While professional athletes sometimes rely on a sophisticated cocktail of drugs to boost their performance, stimulants _ known in Thai as ya dope, a rather catch-all term coined from English _ are more readily available and are commonly used by people in many fields of endeavour outside sports, with varying effects _ both positive and negative.
According to Dr Thidakarn Rujipattanakul, a local anti-ageing specialist, "stimulant" can be defined as a broad class of drugs or chemical substances which stimulate the function of two particular organ systems: the brain and the central nervous system as well as the heart and circulatory system.
"Stimulants are not necessarily bad for health," Dr Thidakarn added. "Take coffee, for example. Coffee is actually a natural stimulant because the caffeine it contains has the ability to stimulate the heart function. Several types of commercial caffeinated beverages, such as green-tea drinks, can also be regarded as stimulants."
So-called energy drinks such as Red Bull or M-150 are very popular among people who need a quick boost of vitality. The caffeine and other chemical agents in these brands enhance the performance of the brain and the heart, making consumers feel refreshed and energetic. But it is very important, Dr Thidakarn warned, to strictly follow product instructions since overdosing on such drinks can have negative impacts on one's health.
"When the heart is excessively or unnecessarily stimulated, in the long run, it can put consumers at risk of developing coronary heart diseases," she cautioned.
Stimulants are commonly used by professional athletes and amateur sport enthusiasts alike who want to enhance their physical performance, but many of the substances used by the pros are not available over the counter. Steroids were once the most popular option among athletes seeking a chemical lift, but nowadays certain types of hormone, including testosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and growth hormone, have become the preferred alternatives. These are usually administered directly via injections to increase an athlete's physical prowess.
"The hormones I've just mentioned are actually natural substances that the body can produce itself," Dr Thidakarn continued. "DHEA, for instance, is produced by the adrenal glands. But for athletes, the natural level of such hormones in their bodies is not sufficient; they need more because of the physical activities in which they are engaged. So they resort to injections to increase the amount of these hormones in their bodies which, in turn, helps enhance their performance."
Erythropoietin is another hormone popular with athletes who wish to push their limits. It stimulates the production of red blood cells which increases the body's endurance.
But the use of these hormones as stimulants is a double-edged sword. Excessive reliance on them may ultimately give rise to adverse side-effects. Too much growth hormone, for example, can potentially cause acromegaly, a rare disorder whose symptoms include skin thickening, abnormal tissue growth and bone enlargement especially in the face, hands and feet. Heavy use of DHEA has been linked with an increased risk of developing prostate cancer.
So, due to the possibility of severe complications, said Dr Thidakarn, injections of hormonal stimulants should be done only on the advice of a medical specialist and carried out under his or her close supervision. ''These hormones aren't usually available over the counter, but they can be ordered over the internet. People should not use them without proper medical guidance because improper use can be extremely detrimental to health,'' she warned.
Whey protein, sold in powder form, has become very popular among athletes especially those who are into strenuous work-outs. It isn't considered a stimulant since it doesn't speed up brain or heart function.
''Whey protein is a type of supplement that helps build muscles as it is basically a milk-protein extract. In the past, to gain muscle mass, the sportsman's food of choice was egg whites. But whey protein is an easier, more convenient option.''
But, as with hormone supplements, whey protein should only be consumed under the supervision of experts. Even though no official scientific studies have been carried out on the long-term health impacts of consuming whey protein, some observers have suggested that it may lead to osteoporosis. Since this powdered protein is still regarded as controversial, Dr Thidakarn said she encourages people to consider natural muscle-builders as their primary option.
''Excessive use of whey protein without proper exercise can certainly cause obesity,'' she noted. ''In order to build strong, firm muscles, I would recommend instead good-quality protein from such sources as egg whites, beans, skinless chicken meat, fish and fat-free milk.''
But when it comes to performance enhancement, be it for athletes or for people in general, Dr Thidakarn personally would not support the use of any type of stimulant. According to her, appropriate physical training and balanced diets are key to achieving a satisfactory level of physical capacity.
''Stimulant drugs, if wrongly or excessively used, can bring about complications,'' she warned. ''So going natural is indeed a pathway to sustainably good health.''
About the author
- Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan