Erythropoietin (EPO) and Blood Doping in Sports

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If you follow sports, you've undoubtedly heard about athletes who have been caught using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Anabolic steroids are some of the more well-known PEDs.

But erythropoietin (EPO)—a drug used to boost red blood cell counts in a practice called "blood doping"—falls under the same umbrella of forbidden substances. The drug has been a source of widespread abuse and controversy among professional cyclists since the 1980s.

What Is Blood Doping?

Blood doping refers to any attempt to improve athletic performance by artificially increasing red blood cell count. Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. Muscles, in particular, use oxygen to generate the energy needed for motion. Therefore, the more red blood cells that you have, the greater the oxygen capacity, and the greater the supply of oxygen available for muscles to generate energy without "burning out" during extreme physical activity.

Methods of blood doping include:

  • Transfusions of someone else's blood
  • Re-infusion of one's own red blood cells
  • Administration of enhancement drugs such as EPO

Blood doping is in violation of standards set by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and is banned in professional sports. Even with rigorous testing among athletes, that hasn't stopped some from doing it anyway.

EPO Controversies

EPO is a naturally occurring hormone that can be synthesized in the lab and injected intravenously or subcutaneously (similar to an insulin injection). It has been banned since the early 1990s, but it wasn't until the 2000 Summer Olympics that the first blood doping tests became available.

Abuse of EPO made world headlines when Floyd Landis, the 2006 Tour de France winner, was stripped of his title after testing positive for doping. Having confessed to using PEDs for years, Floyd went even further by accusing 17 other cyclists of doping, including seven-time Tour de France titleholder Lance Armstrong.

In 2005, a year after his seventh Tour de France win, Lance Armstrong was accused of using EPO, a claim that was eventually confirmed in 2012. After publicly admitting to EPO use, Armstrong was stripped of all of his cycling titles.

Other champion cyclists caught in the crosshairs of the EPO controversy include:

  • David Millar
  • Jesus Manzano
  • Philippe Gaumont
  • Willy Voet

Effect on Athletic Performance

In terms of sports performance, EPO has been shown to increase the proliferation of red blood cells and increase the amount of oxygen carried to muscles. The increased oxygen in circulation slows the Increased availability of oxygen slows the progression of muscle fatigue and thereby increases endurance during performance athletic events.

The increased endurance experienced by athletes in response to EPO is what has made doping so appealing for professional athletes. Doing so may help reduce the recovery time between workouts, increase muscle power, and maintain an edge during competitions. However, EPO injections may deliver fewer benefits than initially thought.

A 2017 study published in Lancet Hematology concluded that cyclists given a subcutaneous injection of EPO for eight weeks performed no better in exercise tests or road races than cyclists given a placebo.

Potential Dangers

Not only is there no guarantee that EPO can improve sports performance, but there are serious health risks to be aware of as well.

Hypertension

The increased red blood cells resulting from EPO therapy can "thicken" the blood, increase vascular constriction, and cause hypertension (high blood pressure). Thicker and more viscous blood puts an increased strain on the heart, thereby increasing the risk of blood clots, heart attacks, and stroke.

Drug Interactions

Taking EPO with synthetic steroids may amplify their effect. EPO can also cause severe lung toxicity if taken with drugs used to treat leukemia, lymphomas, and breast cancer, such as Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide).

EPO and other banned PEDs are under constant scrutiny by sporting agencies. Athletes are regularly tested to detect their presence. Athletes who test positive for EPO face possible suspension, loss of competition titles, and even a lifetime ban from sports if the PED abuse is especially egregious.

A Word From Verywell

Despite the temptation to use PEDs, the risks to your health and reputation far outweigh any possible benefit. If you feel that you are underperforming as an athlete, don't let supplements be your first choice of treatment either.

Instead, talk to your coach about safer options, such as nutrition, alternate forms of training, or the implementation of sports psychology techniques. If you need to increase your red blood cell count for medical reasons, consult with your doctor to develop a treatment plan that makes sense for you.

10 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  9. Santhanam AV, d'Uscio LV, Katusic ZS. Cardiovascular effects of erythropoietin an updateAdv Pharmacol. 2010;60:257-285. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-385061-4.00009-X

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By Elizabeth Quinn
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.