Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sports

What are performance enhancing drugs and why do athletes use them?

Steroid drug abuse
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Performance enhancing drugs consist of a variety of substances, including medications, procedures and even devices that are intended to improve athletic sports performance. Some of these substances are naturally occurring, easily available and completely legal while others are manufactured, illegal, or banned by many sporting organizations. Many athletes, coaches, politicians and fans feel the use of certain substances is unethical in sports.

Determining which substances are regulated, however, is an area of constant debate. Many performance enhancing substances classified as supplements are widely marketed as "health aids" yet have limited research on their safety or effectiveness. Being classified as a supplement means the contents of the product and the claims on the label have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and may not have any scientific basis.

In general, performance enhancing drugs and substances (ergogenic aids) can be categorized into the following areas.

Sports Supplements, Vitamins and Minerals

Athletes often look for alternative nutrition to perform at their best, and sport supplements is one way. The following can be found at your local health food stores. Most are not banned but check with your sports governing body to be sure. 

  • Protein is a necessary nutrient that everyone needs to function properly. Both athletes and sedentary individuals need to get adequate protein.
  • Glutamine (L- Glutamine) is an amino acid and classified as a nutritional supplement. Most athletes take it to help them recover from exercise.
  • B-Vitamins are essential for the body to function properly, but there may be a link between the B-vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B-6, B-12 and folate) and performance in high-level athletes.
  • How to Evaluate Supplement Health Claims. It's difficult to wade through the research regarding health or performance benefits of many nutritional supplements. These tips will help you make an informed decision about what actually works.

Banned or Regulated Performance Enhancing Drugs

  • Amphetamines are central nervous system stimulant drugs that increase alertness and self confidence, improve concentration, decrease appetite, and create a feeling of increased energy. Amphetamines such as Benzedrine, Adderall, and Dexedrine have a high potential for addiction and are on the banned substance list of most, if not all, sports organizations.
  • Anabolic Steroids (anabolic-androgenic steroids), are synthetic versions of the male hormone testosterone. Non-medical use of anabolic steroids is illegal and banned by most major sports organizations. Still, some athletes continue to use them illegally in an attempt to improve sports performance, despite evidence that using them can cause serious health problems, such as hypertension and heart attack.

    The manufactured version of DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) as well as the designer steroids, Androstenedione (Andro) and Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) are all precursors to hormones, such as testosterone, and work in a similar manner to anabolic-androgenic steroids. These are all banned substances by nearly all sports organizations.

  • Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance that has been used by endurance athletes for years as a way to stay alert and improve endurance. While generally not harmful, it does have side effects, and is banned (in high doses) by many sports organizations.
  • Ephedrine is a substance found in many cold and flu medications. It is also used to treat low blood pressure that may occur because of other medications and can improve breathing. Currently, it is illegal to possess large quantities of it in the US. It once was an ingredient used in diet drugs until it was found to cause headache, dizziness, heart irregularities, seizures, and possibly death. 
  • Erythropoietin (EPO) is a naturally-occurring hormone, produced by the kidneys, that stimulates the production of red blood cells. This hormone can also be manufactured and injected. Most recently EPO has been linked to the professional cycling world. Although EPO is on the banned substance list, some claim cyclists continue to use it to boost performance.
  • HemAssist is a class of drug called a Hemoglobin-based Oxygen Carrier (HBOC). HBOCs are experimental drugs that carry oxygen in the blood for a short period of time. They are designed to act as blood substitutes for trauma patients. HemAssist was in the final stages of clinical trials in 1998, when research was stopped due to safety concerns.


The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). WADA Prohibited List 2010. Last accessed May 2010.

Trends in prescription drug abuse, The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIH Publication Number 05-4881 Printed July 2001, Revised August 2005

Anabolic steroid abuse is associated with increased systolic hypertension risk, The Endocrine Society, EurekaAlert, April 2, 2016.