Hormones are responsible for the body’s growth and development, regulation of metabolism, sexual functioning, and improvement of resistance against intense training. Hormones like growth hormones, testosterone, erythropoietin, thyroxin, cortisol, and insulin have been known to have a positive impact on improving athletic performance. This is the reason why hormone doping is prevalent among athletes.
What Are Hormones?
Hormones can be defined as a group of signaling molecules in multicellular organisms that are transported to distant cells and organs through complex biological processes to regulate physiology and behavior in the body. These hormones act as chemical messengers in the body that are carried by the bloodstream to different parts of the body, which interpret these messages and act on them accordingly. Hormones carry out their functions by evoking responses from specific organs or tissue that are adapted to react to them. Hormones work slowly over time and affect the body’s growth, development, metabolism, sexual functioning, and mood. When the endocrine glands underproduce (or do not produce at all) or overproduce a hormone, multiple diseases are caused. The various functions of the hormones include:
- They help in communication between organs and tissues.
- They facilitate growth and development.
- Hormones aid in digestion, excretion, sleep, and respiration.
- Hormones alter behavioral activities.
- Metabolism of food (the chemical process of changing food into energy).
- Sensory perception and lactation are facilitated by hormones.
- Stress induction is due to hormones.
- Sexual functioning and reproduction also require hormones for proper functioning.
- Cognitive functions and mood changes are affected by hormones.
- They help maintain thirst and body temperature.
How Does Hormone Affect Athletic Performance?
Hormones help in adapting to vigorous physical stress and exercise by stimulating certain proteins that are responsible for muscle growth. Hormones also synthesize enzymes that improve the cellular metabolism of glucose which is crucial for endurance. The adaptation to improve performance occurs after exercise during rest; this is the time when hormones are released. This is why rest and recovery after exercise are important parts of athletic training. In order to maintain the hormonal response, it is important to maintain a balance between exercise, nutrition, and recovery. Several hormones circulate in the blood and maintain an optimum level to function through a feedback loop mechanism (some portion of the output produced by hormonal reaction returns as an input). Any imbalance in the levels of hormones can lead to reduced athletic performance and the inability to train to full potential.
What Are the Key Hormones That Affect Athletic Performance?
Hormones that heavily influence athletic performance are:
Growth Hormone (GH): Growth hormones are responsible for maintaining healthy body composition, maintaining bone health, helping in building bones and muscles, increasing height, etc. Growth hormone levels peak during childhood and puberty. The level of this hormone also varies during the day, and it is influenced by physical exercise. The growth hormone can be easily regulated by sleep and exercise. Regularly exercising and a healthy sleep cycle has a positive impact on growth hormone release.
Thyroxine (T4): This is an important hormone secreted by the thyroid gland, which is essential for the body’s metabolism. Along with regulating metabolism, thyroxine also plays a major role in maintaining bone health. Thyroxine is also responsible for muscle control, brain development, and digestion. Thyroxine (T4) is converted into its active form, triiodothyronine (T3), in the tissues with the help of certain enzymes (deiodinases). Overtraining, poor nutrition, and low energy availability can lead to T3 suppression.
Estrogen: It is a female reproductive hormone produced by the ovaries, and it is primarily involved with the regulation of menstrual cycles. But estrogen is also known as the power hormone because it is responsible for maintaining bone and cardiovascular health in women. Therefore, estrogen plays a crucial role in female athletic performance.
Testosterone: It is the major sex hormone in males, and it is also present in females in small amounts. Apart from reproductive functions, testosterone is responsible for promoting lean body mass and bone health, fat distribution, increasing muscle mass and strength, and production of red blood cells.
Cortisol: It is also known as the stress hormone because its secretion increases exponentially in stressful conditions. Cortisol is responsible for the regulation of the functioning of almost all the other organs, controlling the body’s use of fat and protein, and carbohydrates. Blood cortisol levels are higher in the morning and lowest at night. However, overtraining can disturb cortisol release, and it will remain elevated. This will eventually lead to decreased immunity.
Erythropoietin: Erythropoietin is a crucial hormone or growth factor secreted by the kidneys, and it is responsible for the synthesis and maintenance of red blood cells in the bone marrow. Erythropoietin is secreted in the body's response to cellular hypoxia. Erythropoietin doping exponentially increases the number of red blood cells, which eventually increases the oxygen concentration in the muscles. This increased oxygen supply to the muscles helps athletes in performing abilities and endurance.
What Are the Effects of Menstrual Hormones on Female Athletic Performance?
Female athletes have had to face performance pressure during their menstrual cycles for years now. Several athletes have talked about this and said that their menstrual cycles have a negative impact on their athletic performance.
Menstruation comes along with hormonal changes, fatigue, nausea, and multiple other changes in the body. These changes, however, are not very helpful during vigorous physical activities.
Women who train excessively also have the chance of developing amenorrhea (complete absence of menstruation). Athletic amenorrhea can occur due to exercise-related hormones like beta-endorphins and catecholamines; elevation in the levels of these hormones affects the work of estrogens and progesterone (hormones necessary for regular menstrual cycles).
Apart from this, exercise-induced amenorrhea can occur due to a low percentage of body fat in athletes.
Moreover, multiple female athletes have started using hormonal birth control pills to reduce the impact of menstrual cycles on their performance. However, this use of oral contraceptives can be more dangerous than helpful, and it can lead to more severe health issues like the female athlete triad.
The female athlete triad is a condition characterized by the presence of amenorrhea (abnormal absence of menstrual cycles), osteoporosis, and eating disorder in a female athlete.
What Is Performance-Enhancing Hormone Doping in Athletes?
Doping refers to the illegal use of anabolic and other hormones or drugs by athletes and sports professionals to improve their performance and endurance. However, this malpractice is illegal and banned in all professional sports in all countries because it enhances performance beyond one’s natural ability, which is equal to cheating, harmful to health, and violates the spirit of sports.
How Are Androgens Used in Performance Enhancement?
Androgens are steroid hormones released by the testes, and it is responsible for the development of male sexual characteristics. Androgen doping is extremely prevalent in professional sports. Androgen doping may be direct or indirect; direct androgen doping involves the administration of testosterone, whereas indirect androgen doping involves the administration of a variety of non-androgenic drugs, which increases endogenous testosterone.
How Is Growth Hormone Used in Performance Enhancement?
Growth hormones are proteins secreted by the anterior pituitary gland, and it is responsible for cell division, bone growth, protein synthesis, and all-over growth of the body. They act as a tissue promoter in children and as a metabolic hormone after puberty. Growth hormone doping is used for the direct enhancement of athletic performance. It is helpful in increasing muscle mass and strength. Therefore, doping is prevalent among athletes and professional sportsmen. Growth hormone doping is often used in conjunction with androgens, and this combination is helpful in rapid recovery from sports injuries and in improving training strength.
How Is Erythropoietin Used in Performance Enhancement?
The use of recombinant erythropoietin by athletes to improve their performance is very common malpractice, and it is known as erythropoietin doping. Erythropoietin doping exponentially increases the number of red blood cells (RBCs), which eventually increases the oxygen concentration in the muscles. This increased oxygen supply to the muscles helps athletes in performing abilities and endurance.
How Is Hemoglobin Used in Performance Enhancement?
Hemoglobin doping involves direct and indirect methods of increasing the levels of hemoglobin. The direct method includes direct blood transfusion, and the indirect method of increasing hemoglobin involves the stimulation of erythropoiesis through the administration of erythropoietin. Increasing the hemoglobin in the blood helps in aerobic and endurance sports.
How Is Insulin Used in Performance Enhancement?
Insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 help athletes in two ways. It works along with anabolic steroids (testosterone and growth hormone) to combine muscle tissues. Steroid stimulates new muscle growth, and insulin prevents them from breaking down. Moreover, insulin has also been found to be useful in boosting stamina by loading muscles with glycogen fuel. For insulin doping, the athletes need to take insulin and glucose simultaneously for a couple of hours, and this technique of infusion is known as a hyperinsulinaemic clamp.
Hormones are crucial for various functions in the body, including growth, development of bones and muscle mass, metabolism of glucose, proteins, and fat, along with improving the body’s ability to adapt to intense training. However, some hormonal changes, like the female menstrual hormone imbalance, can have a negative impact on athletic performance. Anyhow, the multiple positive effects of hormones on athletic performance have led to hormone doping by athletes and professional sportsmen. But this malpractice is extremely dangerous and harmful to health, and it can result in serious health complications, and it can even cause death.