Monday, December 28, 2009

So, what the hell is DHEA?*

Tyler Hamilton, Kenny Williams and now Tom Zirbel. Three names from disparate corners of the cycling world have all met the same fate. Positive for DHEA. 8 year, 2 year and a suspension tbd, pending the B-sample.

With these suspensions, DHEA has been thrown around in the cycling press as one of the next great evil PEDs. Evidence of the next generation of doping, a symbol of the sport's inability to clean up and go legit.

So what is DHEA?
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is an endogenous hormone (made in the human body), and secreted by the adrenal gland. DHEA serves as precursor to male and female sex hormones (androgens and estrogens). So, like many banned substances, it's a naturally occurring hormone, replicated in a lab, and sold in a store, in pill form.

What is it used for?
Over the counter anti-aging mostly. As the body ages, it produces less hormones (or different ones, i guess). DHEA supposedly will replace some of the lost good hormones and help increase the production of good ones, like, in theory, testosterone.

Does it work?

Why are so many riders using it?
Anyone who has spent any time at the upper-end of amateur cycling, meaning a Cat 1/2 parking lot crit, has probably heard of DHEA mentioned as a recovery aid. Walk into any grocery store, there will be a sizable selection of DHEA right next to the vitamins. And it's cheap. Really cheap.

Ultimately, a cheap way to convince a rider they're really doing everything possible to maximize recovery. And maybe give them the feeling of having an edge. Placebo, dog.

So it's obviously easily detectable. Really, why are people who make their living off cycling using this stuff?
Well, I don't think anyone in the coaching world is recommending that anyone use the stuff. But I think there's a couple reasons that DHEA is making some very prominent riders more familiar with USADA.

1. The shit is CHEAP. So it is not only sold cheap in stores, it's sold even cheaper to supplement manufacturers. Supplement manufacturers aren't regulated by the FDA, they can basically throw anything in their supplements and call it whatever else they want. As long as the materials are also not under supervision of the FDA, and DHEA isn't.

There may have been some evidence, at some time, that maybe, just maybe DHEA did in fact benefit somebody's athletic performance. So, if it's cheap, and there's any chance, real or imaginary, that someone will experience an increase in performance from XXXMusclePopper3005, then why the hell not, throw some in.

My guess, is that there is a fair amount of DHEA in any creatine/muscle milk/energy blaster that you buy at the local GNC, crap, there's probably a TON of DHEA in that stuff. Hell, you probably can't even walk into a GNC without getting enough in your system to warrant a call from your friendly neighborhood lab analysts.

I imagine a few of these positives, are legitimate, "it didn't say it on the label" tainted supplements. Supplements that should not be used by professional athletes who need to pass drug tests under any circumstances. Because everybody knows that you can't trust the labels on unregulated supplements. Everybody knows that.

2. Guys using legit PEDs will have DHEA in their systems when cycling off their hardcore PEDs. So you've been ramping up with steroids, are shredding everybody, kickin' ass and the big national profile pro race is coming up. Since your going fast enough to really turn some heads, you can't go in loaded to the gills on Trenbolone and blood boosters, since you know that all this stuff would easily show up in any tests.

Just dropping the PEDs will, in theory, cause your hormone levels to tank, your body will basically stall because it hasn't needed to produce hormones. So to avoid this, you're going to need a pretty impressive regimen of legal supplements to keep your levels up while you go kick ass at the big race. This is called Post Cycle Therapy. Even if all of these supplements are 'technically' legal, which they probably aren't, they're probably swimming in unlabeled DHEA.

3. Some guys just don't care and are buying supplements and really couldn't care less and are pretty burnt out anyways and might as well just retire before they get popped for the lamest drug you can test positive for.

So if it doesn't do anything, why is it illegal (WADA illegal, not law illegal)?
Probably a combination of marketing and chemical composition. A new product came out, it was EVERYWHERE in the supplement world, claimed to have anabolic effects, WADA probably didn't give it too much thought and added it to the list, effective or not.

I've also heard that DHEA does appear, molecularly, very similar to other more effective steroids. Ask your friendly neighborhood chemist for more on that one.

Ultimately, yes, DHEA can and should be avoided. Those who test positive are either being disingenuous or careless, gotta mind your p's and q's if you make your living in the pedal game. It's a curiosity that such an innocuous subastance can tarnish so many careers so quickly, but the rules are the rules and ya gotta play by 'em.

*I'm not a trainer or doctor or chemist. These people will know way more about this stuff than me. I've just spent a couple afternoons reading about it. I may make mistakes, but I think I'm on the right track. If you notice a mistake, feel free to speak up, I'm not trying to mislead anyone.


John Fricker said...

Great post thanks. When I read about Tyler Hamilton I did some reading too and pretty much reached the same 'WTF' conclusion. I wonder if WADA bans it because it's easy to detect and as a sort of 'guilt by association' point of view - "if a dimwit takes DHEA than they are dumb enough to take some other drug too".

I'm glad that teams like HTC-Columbia and Garmin-Transitions are making a big stand against doping. I like the sport to be "man vs man" instead of "chemist vs chemist".

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