Is It Time for MMA to Accept Steroids?

Watch the entire video before commenting, please.

I'll address the issue of whether or not steroids provide an "unfair advantage" in a later post. This one strictly deals with the health implications. As you can see in the video above, the idea that there is a mountain of clinical evidence that clearly links steroid use to what the general populace believes are obvious consequences - liver failure, heart attacks, death - is false.

That isn't to suggest there are no health risks associated with anabolic steroid use. There are. I've previously talked about this issue. Here's an interview with Jay Hoffman, a professor of health and exercise science at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, in an interview with Scientific American:

How long do the side effects of steroids last?
All of those side effects are reversible within four weeks of cessation, though women tend to stay masculinized after using steroids. And every athlete who has considered juicing (taking steroids) knows that. Athletes generally go on a steroid-taking cycle for six to eight weeks, and then they come off for about two months before going back on.  And when they’re off, side effects revert back to normal.

The athletes who run into major health issues are body builders or wrestlers who get paid based on their external appearance. They can develop what’s known as muscle dysmorphia, which is basically reverse anorexia. Like a person who considers himself or herself fat all the time, body builders and wrestlers look in the mirror and see themselves as being small. Those are the athletes who never come off the cycle.

Are there other health risks from taking steroids?
Steroids could be lethal to someone with an underlying mental or cardiovascular disease. Anabolic steroids are like any other medication. If you have hypertension and your doctor prescribes you a certain medication, such as an ACE inhibitor, there may be contraindications for using that particular medication if you have, say, kidney disease. If an athlete is suffering from a mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder – which many steroid-taking high school athletes who commit suicide allegedly suffer from – anabolic steroids are the wrong performance-enhancing drug to use. But when given in a clinical setting, steroids are relatively safe.

How are steroids used in a clinical setting?
By themselves, steroids are a very effective clinical tool for treating muscle-wasting diseases such as cancer, AIDS, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders. Sports scientists around the world study changes in athletes’ testosterone and cortisol levels. Cortisol is a catabolic steroid produced by the adrenal glands above the kidneys and it breaks down lean tissue in the absence of carbohydrates needed for energy. It’s also released in times of stress. Through high-intensity training over the course of a baseball season, testosterone levels go down and cortisol levels go up. The athlete becomes testosterone-depleted, or hypogonadal, and fatigue sets in. That phenomenon is known as "overtraining syndrome."

One way to treat this is to restore testosterone levels using an exogenous (external) source. We do that with men over 50 who have a normal decline in testosterone, though not with the super-pharmacological doses that many athletes use. There’s a lot of talk amongst team physicians about whether it should be permissible to use exogenous testosterone to bring an athlete back up to normal levels. But the issue is not being approached right now, because of the witch hunt that’s going on. There’s such a kneejerk reaction in the sports media about steroids and these things get sensationalized. There’s such a lack of understanding about what steroids do. I think we need to look at this more scientifically.

And here was my ultimate conclusion

Hoffman eventually suggests (in team sports anyway) that steroid use should be lifted out of the hands of "gym rats" and into those of team physicians who are better able to monitor health effects over time and give proper medical advice.

Why bring this up? The notion that a mere handful of fighters in professional MMA use steroids is downright laughable. Here's a small anecdote that helps illustrate my point. Aside from testing standards in athletic commissions being "a joke", I had shoulder surgery last May. The surgeon who repaired my torn labrum happened to be a massive MMA fan and one-time physician for the Washington Redskins. This is a doctor with direct experience working with elite athletes. I'll leave the specific details about our conversations private, but suffice it say I asked him whether any notable fighters were, in his medical opinion, taking some form of steroids. He admitted he could only work from conjecture, but the number and status of names he believed are using some form of steroids were shocking to even a world-weary misanthrope like me.

I bring this up to make one final point: either we're going to properly test for steroids or we're not. And if we're not (by the way, we're not), then lifting steroid use out of the shadows of underground pharmacists and into the light of medical supervision is the only acceptable course of action. If steroids can be taken safely, why are we doing it dangerously?

If you're really against steroid testing, it's because you believe they are uniquely contributory to an unfair athletic advantage. If you're hanging your hat on concern for the physical welfare of athletes, you're only doing them a disservice by forcing them to use steroids outside the reach of accessible and helpful medical supervision.

What keeps fighters safe isn't the threat of raping their wallet. It's helping them make informed medical decisions under the watchful eye of board certified physicians. Being overly punitive about enforcement feels good to only the bloodthirsty. I can't speak for anyone else, but that's not a source of personal glee.

HT: Jordan Breen on Twitter

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