Steroids from A to Z, and how they work to improve athletic performance

While Vitor Belfort is used as the posterboy for steroid use, he is not alone. - Photo by Esther Lin of MMA Fighting

Performance enhancing drugs continue to be the centerpiece for the ongoing debate about what the sport of MMA, and the UFC in particular can do about it. The conflict between Georges St-Pierre and Dana White has once again illuminated the topic, so now's a good time to get to know your steroids from A to Z.

Athletes owe their success to a lot of things. Their drive, hunger for success, and hard work are part of it. But some of them owe their success to Adolf Butenandt, the German scientist who would be the first ever to isolate androgen from a bunch of urine he got from a police barracks in Berlin in 1931. I know, science works in mysterious ways.

"Everything's glandular" to quote the mind of Noel Coward.

Indeed it is. Butenandt's research would essentially pave the way for our understanding of endocrine function in general, and steroids specifically. But why are hormones so critical to sports performance? Aren't hormones those evil demons that control your thoughts sophomore year of high school while you pine for the cute girl sitting next to you in English class? Sort of.

Your body's growth depends on your cell's ability to clone themselves, as well as their ability develop from immature cells into specialized cells (such as bone cells, muscle cells, etc.) in a process called differentiation. Steroids are sometimes used in cancer patients for this reason; because cancer takes away cell differentiation.

Just like you, the reader, needed to swim around your dad's private parts before becoming the twitter addicted eukaryote sitting before you, so do cells that work to enable your body's many systems. And that's what makes steroids, particularly anabolic agents, so critical to traits an athlete may feel gives them an advantage.

With the steroid discussion en vogue thanks to Georges St-Pierre being disappointed in the UFC's inability to back him on increased and more efficient drug testing, I figured now would be a good time to learn our PED's like our ABC's.

Boldenone

How it works for you, the performance enhancing evildoer: Boldenone, with pseudonyms as varied as Tyrion Lannister's infidelities according to wikipedia, is like all anabolic agents in that they attempt to replicate the tetris-like work your body does to grow.

But it also does a few more things. It ensures nitrogen retention. This is important for you, the 'cheating' athlete, because the more nitrogen you can retain, the more muscle mass you can theoretically build, since that muscle would be otherwise broken down and eliminated due to catabolic and excretory processes.

It also stimulates your kidneys. While your kidneys are important for filtering blood, they also do many other things, like synthesize vitamin D, and remove the waste that accumulates from metabolism. For athletes, it's especially nice that the kidneys, being an endocrine gland, stimulate erythropoietin...which allows the kidneys to produce more red blood cells...a fine trait when it comes to endurance as more erythrocytes means higher oxygen intake. It's the source of "lasting longer in the gym" essentially.

The PED mugshots: Josh Barnett, Stephen Bonnar, Kite Cope, Phil Baroni, Anthony Torres, Alexandre Nogueira, Antonio Silva

Nandrolone

How it works for you, the performance enhancing evildoer: Similar to Boldenone in that it promotes muscle growth, red blood cell production, but also bone density through supporting cell differentiation and mitosis.

What makes Nandrolone different (and the reason why you see so many fighters who have a PED mugshot to accompany it) is the side effects are said to be less pronounced (cosmetic and chemical). It also plays a part of the narrative that fighters need testosterone replacement therapy based on prior steroid use.

This is because nandrolone has the side effect of lowering your luteinizing hormone levels; a hormone controlled by your pituitary gland that in females prepares the egg for fertilization, and in males, allows for the conversation of other hormones into testosterone.

The PED mugshots: Josh Barnett, Stephen Bonnar, Nate Marquardt, Pawel Nastula, Royce Gracie, Sean Sherk, Dennis Hallman, Carina Damm, Edwin Dewees, Joey Beltran, Adam Smith

Fluoxymesterone

How it works for you, the performance enhancing evildoer: The appeal of this drug is in its so called androgenic properties (testosterone is an androgen for example). You have different types of muscle tissue in your body; skeletal (which you can control voluntarily), smooth and cardiac (which you cannot control voluntarily as they have to do with your digestive system and heart, respectively). Androgens do their work on skeletal muscle, increasing its mass.

But they also affect lean muscle mass by lowering fat accumulation by preventing fat cells their ability to store lipids which is enabled by an epinephrine/norepinephrine increase.

What's interesting about this process is that fat cells are rich in an enzyme (aromatase) that transforms testosterone into estrogen in order to make testosterone active (read it again if you must; I don't understand biology either, I'm just a messenger). This explains why some men develop what is commonly known as"gyno", or man boobs.

The PED mugshots: Josh Barnett

Stanozolol (Winstrol)

How it works for you, the performance enhancing evildoer: It's like all other anabolic agents; lose fat while retaining body mass, red blood cell production (which is why it can be used to treat anemia), and so forth.

Its popularity is likely explained by its so called minimal 'androgenic effects'. Androgens, like testosterone, is more or less what create male characteristics, which means no progeria, or Vin Diesal voice. Winstrol is therefore said to be popular especially among females (likely explaining why Cyborg is on this list).

Also, the chemical properties of Stanozolol are such that it is much stronger than testosterone, with the trade off being that it's also much more toxic to your liver.

The PED mugshots: Tim Sylvia, Kimo Leopoldo, Phil Baroni, Chris Leben, Kirill Sidelnikov, Vinicius Quieroz, Cristiane Santos, Rafael Cavalcante, Adam Smith

4-Hydroxytestosterone

How it works for you, the performance enhancing evildoer: It's important to note that steroids are like any other drug...there's good shit, and then there's bad shit, and sometimes you have to accept the latter because you either can't afford the former, or you don't know the difference.

I'm not an expert on drugs in general (that line above is just a patchwork of Martin Scorcese dialogue I probably remember hearing), but this particular drug appears to fall into the "bad shit" category if my research into random bodybuilding forums is any indication. As in, from many accounts it's weaker as an androgen, but the plus is that it has a short half-life and "anti-estrogenic properties".

The PED mugshots: Vitor Belfort, Ruben Villareal

Drostanolone

How it works for you, the performance enhancing evildoer: You get the picture when it comes to anabolic agents. However, each drug has its own unique elements, and are popular for different reasons. It's important for prizefighters to lose mass while retaining strength because of weight classes.

Drostanolone is popular in particular for this reason, since dieting is supposed to lead to muscle loss, unless of course you have the right chemicals. In other words, the appeal is often considered 'cosmetic' as its ability to add mass are considered limited by comparison to other drugs.

The PED mugshots: Hermes Franca, Bill Mahood, Dennis Hallman, Josh Barnett, Muhammad Lawal, Stephen Bonnar

19-Norandrosterone

How it works for you, the performance enhancing evildoer: It's an anabolic agent, so by this point, you know a few things, but you may not know this very unusual fact about 19-norandrosterone.

"Although highly improbable, athletes should prudently avoid meals composed of pig offal in the hours preceding the test since the consumption of edible parts of a non-castrated pig, containing 19-nortestosterone, has been shown to results in the excretion of 19-norandrosterone in the following hours."

From PubMed.

The PED mugshots: Ken Shamrock

Masking Agents and Diuretics

You know this already so I don't mean to waste your time, but it's worth noting anyway. Because urine samples are often used to "detect" the presence of doping agents, it's useful to manipulate that urine. That's what diuretics are for, which increases the rate of urine flow. This process limits the amount of water reabsorbed back into the body, which is why they're good for losing weight as well. That specific increase is what essentially dilutes the urine so that it's difficult for doping agents to be detected. I wouldn't recommend kidnapping the neighbor's Welsh Corgi for a urine ransom the way Kevin Randleman may or may not have done.

The PED mugshots: Thiago Alves, Russian gymnast Alina Kabaeva

Stimulants

Sometimes drugs that can be legally purchased are off limits per WADA's standards. Phentermine can be legally purchased, and it's job is similar (in principle) to Drostanolone in that it aids in weight loss (in this case by using epinephrine to break down fat), which is why it's used sparingly to treat obese patients. Adrafinil, a drug used to treat excessive sleepiness and fatigue, is also banned despite its similarities to caffeine, which is not banned (though it used to be).

Marijuana

I figured I'd touch on this. Per WADA, marijuana is illegal, but the example of weed is interesting because it begs the question with respect to where the line is drawn when it comes to what constitutes 'performance enhancement'?

Some studies indicate the opposite, and I don't mean in a silly "but weed makes you the anti-drunk driver" way. I mean some preliminary studies have revealed weed to have an effect on your lutienizing hormone by lowering it (as mentioned above LH is responsible for converting specific hormones into testosterone). This is why you hear stories about weed being linked to man boobs, though like with most marijuana studies, there just aren't enough of them to approximate a conclusion.

The PED "mugshots": Nick Diaz, Diego Sanchez

EPO

EPO stands for a hormone secreted by your kidneys called erythropoietin - a hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells.

Your red blood cells work like magnets in relation to the oxygen you take in; part of your RBC's contain hemoglobin, an iron molecule that binds to that oxygen. The more RBC's your body produces then, the more oxygen your body can hold.

This is why it's so popular and critical in endurance sports like cycling. I ignored this one like an idiot because I presumed its lack of significance to muscle mass would make it useless, but that's obviously ridiculous (as some readers were quick to point out). Plenty of fighters rely on attrition to win fights, and in the championship bouts, this is even more critical.

Plus there's the fact that MMA testing is a joke. Governing bodies for cycling have the 'biological passport' system which uses electronic records from tests taken over time, like a longitudinal study. This is what was done with cyclist Bradley Wiggins. Doctors could measure the amount of mature red blood cells to immature red blood cells because if you have too many more mature RBC's than immature RBC's, then something is obviously up.

What they're looking at is your hematocrit levels; a reference to RBC volume in the blood. Basically, your blood consists of 55% plasma (mostly water), and 45% formed elements (red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets). EPO will shift that balance, which is dangerous for the heart as it makes the blood heavier, which makes it harder to pump throughout the body.

It's useful to mention EPO in the context of gene doping. I talked about this awhile back, and it was part of my conversation with Sports Gene author David Epstein.

What's interesting is that the prospect of gene doping (which WADA already bans) seems to get closer and closer to the horizon, and EPO is the target in question.

Cagepotato's comprehensive steroid bust list really helped here.

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