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— by Christine Kiely, Harvard Medical School

As Major League Baseball returns from the All-Star Break, many people are reflecting back on a season in which some of the biggest names in baseball have been tainted by the steroid scandal.  Only time will tell what steroids will do to the legacy of baseball, but understanding the science behind the phenomenon is a good start.  What are steroids and what effects can they have on our bodies, both good and bad?  And what exactly did Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez (allegedly) do, and why?  Read on to find out!

What are steroids?

Scientifically, the term steroid simply refers to a class of molecules with a specific ring structure.  We have a number of different steroids present in our bodies naturally. Steroids are responsible for a range of important tasks, such as producing male and female characteristics, and regulating our metabolism, immune response and brain activity.  Steroids circulate throughout the body and are recognized and bound by specific molecules in our cells called receptors. When steroids bind, the receptors enter the nucleus of our cells, where the DNA is stored, and bind to specific DNA sequences.  This allows them to turn certain genes on and others off, regulating all of the important effects mentioned above.

One such steroid is testosterone, the male sex hormone.  Males and females both have testosterone present in their bodies, though females have much less then males.  Testosterone is required for normal male development.  Early last century, scientists developed ways of producing synthetic testosterone as a treatment for certain medical conditions.  They noticed, however, that in addition to the expected results, taking testosterone supplements also promoted the development of muscle.  Athletes soon realized that testosterone could help them build up more muscle with less time and effort, and steroid abuse was born.

With respect to baseball and other sports, steroids generally refer to two classes of compounds: those that act like testosterone in the body and those that trick the body into producing extra testosterone.  Both of these classes of steroids produce similar effects in the body, ultimately leading to the development of more muscle.

Why are steroids so dangerous?

It is important to remember that steroids affect many processes in the body, not just muscle development.  As a result, they can have negative effects on appearance, behavior and health.  In healthy men, the excess testosterone turns down the body’s natural testosterone production and is sometimes converted into other steroids, including steroids that promote female characteristics.  These effects can lead to problems like infertility and breast development.  Conversely, women who use steroids have increased levels of testosterone, leading to abnormal menstrual cycles, growth of facial hair and deepening of the voice.  All steroid users have increased risk of liver and kidney failure, high blood pressure, certain types of cancers, problems with cholesterol levels and a number of other unpleasant side effects.

In addition to the consequences above, adolescents who experiment with steroids can experience accelerated puberty and permanently stunt their growth, producing lifelong consequences.  For many people, steroid abuse in professional sports is an even greater concern because of the effects it can have on this impressionable group.  If the same athletes who serve as role models to young men and women are exposed as steroid users, this certainly sends the wrong message about both integrity and health.

This year’s fallen role models

This past spring, Alex Rodriguez, once Major League Baseball’s golden boy, was forced to admit publically to the use of performance enhancing substances.  Although he never specified what substances he used, an extensive investigative piece released by Sports Illustrated indicated that he used both synthetic testosterone and a steroid called Primobolan.  Primobolan is an expensive steroid that is known for increasing strength without building bulky muscles.  Both of these substances are classic steroids.

On the other hand, Manny Ramirez was suspended 50 games this season for using human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, according to reports.  After initial reports of his suspension came out, Manny released a statement indicating that the substance he tested positive for was a fertility drug that he took for personal reasons.  What he neglected to mention is that hCG is a fertility drug used mainly for women.  So, why would Manny take hCG?  The most effective method of steroid use is to cycle steroid treatments, using the steroid and then abstaining from it for periods of time.  However, between steroid treatments, testosterone levels can become extremely low, since the high levels during steroid treatment turn off the body’s natural pathways for producing testosterone.  hCG alleviates this problem by providing a signal to resume testosterone production, so some steroid users use it between steroid treatments.

Both of these players, and many others over the past decade, have been implicated as steroid users, leading many to wonder if steroid abuse might be more widespread than we realize.  Some of these other players include big names like Rafael Palmeiro (suspended by MLB), Sammy Sosa (reportedly tested positive in 2003), Mark McGwire (admitted use of a substance that was later banned), Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (investigated by federal grand juries).

Ultimately, what do steroids mean for baseball?

This is a good question, but a hard one to answer.  Certainly players who use steroids have an advantage over those who do not, but that advantage is difficult to quantify.  More muscle means more strength, but how does that translate into pitching stats or home run totals?  It is also important to remember that there are many other types of performance enhancing drugs (i.e. human growth hormone, or HGH) and techniques (i.e. blood doping) that fall outside of the realm of steroids, but are having enormous effects on the world of sports today.  As new technologies develop, the line between training and cheating becomes blurred and the ethical questions in sports become more difficult.  However, it is certainly important to understand the so-called performance enhancing drugs that are available and the consequences that they can have for our bodies.

References:

(1) Berg, Jeremy M., John L. Tymoczko, and Lubert Stryer. Biochemistry 2001. 5th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2001. Chapter 31.

(2) Research Report: Anabolic Steroid Abuse, National Institute on Drug Abuse (2006)

<http://www.drugabuse.gov/ResearchReports/Steroids/AnabolicSteroids.html>

(3) Roberts, Selena, and David Epstein. “Sources tell SI Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003.” Sport Illustrated/CNN. 7 Feb. 2009.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/baseball/mlb/02/07/alex-rodriguez-steroids/index.html>

(4) Quinn, T.J., Mark Fainaru-Wada, and Amy Nelson. “Sources: Ramirez used fertility drug.” ESPN 8 May 2009.

<http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=4148907>

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