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Beware performance enhancing drugs

Beware performance enhancing drugs

As Lance Armstrong has demonstrated, the competitive drive to win can be so fierce that many athletes, sportspeople and body builders turn to performance enhancing drugs. Getting caught can be humiliating, but that’s not the only risk.

Using drugs such as anabolic steroids and stimulants is a game of Russian roulette — you’re gambling with your health.

Know the dangers of performance enhancing drugs and get reliable information and advice if you decide to use them.

Fame and glory is not the full story

Many drugs used to enhance sports performance are meant for medical use only and can be harmful when ‘abused’. Nearly 50 years ago American sports medicine specialist Dr Gabe Mirkin asked 100 athletes: "If I could give you a pill that would make you an Olympic champion — and also kill you in a year — would you take it?" Alarmingly, over half said they would. Since that survey the use of performance enhancing drugs has increased. 

Anabolic steroids, for example, are used by many athletes and body builders to bulk up and strengthen their muscles, often at much higher doses than are used medically. This can result in serious physical and psychological side effects.

You’ve probably heard about ‘roid rage’ and acne, not to mention shrunken testes and prominent breasts in men, and a deeper voice and increased body hair in women. Anabolic steroids can also cause high blood pressure and cholesterol, heart attacks and stroke.

Some synthetic anabolic steroids are illegally manufactured for athletes and are not subject to proper testing or approval by government bodies. This is a serious health threat for users.

Erythropoietin (‘EPO’) is another performance enhancing drug normally used medically to treat anaemia caused by kidney disease.

Endurance athletes such as cyclists often use EPO to boost their red blood cells and oxygen delivery to muscles. But EPO can cause serious side effects including strokes, heart attacks, swelling in the lungs (pulmonary oedema), and even death when used inappropriately.

Counterfeit or unapproved products

The internet has boosted the availability of performance-enhancing drugs and other products that can be appealing to sportspeople. There have been multiple instances both in Australia and overseas of people suffering serious side effects from products bought online, with many containing counterfeit, illegal or unapproved substances.

One example is melanotan. Dubbed the ‘Barbie drug’ and popular among body builders, melanotan products claim to give you a tan without sun damage, to enhance your libido and suppress your appetite. But melanotan has never undergone proper regulatory testing and studies have not assessed whether it can cause serious long-term side effects.

A big concern among health professionals is whether melanotan could bring on skin cancer in the long term, as it activates the cells in skin that are involved in malignant melanoma. Multiple side effects including nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and darkening of existing moles have already been reported by people who injected melanotan.

There are also many other lifestyle products you can purchase online and that may be ‘legal’ elsewhere — including muscle building supplements and weight loss pills — but that are not approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia due to safety concerns.

In a recent Australian case, a person was hospitalised with psychosis after taking slimming capsules bought online from a Chinese website. These were found to contain sibutramine, a banned ingredient in weight loss medicine that was withdrawn from major markets around the world including the US, Canada and Australia, because of its links to heart attacks and stroke.

In just the last three months alone the TGA has issued 4 safety alerts warning about slimming products available online that contain sibutramine, but do not declare this on product labels.

Don’t go it alone

Clinical adviser at NPS MedicineWise, Dr Andrew Boyden encourages talking to your doctor if you are taking a performance enhancing or slimming drug, or are considering this.

“Conversations you have with your doctor are confidential and could prevent the development of serious and even potentially life threatening conditions. This is really important if you already have a medical condition, take other medicines or are about to start a new medicine, or if you become unwell while taking a performance enhancing drug”, says Dr Boyden.

“If you don’t feel comfortable to speak with your doctor, you can call NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) — this is also a confidential service that can give you information about any medicine or product you may be taking, including the potential risks and side effects”.

Calls to NPS Medicines Line can be made from anywhere in Australia for the cost of a local phone call (calls from mobiles may cost more). Hours of operation are Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm AEST (excluding NSW public holidays).

Dr Boyden says it’s also important to report and discuss any side effects you may be having. You can do this by calling the Adverse Medicine Events (AME) Line on 1300 134 237. Your privacy is also protected when you call the AME Line.


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