Professional athletes are often tempted to use performance-enhancing substances, and many times they do with favorable, temporary results.
While Mark McGwire’s use of androstenedione to break home run records, or Lance Armstrong’s blood doping for Tour de France wins, may get media attention, it’s not just the professionals — or even college athletes — who are taking chances with their health to perform better on the field.
Researchers with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) examined the use of substances, from energy drinks to steroids, in middle and high school students.
The study, published in Pediatrics, found that not only do student athletes report using these products for a competitive edge, but nonathletes use these same substances to supplement their looks.
Conservative estimates show that roughly 5 percent of students report using the most dangerous drugs — anabolic androgenic steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) — sometime in their lives.
“Five percent of something affecting kids? That’s a lot of kids,” lead study author Dr. Michele LaBotz, a sports medicine physician, told Healthline.
Overall, the study found caffeine is the most widely used substance, with 73 percent of preteens and teens reporting they use it on any given day.
Studying the prevalence of performance-enhancing substances
Researchers reviewed rates of performance-enhancing substances from survey data collected from 67,200 students. The sources of the data included Monitoring the Future, the Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.
Overall, between 3.2 and 7 percent of students report trying, at least once, anabolic steroids, a slight increase from the 5 percent reported in 2012.
Use of synthetic HGH nearly doubled to 11 percent of students. The increase, researchers noted, was most likely due to students reporting trying it only once.
Creatine use among high school senior boys remained one of the most commonly used performance-enhancing drugs, although there’s no real proof it translates to a better athletic performance.
Overall, boys were more likely to report using performance-enhancing drugs associated with muscle gain and strength. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to use nonprescription diet pills.
There are examples, however, that suggest girls want more than to just be thin.
One Minnesota study of an urban high school population found that 38.8 percent of boys and 18.2 percent of girls reported using protein substances.
“There’s more evidence to suggest that girls want to be skinny but have their muscles show,” LaBotz said.
Dangers lay under the labels
Besides the potential health effects associated with some performance-enhancing drugs, these substances exist in a market with little to no oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Students may take supplements for their performance-enhancing effects, but these claims are often mere marketing tactics, and not backed by scientific research.
“These claims most often are unsubstantiated or based on findings from single or poorly designed studies,” the study states. “As these substances undergo further scrutiny, it is common for these initial claims to be debunked, and the evidence often does not support earlier assertions of performance benefit.”
The study found major problems with contamination in over-the-counter products. Several studies that tested protein supplements found that 8 to 20 percent of the products were contaminated with significant amounts of heavy metals, researchers said.
Overall, the stores that sell these supplements, bars, shakes, or other kinds of supplements often aren’t clear on what’s been rigorously tested and what hasn’t.
“You have no idea what has FDA oversight on it and what doesn’t,” LaBotz said.
Changing sports for the worse
An antidoping survey found kids want to participate in organized sports for fun, playing with friends, improving their skills, and being healthy.
Performance enhancers, however, shift the focus to gaining a competitive edge, changing the whole meaning of why young athletes are on the field.
Parents who worry about their children using performance enhancers should examine the team as a whole, LaBotz said
“We want parents to feel comfortable talking about the culture of the team,” she said. “We all just want them to live up to their potential, whatever that may be.”
But instead of using at-home drug testing kits that can give false positives, or enforcing random drug screening, experts say parents who suspect their teen of drug use should have a test done by the child’s doctor.
Whatever the reason an athlete may choose to use a performance-enhancing substance, most aren’t delivering on what they hope to accomplish. This is especially true for late bloomers, LaBotz said.
“Use of these agents aren’t going to give them the advantage they’re hoping for,” she said. “You just can’t speed up the calendar.”