Major League Baseball may not have a urine test to detect human growth hormone, but signs that the drug is being used might be lurking right under the players’ noses – specifically in their necks, where the thyroid gland is located.
Anti-doping experts have long wondered whether abnormal levels of thyroid hormones can indicate doping. At least one clinical study has linked HGH injections to fluctuations in thyroid hormones, and it’s clear that the thyroid hormones T3 and T4 have become popular among bodybuilders – often a reliable indicator of what doping methods are on the horizon for pro sports.
Gary Wadler, an associate professor of medicine at New York University and an adviser to the World Anti-Doping Agency, said the organization periodically considers adding thyroid hormones to the list of substances prohibited in sports abiding by the WADA code, which includes all Olympic sports.
“It is something I will bring up when the WADA board meets again in April,” Wadler said.
Wadler said WADA has been reluctant to classify thyroid hormones as performance-enhancing drugs because they are naturally occurring substances. Measuring an athlete’s T3 (triiodothyronine) or T4 (thyroxine) levels would likely require collection of a blood sample – and while WADA tests blood, professional sports leagues in the United States do not.
“It is something that is not considered worth testing for, although it is worth keeping up with the science,” Wadler said.
New scrutiny of thyroid hormones and their interaction with HGH has come amid the confusing reports on the health status of Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, who either has an overactive thyroid (as the Mets claim) or is perfectly fine (as Reyes himself claimed on Tuesday). Reyes underwent a round of diagnostic tests Tuesday in New York. More tests are forthcoming, and doctors are likely to examine records of blood tests Reyes has undergone earlier in his career.
And while those efforts may reveal Reyes has a natural illness, they also come on the heels of his admission that he received treatments from Anthony Galea, a Toronto doctor who has been charged in Canada with several drug offenses and is under investigation in the U.S. for conspiring to smuggle drugs, including HGH, across the border.
Reyes, like his teammate Carlos Beltran and Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez and golfer Tiger Woods, was treated by Galea.
Dr. Lewis Maharam, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, says his interest in whether performance-enhancing drugs affect thyroid levels was piqued by the Reyes case.
Theoretically, Maharam said, an athlete could receive an injection of HGH right before a blood test, which might raise the T3 levels. Chronic use might lower the levels, he said, adding that he has no knowledge of the Reyes diagnosis. “The reason we are all concerned is that the people who used performance-enhancing drugs are always ahead of the testers,” Maharam said. “That is why everybody is suspicious when these things come up.”
The link between HGH and abnormal thyroid hormone levels was made nearly 30 years ago by medical researchers at the University of California/San Francisco. The results of their study, entitled “The Acute Effects of Human Growth Hormone Administration on Thyroid Function in Normal Men,” were published in 1988 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.
WADA, meanwhile, is also interested in finding out if athletes are using synthetic thyroid hormones in an attempt to enhance performance, according to Wadler. Synthetic T3 and T4 are easily purchased over the counter in Latin America, and Internet sites such as buycytomel.com offer 25-microgram T3 pills to anyone with a credit card.
Shaun Kelley, a weight-loss consultant in Houston with close ties to the bodybuilding community, said bodybuilders swear by such products, using such drugs to get the “cut” look that defines their muscles.
“It’s about getting that silhouetted look,” Kelley said. “You really want to get that fat layer out so you can see the tendons and the cuts.”