. Many athletes are unaware of the addictive nature of these drugs and that they can overdose on them as they could on any other drug.
Visit FHE Health
Don’t wait to seek help if you are abusing PEDs or any other type of drug. PEDs can cause serious health problems that put your life at risk. The damage that these drugs can wreak on the body may not be reversible. The sooner you stop using them, the sooner you can safeguard your health and wellbeing.
FHE Health specializes in the treatment of addiction and mental health conditions. We offer a wide range of treatment programs designed to help people suffering from any form of substance addiction. Consider a consultation to help you determine the next steps to recovery.