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What are the Side-Effects of Performance Enhancing Drugs?

The drive to be better, faster, and stronger is insatiable for many professional athletes and bodybuilders. Competitors are constantly looking for that edge that can catapult them to the winner’s circle. While many athletes adhere to a strict diet and workout routine, others succumb to the temptation to use performance-enhancing drugs.

While steroids don’t create the euphoric high associated with other controlled substances, they still carry a significant risk of addiction. The desire to achieve an elite level of performance or a particular appearance can quickly take over, fuelling increased use of steroids to create the target effect.

This drive to succeed caused tennis star Maria Sharapova to use Meldonium, a steroid that aids in athletic performance, injury rehabilitation, and stress protection. It caused track and field star Ben Johnson to use Stanozol, a human growth hormone known to increase muscle mass and improve endurance. Finally, and perhaps most famously, it caused Lance Armstrong, Tour de France biking superstar, to use a human growth hormone and erythropoietin (EPO), a stimulant known to increase red blood cell counts, increasing oxygen to the muscles, and improving athletic performance and recovery.

What are the side effects of performance-enhancing drugs? Are these substances healthy and safe to use? Athletes at all levels in the United States and abroad must answer these questions before incorporating steroids and other performance enhancers into a training regimen.

Types of Performance-Enhancing Drugs

While hundreds of types of performance-enhancing drugs are available, most fit into a few broad categories.

Anabolic Steroids

Also known as anabolic-androgenic steroids, these substances promote muscle mass and strength. Testosterone is the main anabolic steroid produced in the body. In addition to muscle growth, athletes and bodybuilders may take anabolic steroids to aid recovery, allowing them to work out harder and more frequently.


Androstenedione is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, ovaries, and testicles. Those who manufacture and use this hormone tout its ability to help athletes train harder and recover faster.

Human Growth Hormones

Athletes take various types of human growth hormones (HGHs) to build muscle mass and endurance. While some people have a legitimate HGH deficiency, others use these injections to boost athletic prowess.

Erythropoietin (EPO)

Erythropoietin is often used to treat anemia in people with severe kidney disease by increasing the production of red blood cells and hemoglobin. Taking EPO improves the movement of oxygen to the muscles, a benefit for athletes.


Diuretics change the body’s natural balance of fluid and salt, reducing dehydration. Some athletes use diuretics to try to pass drug screenings or help them “make weight” if they must compete in a specific weight class, such as in wrestling or boxing.


Creatine is a naturally occurring substance in the body that aids the muscles in releasing energy. Athletes use it when they need those quick bursts of energy, like when lifting weights or sprinting.


Some athletes use stimulants to boost the central nervous system and to increase heart rate and blood pressure. This boost allows the athlete to remain more alert during competition.

Risks of Performance-Enhancing Drugs

what are the side effects of performance enhancing drugs

Image via Flickr by Steven Pisano

What are the side effects of performance-enhancing drugs? Athletes who misuse these substances can experience dangerous health problems. For example, taking steroids at higher than recommended doses or for prolonged time periods can cause:

  • Increased alertness and aggression.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Damaged heart and blood vessels, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
  • Insomnia.
  • Psychosis, delusions, depression, and other psychiatric disorders.
  • Weight gain or weight loss.
  • Increased risk of tendinitis and tendon rupture.
  • Liver abnormalities and tumours.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Infection at the injection site.
  • Male pattern baldness.

Warning Signs of Steroid Abuse

If you think a loved one may have a problem with steroid abuse, be aware of these red flags:

  • Rapid lean muscle gain within a 10-week period.
  • Abnormal or excessive amounts of time spent in the gym.
  • Possession of needles and syringes.
  • Red or inflamed track marks where steroids are injected.
  • New acne breakouts, especially if the person previously had clear skin.
  • The distinctive odour of steroid creams.

A college athlete’s drive to get to the next level, a professional athlete’s desire to gain a small edge, and a body builder’s quest for just the right look put these individuals at risk for steroid abuse. Enhanced muscle mass, faster recoveries, increased endurance, and improved energy and alertness create psychological cravings that can signify a substance abuse disorder. Because of the negative health impact of performance-enhancing drugs, the sanctioning and governing bodies of most professional and collegiate sports have banned steroid use in competition. Athletes found with steroids in their system often face suspensions and even lifetime bans.


Photo credit: Chuck Abbe. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.