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Why Athletes Risk Using Human Growth Hormone, Anabolic Steroids

July 13, 2012 -- As in previous years, the 2012 Olympics likely will be marred by at least one doping scandal, experts predict.

Many athletes abuse human growth hormone and/or steroids to build muscle and strength. While elite athletes are in the spotlight, the problem is much greater in recreational athletes. For example, at least 1 in 16 high school students admits to using performance-enhancing steroids. And users rarely take just one kind of drug.

Why do athletes and young people do this? Are there any benefits? What are the risks? WebMD's FAQ is based on an Endocrine Society webinar featuring two experts on athletic doping:

  • Alan Rogol, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia
  • Shalender Bhasin, MD, professor of medicine and chief of endocrinology, diabetes, and nutrition at the Boston University School of Medicine

What is human growth hormone?

Human growth hormone, HGH, is produced by the pituitary gland. It's not really a single hormone, Rogol says, but a mixture of several "isoforms" coded by several different genes.

Children do not develop normally if their bodies don't make enough growth hormone. Fortunately, researchers have used recombinant gene technology to produce large amounts of recombinant HGH, or rHGH, to treat them.

More recently, rHGH has been used for other reasons.

"It is supposed to be the magic anti-aging hormone," Rogol says, although he notes that there's little evidence that it works in this way.

Why would athletes take HGH?

HGH helps the body store and use energy in ways that might be helpful to athletes. And abusing it also makes athletes look more like athletes.

"Athletes take it because it breaks down fat and builds muscle," Rogol says. "And part of the issue is that bodybuilders like that ripped look, with lots of muscle but not much subcutaneous fat."

Athletes also believe that HGH helps the body recover more quickly from injury and allows them to train harder.

"But what is the evidence for all this? There really is very little," Rogol says. "Yes, it gives you more muscle and less fat. Those muscles may look big, but they are pretty weak."

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