A subset of the ongoing “war on drugs” is the struggles of governments and sporting organizations against performance enhancing drugs. While many people automatically think of steroids when the subject of these drugs is raised, in truth there are a variety of drugs apart from steroids that athletes can use to boost their performances. Some of these drugs are illegal substances, while others are merely banned for athletes in competitive sporting environments. Some athletes even use naturally occurring body hormones to improve their performances, a practice which is outlawed by most sports governing bodies.
The diversity of substances that can be used to enhance athletic performance provides a range of competitive advantages to the athletes who use them. These advantages include increased muscle mass, improved aerobic capacity, increased brain activity, increased tolerance for pain, and rapid weight loss. The popularity of different substances tends to vary with different sports depending on the extent to which those sports demand stamina, strength, lightness, and other advantages.
Stimulant-type drugs have become popular not only with athletes, but also with students and other individuals who value the improved concentration, wakefulness, and energy that these drugs can impart. These drugs include certain legal prescription medications as well as drugs that are illegal worldwide, such as cocaine.
Prescription stimulants are commonly prescribed to treat disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy. In a disordered brain, these substances can help to boost brain function to normal, healthy levels. However, in healthy brains these drugs can also have the effect of stimulating brain function and concentration to levels an individual cannot normally achieve. In a healthy individual, stimulants will also boost other body functions such as heart rate, which can promote feelings of wakefulness and energy.
Narcotic use in athletics commonly comes from individuals suffering from an injury or other pain that would otherwise prohibit or limit their participation in their sport. Like stimulants, narcotics include both legal prescription medications as well as illegal substances.
Two of the most common narcotics used by athletes are morphine and heroin. Morphine is a powerful prescription painkiller, while heroin is an illegal drug derived from morphine. These drugs both allow for pain relief by dulling the nervous system’s ability to detect pain signals. In addition to dulling physical sensations, narcotics can also dull feelings of anxiety and stress from which some athletes suffer prior to important contests.
Steroids have become synonymous with performance enhancing drugs, in part because the effects of steroid use are often more visibly apparent than other types of drugs. The increased muscle mass that can result from steroid use has also made these drugs popular with non-competitive body builders and individuals seeking to improve their physical appearance. Steroids share chemical properties with testosterone, a naturally occurring hormone. In addition to increasing muscle mass, steroids can also improve the body’s ability to recover after a workout or an injury.
Beta-2 agonists are the drugs found in rescue inhalers for asthmatics, which work by relaxing airway muscles and allowing air to pass more easily. Athletes with diagnosed asthma may use prescription inhalers in order to compete, but any non-prescription use of beta-2 agonists is prohibited.
Peptide hormones are found naturally in the human body, and affect the performance of various organs. Athletes seeking a competitive advantage typically use additional peptide hormones to improve their red blood cell count, or to improve their strength.
Diuretics play two principle roles among athletes looking to artificially enhance their performance. For sports in which athletes must meet certain weight requirements, or from which other advantages can be gained by staying as light as possible, diuretics are used in order to rapidly shed water weight. These drugs can also be used to dilute urine samples in order to mask the presence of other performance enhancing drugs.
Blood doping need not involve the use of drug at all, but it is worth mentioning here because the World Anti-Doping Association bans the procedure, and because it is both popular and difficult to detect. Blood doping involves the receipt of red blood cell transfusions, or the use of a drug to artificially boost the body’s red blood cell production. Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body, and more of these cells mean more oxygen is able to reach the muscles.