Psyched Online

Drugs & Sports: Drug Types

By Paul Schienberg, PhD

This article will review drugs sometimes used by athletes. Most sports officials’ voice a consistent negative attitude towards the use of performance enhancing and recreational drugs and have developed policies to ban their use. When violations have been discovered, however, punishment is randomly handed out. Some of the reasons behind this inconsistency are societal values of “the ends justify the means” and an obsessive drive to have an edge over competition. Subsequent articles will attend to the identification of drug problems, the motivation of drug usage and treatment options.

The International Olympic Committee refers to the use of banned drugs as “doping.” The Committee defines doping as “administrations or use of substances in abnormal amounts with abnormal methods by healthy persons with the exclusive aim of attaining an artificial and unfair increase of performance in competition.”

The same Committee has created five different doping categories that are banned from athletic competition: anabolic androgen steroids, stimulants, narcotic analgesics, beta-adrenergic blockers, and diuretics. Substances that sedate the central nervous system and serve to reduce anxiety (alcohol, barbiturates and sedative hypnotics), local anesthetics, anti-inflammatory drugs that relieve pain are not on the IOC list but are tested for in selected competitions. Specifically, alcohol, nicotine, diet regimens, amino acids and vitamins are not banned because they don’t enhance performance.

Before going on to the specific impact of the drugs mentioned above, it is important to understand the concept of addiction. It is characterized by an inability on the part of the athlete to control his/her chemical use. Therefore, addiction to a drug is characterized by chemical and psychological dependence on the substance to maintain an experience of normality. There can be a withdrawal syndrome during which physiological and psychological functioning are impaired. Chemical tolerance is thought of as a state where the drug needs to be taken in larger amounts to get the same effect.

Banned Substances

Anabolic Steroids. Many athletes use steroids to increase their strength and power. Steroids increase the male hormone androgen and decrease the female hormone estrogen. This has a masculinizing effect (increased masculine bulk and strength, increased facial and body hair, lowered voice, and interference with reproductive functioning). Long term usage of steroids can cause heightened aggression, domestic violence, child abuse, attempted murder, self-injury, suicide, cancer of the liver and lymphatic system, and premature heart disease. Other negative side effects include the possibility of addiction, decreased production of testosterone, which causes shrinking of testes, low sperm count and infertility.

Steroids only improve athletic performance when strength is a primary component of the sport and when the drug is combined with an intensified training program. Steroids work because they aid in the synthesis of proteins that help build skeletal muscle tissue. There is an increased risk in injuries because tendons and ligaments do not strengthen at the same rate as that muscle tissue develops.

Stimulants. The biological consequences of stimulant usage are to increase the rate and capacity of the heart, central nervous and respiratory systems. This category of drugs is divided into three groups:

  1. Psychomotor (cocaine, diet suppressants, amphetamines)
  2. Sympathomimetic amines which mostly effect the sympathetic and autonomic nervous system. These drugs seem to improve athletic performance by enhancing alertness and by reducing both mental and physical exhaustion. Stimulants are extremely dangerous (cocaine can cause death due to seizures, heart damage and strokes).
  3. Hallucinogens (marijuana, LSD, PCP, and cocaine) are often called recreational, mind-altering, or street drugs. These drugs effect or distort the perception of incoming stimuli, inhibit response and decision making time. Usually, the drugs that make up the hallucinogenic group inhibit as opposed to enhance athletic performance.

Narcotic Analgesics.Narcotic Analgesics (codeine, heroin, morphine, and opium) are often referred to as anti-inflammatory drugs. They are most often used by athletes to reduce pain, reduce inflammations of tissue, and create a sense of psychological well being and a sense that no one can beat them. So, athletes can continue playing even though they have sustained muscles and tissue damage. But, there is often an actual reduction in performance because one side effect is sedation. Other negative impacts of narcotic analgesics include physical and psychological dependency/addiction depressed respiration, and gastrointestinal disturbances.

Beta-Adrenergic Blockers. This classification of drugs is mostly used to lower blood pressure and treat heart disease. It should be noted that they do not induce dependency. The IOC bans them because they can positively effect performances in sports that require a steady hand (rifle and pistol shooting, archery, bowling and golf). Their negative effects include infertility, CNS disturbances, and bronchial problems.

Diuretics help the body get rid of water and salts by leaving as urine. When weight is a critical issue in a sport, athletes may try to reach required amounts by using these drugs. For example, wrestlers, jockeys, and boxers have strict weight requirements in their sports that may result in these individuals engaging in the use of diuretics. In addition, athletes who must take a drug test often use the use of diuretics. Diuretics will get the banned substances to pass through their system faster. The problem with this approach is that too rapid loss of fluids and potassium can cause heart arrhythmia, nausea, heat exhaustion, blood clotting, muscle cramps and reduced blood volume.

Depressants. These drugs were designed to relieve tension/ anxiety, steady the nervous system of the fearful athlete. There are many problems in using this method to relax include impaired reaction time, poor hand eye coordination, and loss of balance and erratic judgment. In addition, prolonged usage can result in tolerance of the drug, need to use higher levels, and addiction.

Ergogenic Aid refers to any technique that enhances athletic performance beyond what would be possible through natural ability and training. There are five categories of sports ergogenic aids:

  1. Nutritional (vitamins and amino acids)
  2. Pharmacological (anabolic acids, anti-inflammatory agents, caffeine)
  3. Physiological (blood doping and creatine)
  4. Psychological (mental skills for emotional control, anxiety management, optimal arousal)
  5. Bio-mechanical (sports equipment)

Each athlete, coach and trainer should consider four questions in the decision to use ergogenic aids. Is the substance legal? Is it ethical? Is it safe? Is it effective? The failure to consider each of these questions carefully could lead to problems when the athlete goes into competition.

Creatine. Mark McGuire, first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals, admitted using Creatine during the 1998 season when he hit 70 home runs. The function of Creatine is to increase muscular strength and speed. There is a significant increase in usage of this substance by athletes because it is not considered an anabolic steroid, not unsafe in reasonable amounts and legally available. Creatine phosphate is not a very important energy source for prolonged exercise. It is most effective in those activities that require repetitive high-intensity, very short- term tasks with brief recovery periods. Although the research focusing on the use of creatine is inconclusive, overuse of any substance can lead to negative and unwanted side effects.

Blood Doping. The process of blood doping involves the removing of one liter of the athlete’s blood one to two months prior to competition, freezing and storing it. The red blood cells of the stored blood are put back into his system just before competition. This produces more red blood cells and hemoglobin. The impact increases oxygen uptake and improves aerobic functioning. Of concern is that bloods can be mislabeled and contaminated. The results could be catastrophic.

In summary, this review of drugs often used by athletes will provide you with a technical understanding to build an appreciation for the motivations for their use. It will help those parents, athletes, coaches and trainers to make positive decisions, identify and intervene when destructive behaviors are present. In upcoming issues of Psyched look for articles focusing on the identification of substance abuse by athletes and treatment alternatives when substance abuse is discovered.