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Unregulated, unlicensed and unsafe: Teens warned about abusing gym supplements

There are increasing concerns over the safety of sports supplements.

Image: Shutterstock/Anchiy

AN UNREGULATED MARKET is leading to a situation where young men in particular are buying contaminated sports supplements online.

That message was being made loud and clear at a conference held in Dublin this week which also pointed to a rise in body dysmorphia among young men.

The conference heard that performance enhancing drugs and supplements were previously a problem in the world of elite sports but have now become more mainstream.

“People are taking these drugs for cosmetic reasons,” explains Dr Conor O’Brien of Dublin’s Sports Surgery Clinic.

“It’s to look a certain way, rather than to achieve anything in sport – and because of that it’s completely unregulated.”

There’s no regulatory body. They’re somewhere between a drug and a food, so there’s no regulation. There’s regulation of drugs, there’s regulation of food, but there’s nothing in between.

O’Brien, a former chairman of the Irish Sports Council’s Anti-Doping Committee, says that some supplements contain vitamins like B12 in “super physiological doses”.

He adds that things have changed since his work against doping in sport. 

“Back then the drugs in sport issue was really an elite athlete problem, not professional athlete, but elite. Drugs were hard to get and they were expensive, very few people were using them.

There has been a whole game changer in the last 10 years with the production of anabolics and supplements and a whole variety of agents which are dangerous. There’s much more availability.

Bulk up

But the worrying blurring of lines between nutrition for fitness and body image can be seen beyond the young men who are seeking to ‘bulk up’.

Professor Mary Flynn of the Food Safety Authority pointed to evidence which suggested even a majority of female athletes associate getting fit with weight control.

Flynn says that there is increasing evidence that young men are suffering from body dysmorphia with men in their mid-to-late teens at particular risk.

People who live with the condition have continuous negative thoughts about how they look and their perceived flaws – sometimes for hours a day. Some will go to extreme measures to change their appearance but are rarely satisfied with outcomes.

O’Brien also focuses his concerns on this age group, saying that he regularly helps young men who have become dependent on supplements. He cites evidence that up to 30% of people who use anabolics become addicted to them.

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Problems that stem from the abuse of steroids include the potential for roid rage, cardiac disease and even sudden death.

shutterstock_407141482 Up to 10% of supplements bought online are believed to be contaminated. Source: Shutterstock/Samo Trebizan

Whereas in elite sport the abuse of such supplements is regulated and tested for, the same isn’t the case for the average joe in the local gym.

“If you’re in a testing group, you’re an elite athlete and you’ll be tested. There are rules,” explains O’Brien.

“But if you’re non-elite and you’re just taking it cause you’re taking it, then you’ve no education, you’ve no back up. You don’t have the benefit of being tested. There’s no brakes on you and you’re taking whatever you can get.”

And on the point of taking what you can get, another problem has emerged.

O’Brien adds that the purchase of supplements through online sources has made an already unregulated market even more dicey.

Something like 10% of all the supplements sold on the internet through Europe are contaminated with either anabolic agents or growth hormone. But they’ve been contaminated with other agents such as the pill, antidepressants or whatever. And that includes anything from your proteins right up to creatine and everything in between.

Read: Looking for a natural fitness supplement? We have just the thing >

Read: What should you eat before training? 4 tips for going to the gym early in the day >

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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