In an effort to get bigger, stronger, faster and better, athletes have increasingly been taking supplemental over-the-counter drugs in the past decade. Although illegal drugs such as steroids have long been a problem in sports, the new trend of taking these dietary supplements is in some ways more dangerous because of the ubiquity of the problem. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate these drugs because they are protected under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. As a result, the relative dangers of these drugs are not well-known.
Although some of these drugs serve legitimate purposes, athletes use them improperly as stimulants and incur great risks. For example, ephedrine, or ephedra as it is sometimes called, comes from a shrub plant found in Asia and other parts of the world. It can be used effectively to treat asthma as well as severe chest congestion.
Many athletes mistakenly believe that if these dietary supplements are made with “natural ingredients,” they are not harmful. However, this is grossly untrue. According to the FDA medical bulletin, the administration has seen an increase in the number of adverse reactions associated with these nutritional supplements. These reported reactions vary from the “milder adverse effects known to be associated with sympathomimetic stimulants such as nervousness, dizziness, tremor, alternations in blood pressure or heart rate, headache and gastrointestinal distress to chest pain, myocardial infarction, hepatitis, stroke, seizures, psychosis and death.” Since 1994, there have been more than 800 cases reported of adverse effects to ephedrine alone.
It does not matter whether it is creatine, androstedione or ephedrine, these drugs are dangerous to the health and well-being of athletes. Since little research has been done on the subject, it is difficult to say how much harm each drug does to the body. Additionally, since the supplements are a relatively new phenomenon, it is difficult to foresee the future ramifications for the athletes. In other words, even though it may not harm the athlete now, it may cause problems for the athlete after his career is over.
In light of the most recent tragedy, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, as well as some members of Congress have called for baseball to ban ephedrine. While I applaud this call to action as a good first step, I believe it is just that-a first step. Banning ephedrine is only a partial solution to the widespread problem of dietary supplements. All such easily abused dietary and nutritional supplements should be banned for all sports, not just baseball. This measure would not only ensure the health of athletes, but also make athletic contests more fair. When records are shattered, we will know that it is due to the quality of the athlete, not the drugs that he or she is taking.
Additionally, instead of complaining about the problem of athletes taking ephedrine, Congress should write laws to close the loophole that allows these nutritional supplements to go unregulated by the FDA. This effort would prevent amateur athletes from misusing the drug.
I have always believed in the statement that “sports are a metaphor for life.” In life, there are no short cuts to quick financial gains. Instead, there are get-rich-quick schemes that can put you in either financial ruin or jail. In sports, there are also no short cuts to getting better or stronger. The only way to safely and naturally improve your strength and performance is to train hard, practice and lift weights. Nutritional supplements are the get-rich-quick schemes of sports. The only difference is that instead of costing you your freedom, they can cost you your life.