Doping in athletes and PED in sports is once again prevalent in the news. Not simply because of the recent London Games, but the downfall of Lance Armstrong, who, as I write this, has stepped down as chairman of the Livestrong Foundation and dropped by Nike, RadioShack, and Anheuser-Busch. ESPN recently aired the documentary“9.79*” profiling steroid use in the 88’ Seoul Olympics where Ben Johnson set a new world record in the 100 meter race. Not only was that the end of Johnson’s career, but five of the other seven in that final heat were eventually linked in some way to the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).
You can read the full 202 page USADA report on Lance Armstrong if you like – it’s actually rather interesting to read all the testimonials and evidence. Believe what you like about Lance, and make up your own mind as he chooses to maintain his innocence like Clemens and Bonds. Though rather than judge what he is accused of doing or try to justify it in either direction, know this: There’s a whole lot of people on drugs, some legal, some illegal and many that are not but should be. These people are faster, stronger, and smarter than you because of it. And most likely you are on an enhancing drug too.
The Grey Line: What is Really For Medical Purposes
“A drug is a substance which may have medicinal, intoxicating, performance enhancing or other effects when taken or put into a human body or the body of another animal and is not considered a food or exclusively a food.” That’s a good drug definition from Wikipedia. But this is a very grey area as a drug can have one effect on one person and a different response in another. Some athletes use various drugs under the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) guidelines, making it okay for them to use an otherwise banned substance for their certain medical condition.
But what if that person brought on the medical condition from training too hard or some other unhealthy lifestyle factor? Why should they be allowed to negate that effect and perhaps gain some aid by taking a drug prescribed for that problem? Take an asthma drug, for example. Asthma, especially exercised induced asthma, is common in athletes who push their adrenal hormones too hard for too long and develop problems with normal bronchial relaxation. It’s a lung symptom, from a hormonal cause. It’s impossible to figure out an exact dose of a medication, such as a common beta-adrenergic agonist inhaler like albuterol, which will bring the athlete simply back to “normal.” So how do we know that they aren’t getting an aid from that medication? They very well could be.
Athletes, whether amateur or elite, often tax their bodies for so long at such high intensities that they end up with hormonal problems and neurotransmitter imbalances. The result is fatigue, sleep problems, low libido, depression, and a host of other symptoms. So Tyler Hamilton takes DHEA (a hormone) and Alberto Salazar goes on a SSRI antidepressant. Legal? No for Tyler and yes for Alberto, all based upon the law which is determined by the effect it may have on the athlete. They both overtrained and suffered the consequences. (I realize Tyler did much more than DHEA – but that’s what nabbed him in the end.) A SSRI drug like Salazar was taking for “overtraining syndrome” is a result of just that – overtraining. So he legally gets to artificially change what he screwed up.
How about a woman taking progesterone? Why is that legal? Plenty of women take progesterone in lotion or pill form (you can get it at most health food stores) and of course in birth control pills. Taking progesterone can help not just replace a depleted level, (as it’s often converted to the stress hormone cortisol), but allow her to train harder and longer. Progesterone is perfectly legal even though it, like DHEA, can convert to androstenedione, which is illegal. If a woman is low in progesterone due to overtraining then she can replace what she’s lost and most likely gain some health and fitness benefits from it too.
Focus on Your Drugs
Then we have the mental performance enhancing drugs. These are the widespread use of medications prescribed commonly for ADD and ADHD. Most kids use these to enhance their focus and concentration and improve their test taking. It’s legal if a medical doctor prescribes it, and most easily do. Is it fair if you’re taking a test against a peer who is on a drug to calm their overstimulated brain down as they guzzle the increasing popular “Go Go Juice” (Red Bull & Mountain Dew)? In our world it is fair game.
Beta blockers (heart meds) are also widely used by athletes and non-athletes. Actors and musicians use these regularly to calm their nerves down – and I’m talking professional symphony musicians not necessarily rock groups. Students have realized the “benefits” here too. It’s not uncommon for a vast amount of university students to be popping a beta blocker before an exam.
These same meds help athletes in events such as shooting and archery. These drugs have been shown to increase shooting performance by over 13%. In London 2012 they were legal in every event except shooting and archery. Perhaps your golf buddy or bowling partner is kicking your ass on a beta blocker.
Perform Today, Deal With it Later: “Fitness Before Health”
Athletes are not judged on their health. There is no race where at the finish line your place is determined by your heart rate or your ability to conserve glycogen more than the other guy. A professional athlete doesn’t get paid to be healthy – they get paid to be fit at whatever their sport is. Of course, as you hopefully know, health is always more important. Part of a healthy body is dependent upon fitness, and vice-versa. In other words, you need a certain level of fitness to be healthy and a certain level of health to be fit. However, the more fit one becomes typically the more health suffers.
This is the nature of the game and when the stakes are high, health will always lose to fitness. So an athlete becomes injured or sick – maybe low energy, insomnia, or depression. As their health suffers they’ll typically turn to a drug, perhaps a pain killer or an anti-inflammatory (NSAID). Maybe a sleep aid to help get a few hours rest and of course a lot of coffee to get them going in the morning is the start of their drug use.
They’re all drugs, however you look at it. Yet most are deemed okay because they’re prescribed or contained naturally in foods, not some harmful PED such as an anabolic steroid. Nobody thinks twice when an athlete takes a few ibuprofen with two shots of espresso – it’s not like he just took some EPO. But there are dangers, some more immediate and noticeable than others. NSAIDs kill thousands every year, at least that we know of. Many more suffer health issues and these health issues will in some way be tied to impaired performance. More on NSAIDs here. And then you have drugs like the recent tainted steroid shots for pain that have killed 15 and sickened 200 after being contaminated with fungal meningitis. Sure it’s not too common, but death and health impairment from drugs as a whole are far from uncommon.
ANY drug will alter your chemistry and have some negative effect on your body despite what some of the benefits may be. Baseball may have been slightly cleaned up from the high incidence of androstenedione use, but nicotine is still rampant in the clubhouse as many continue to chew. Obviously nicotine will do some damage to the mouth and throat but how about the liver where it needs to be detoxified? The body relies on an important process called sulfation to detoxify these drugs. That same process is how you repair cartilage. Some muscles that support the shoulder are closely related to the liver (the rhomboids and the pectoralis major). So look at this disaster in the making – shoulder muscle imbalances and the inability to heal tissue. How many ball players have shoulder problems? That’s the picture I see.
Hormones Are Everywhere
You don’t have to necessarily inject yourself with a hormone to get an un-natural amount, though you’re probably not going to get enough to increase performance via food. Alberto Contador tried to use this defense after his 2010 Tour de France win, saying his positive steroid levels came from some tainted steak from a cow that was fed clenbuterol. Though you’re most likely not going to test positive for a drug laced in the food you eat, these foods can affect your health and many are linked to health problems.
Most non-organic milk may be rGBH free but it can contain various levels of DHEA, estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone. Soy products, especially soy isolates and soy milk, will increase estrogen in the body – not something any man, women, or child, athlete or not, should want to consume. High levels of estrogen are linked to everything from weight gain to low sperm count to cancer.
It’s well known today that plastics containing BPA will alter hormone levels too. And fish, whether wild or farm raised, often are loaded with synthetic hormones. Those in the wild eat plastic residue floating in the oceans (or they eat the little fish that have eaten those plastics), and those in the farms are often given hormones to get them to grow faster.
You don’t have to eat it to consume it. Cosmetics are notorious for being laced with hormones. It’s their “dirty little secret.” If your lotion, sunscreen, or make-up isn’t certified organic it most likely contains high levels of synthetic hormones or chemicals which will alter your hormones. They don’t have to say there is estrogen or testosterone in the product – these companies police themselves. One lab I work with for hormonal testing used to test cosmetic products for such levels but stopped doing so after they estimated that over 80% of them showed positive for various amounts of synthetic hormones.
So you may be on drugs and not even know it.
From the Classroom to the Boardroom to the Bedroom
It’s not just elite athletes who are using PEDs. Plenty of amateur athletes are as well and so are plenty of people whose only interest in fitness may be the class they’re taking in sports science.
Students routinely take amphetamines (ADD-type meds such as Adderall) to get through an exam or study period and many adults are on them too. “Adult onset ADD” – that diagnosis is comical. Basically a person’s health is so poor that their nervous system is in constant “fight or flight” mode and they can’t even read a paragraph in a book without losing their place. USADA is cracking down on some athletes, even amateurs now, for these drugs, unless they have a TUE. But the exemptions aren’t easy to come by hence the complaining, “I have a medical condition” begins. I say too bad.
Caffeine is probably the most common drug used today, though perhaps you could argue sugar is a close second here, although not a true “drug.” But back to the definition of a drug – a food can have a drug-like effect in certain amounts, or in certain people. Many people use caffeine and sugar all day to keep them going and they use it to train and race with too and often perform well until their health suffers. Many of these same individuals then take a drug such as Adderall to focus and some even to perform better while training or racing. Then they get home and alcohol is the common go-to drug to calm down at night. Then for some, a Viagra for arousal and then some Ambien or a similar drug to calm back down to sleep at night.
People are on drugs all day long and they’re all for the most part legal and all enhancers. If your lady is impressed by your action after a Viagra are you a cheat? It is deceptive isn’t it? Oh yeah – you have a medical condition. Please have her sign your TUE before lighting the mood candle.
Who Isn’t On Drugs?
Methamphetamine is a popular drug in the surfing circuit (seriously). Baseball players love amphetamines and nicotine even more since McGwire and the boys took away their androstenedione. Pain meds, NSAIDs, “prescribed” hormones, and other medications are and will always be a major part of any sport. It’s a part of life for most people. You don’t have to (allegedly) take drugs like those racing in Le Tour to be a cheat and gain an edge in performance – it’s all so readily available and accepted.
The question you should ask yourself is just how natural you want to be. How clean do you want to be? And in turn – how healthy do you want to be? By no means am I saying that moderate caffeine, alcohol, or even sugar use is a problem (for most). But if you’re on a drug, for a medical condition or not, realize that you’re almost always altering some physiological function in your body that you shouldn’t be messing around with. If you’re better with it – what’s wrong so you can’t do without it? Why can’t you wake up, sleep, think, or perform in every way without it?
There’s definitely a time and a place for drugs. I’m all for an antibiotic if it’s truly necessary or any other drug that can save a life or enhance life when it is beyond immediate repair. I’m all for certain drugs in the military for the men and women who need to stay awake for days – and often weeks – just to stay alive. It’s definitely not healthy but it’s better than being dead.
Most who abuse drugs think the word (abuse) should be left for the true users of PEDs such as those I mentioned throughout this article. I don’t fully agree because if you’re taking something to alter something, then you’re cheating your own system, your own life, and those involved around you. Professional athletes may dope to enhance their job, and you may too to enhance yours even if you’re an accountant simply trying to stay focused. I say you’re one in the same.