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Updated 20 January 2016

Anabolic steroid supplements trap unwary athletes

Three Olympic sprinters have tested positive for a banned sustance. DietDoc looks at the harmful effects of anabolic steroids on the body.

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The spectre of doping

Once Lance Armstrong decided to confess to Oprah about his deliberate use of performance-enhancing, banned substances, every person taking part in sport of any kind has been living under a microscope.

Usain Bolt has stated publicly that "doping scandals have set athletics back" (ST.com, 2013). He was referring to the recent revelations that other top athletes such as Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson, had failed pre-World Championship drug tests (11alive, 2013).

Chris Froome, the current top world cyclist, kept on having to defend his performance and declare that he is "drug-free" during this year's Tour de France. After riding more than 3 400km in some of the world’s toughest terrains, the press hardly gave Froome a chance to catch his breath before they were peppering him with questions about doping (Davis & Masters, 2013).

But if we consider the unbelievable demands that we make on our athletes, then is it not perhaps inevitable that they should turn to chemicals to improve their performance? It cannot be easy to maintain endless fitness and repeat top performances over and over again.

Let’s blame the supplements

Nowadays there are more supplements for sportsmen and women available than ever before in the long history of competition. Take a stroll through any pharmacy, but particularly the big ones, and you will be confronted with rows and rows of bottles that promise stamina, muscle recovery, strength, enhanced performance, fat burning, muscle growth - in fact every attribute an athlete could dream of and many forbidden improvements that can land athletes in all kinds of trouble and lose them their titles, medals, sponsors and prizes.

It is fascinating that supplements are usually used as excuses and trainers become scapegoats when athletes fail their drug tests. For example, in an article on Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson’s violation of Italy’s doping laws, it was reported that "Italian police confiscated unidentified substances in a raid on the hotel where the trio was staying..." and that the two athletes and their Canadian physical trainer, Christopher Xuereb, "were formally placed under criminal investigation for allegedly violating Italy’s doping laws" (CBC, 2013).

As in most cases, the agent Paul Doyle who represents Powell and Simpson, reportedly said about Xuereb, the new trainer, that he "might have given them supplements laced with a banned substance" (CBC, 2013). So it is the supplements and the trainers who take the blame, when the athletes are brought to book. However, when one considers what some of these sports supplements contain, then this may well be justified in certain cases.

Playing with fire

Recently a member of the public asked me if it was safe to use a slimming aid called "Reverzine" to lose weight. After an internet search I discovered that this product contains a plant extract called yohimbe hydrochloride (Anabolic Review, 2013). As far as I could ascertain, yohimbe is popularly used to inject into fat depots because it is supposed to have "fat burning properties".

The Anabolic Review website warns that yohimbe is very potent and should be used in small doses as taking too much could cause vomiting, high body temperature and flushing. The idea that an athlete may inject himself with this type of androgenic antagonist and then take part in highly strenuous events, is frightening. Imagine running or cycling at maximum capacity when your body temperature is already raised - the potential side-effects can include heat exhaustion, collapse and brain damage.

But athletes are always wanting to "make weight" or build lean body mass or enhance their performance or the oxygen carrying capacity of their blood, so they are sitting ducks when it comes to the enticing promises of these supplements.

Harmful effects of anabolic steroids 

Anabolic steroids are probably among the most popular sports drugs in use at present and also the compounds that are most likely to produce positive drug tests in athletes, thus ruining their reputations and careers.

According to the Anabolic Review website (2013), anabolic steroids can have the following side-effects:

  • Loss of testosterone production - ironically athletes may make less of their own testosterone when using anabolic steroid supplements, with subsequent low sperm production and atrophy of the testicles.
  • Liver damage and possibly even hepatic cancer - loading the body with excess steroids will put an additional burden on the liver which is usually responsible for removing or neutralising such compounds 
  • Electrolyte imbalances leading to water and salt retention (which increases body weight and blood pressure)
  • Feminisation of male athletes - abnormally high testosterone levels in the body are partially converted to oestrogens (a process called aromatising) which may stimulate breast development, and fat deposition on the hips and soft muscles as is characteristic in women
  • Masculinisation in female athletes - high levels of testosterone in a woman’s body can lead to growth of facial hair, enlargement of the clitoris, a deeper voice, changes in and/or absence of menstruation (amenorrhoea), depression, aggression, and increased libido
  • Acne due to overstimulation of the sebaceous glands in the skin by the excessive intake of testosterone which is believed to be converted to DHT (dehydro- testosterone), as well as other skin problems such as stretch marks and scarring which may be irreversible
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, including  diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting
  • Alopecia or hair loss, particularly male pattern baldness, which is irreversible
  • Cardiac effects, including increased blood cholesterol levels which may cause heart disease and hypertension (high blood pressure). Increased clotting time may also complicate cardiovascular health and well-being
  • Stunted growth in young athletes, which is irreversible
  • Renal stress - the kidneys have to work harder and may be simultaneously exposed to high blood pressure that can cause bleeding and damage
  • Psychological effects include well known increases in aggression (sport rage), or depression
  • Increased risk of injury to muscles and joints
  • Increased risk of infections
  • In severe cases athletes have developed anaphylactic shock when using anabolic steroids. Anaphylactic shock is a serious and life threatening side-effect that requires immediate medical treatment and/or hospitalisation.

That anyone reading this list of side-effects, many of which are highly damaging and can have a lasting effect on a person’s life and future health, would still contemplate taking sports supplements containing components such as yohimbe, ephedrine, etc, is beyond understanding. But that is what athletes do, over and over again.

If you are a sportsman or woman, or a coach, especially one in charge of young athletes, please do not even contemplate using or promoting the use of any supplement that promises weight loss or enhances performance, no matter how enticing the label and the advertising are. You could be dooming yourself or your innocent charges to severe and irreversible harm and you may lose everything you have gained - fame, success, sponsorships, riches, adulation - everything -  if you test positive for a banned substance.

By all means enhance your performance with a diet designed by a sports dietitian, and a sensible training programme, psychological support and encouragement, so that if you win, you can take a drug test without any qualms and your health will not suffer in years to come.  

(References: Anabolic Review (2013). 1) Product Review - Yohimbe. 2) Side-Effects. http://www.anabolicreview.co.za ; CBC (2013). Powell, Simpson investigated for violating doping laws. Canadian trainer Chris Xuereb also subject of police investigation in Italy. The Associated Press. 16 July 2013. http://www.cbd.ca/sports/ ; Davis A, Master J (2013). Froome: Cycling’s doping past won’t overshadow Tour triumph. CNN.com 22 July 2013. CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2013/ ;11alive (2013) Sprinters Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell caught doping. 11alive.com. 22 July 2013. http://www.11alive.com/news/; ST (Straitstimes).com (2013). Doping scandals have set athletics back, says Bolt. 25 July 2013. http://www.straitstimes.com/)

  

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.

 
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