Illicit Substances Used by Athletes to Enhance Performance

With the start of the summer Olympics, all eyes are on the athletes that strive to win medals and break world records. As the world looks on, officials are concerned with the use of illicit performance enhancing substances as a way for athletes to gain an unfair advantage over others in order to bring home the gold for their respective countries. Below are some of the most commonly used performance enhancing drugs, and some of the risks associated with their use.

Anabolic steroids are probably what most people think of when they hear the words "performance enhancing drugs." Steroids work in the body similar to the way testosterone works - they increase strength and muscle mass and can even help to reduce the amount of fat in the body and shorten recovery times after injuries. The use of steroids can lead to many health problems, including liver malfunction, kidney failure, heart disease, high blood pressure, and body acne. Additionally, steroids can cause an increase in aggressive behavior, which has been referred to as "roid rage."

Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone that is naturally produced by the body that stimulates the production of red blood cells. Athletes inject this hormone in order to boost the number of red blood cells already being produced in the body, which results in more oxygen in the blood, and in turn provides athletes with greater endurance and stamina in a number of events. Continuous Erythropoietin Receptor Activator (CERA) is another form of EPO that does not have to be injected as frequently due to having a longer half-life, meaning that it stays in a person's system longer. Along the same lines, synthetic oxygen carriers such as hemoglobin based oxygen carriers (HBCOs) and perflurocarbons (PFCs) are chemicals that also oxygenate the blood. Due to making the blood thicker, the use of these hormones and chemicals puts athletes at risk for strokes, heart disease, and even embolisms in the brain and heart.

Diuretics are substances that increase the amount of urine that is secreted by the body, and helps to get rid of excess fluids. Diuretics are sometimes used by athletes to lose weight in order to qualify for a specific weight category within a sport, and can also be used to flush the system in an attempt to cover up the use of other drugs. The abuse of diuretics can lead to dehydration and low blood pressure, which can then cause dizziness and fainting.

Human growth hormone (hGH) has the ability to increase the number of cartilage cells the human body produces, which results in the enlargement of a person's bones, muscles, and organs. This growth can lead to enhanced athletic performance in individuals taking hGH. Some side effects of hGH include pain in the muscles, joints, and bones, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and arthritis.

Insulin is also sometimes used by athletes in order to produce more glycogen in the body, which is what muscles feed off of during endurance events. When used with other performance enhancing drugs, insulin can also increase muscle mass. Abusing insulin can lead to hypoglycemia, seizures, brain damage, and even death.

While it is not easy to detect some of these substances in the systems of our Olympic athletes, the International Olympics Committee is testing regularly in the hopes of curtailing the use of these performance enhancing drugs. Even though the committee is doing its best to manage this problem, there are still athletes that will make the wrong choices and as a result, not be allowed to participate in the summer Olympic games.

Jessica Parks is a certified alcohol and drug counselor in the state of Illinois and has her M.A. in art therapy counseling.

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