The Biogenesis scandal that’s engulfed Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun and implicated the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez hit home Monday, as Phillies reliever Antonio Bastardo agreed to a 50-game suspension.
With the Phillies’ playoff hopes on life support (to put it kindly) the suspension will affect the team in a mainly cosmetic sense. But the substance for which Bastardo was allegedly suspended—human growth hormone (HGH)—could be the subject of much curiosity. What makes HGH different from anabolic steroids, and why would HGH be attractive to a MLB player?
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of HGH is the difficulty in detection through a simple urine test—ironic given Bastardo’s suspension today, but research indicates that detection is nearly impossible unless the test is performed within 24 hours of use. Even in such rare cases, some experts feel the test results would be somewhat unreliable.
As such, last off-season MLB approved blood testing for HGH—becoming the first major professional sports league to do so. But even in Bastardo’s case, it wasn’t a positive test but rather purchase records containing his name that led to the suspension.
Chemically speaking, anabolic steroids bear great resemblance to the male hormone testosterone and promote skeletal muscle growth. HGH occurs naturally in the human body. Their mutual association with general growth is the main similarity between anabolic steroids and HGH.
So what are the chemical advantages to taking HGH as opposed to anabolic steroids?
- Compared to anabolic steroids, HGH has relatively few—and mild—side effects when taken in reasonable doses.
- HGH is quickly and easily absorbed and doesn’t require injection (although this is the preferred means of ingestion for many)
- Finally, HGH is considerably more affordable, accessible (and some may argue acceptable) than anabolic steroids
After reading this, you may wonder why more players haven’t been tied to the substance.
Frankly, the effects are far less reliable and immediate than those of anabolic steroids. Any player looking to add 20 pounds of muscle in an offseason simply by using HGH is likely in for a big disappointment. Also, the evidence in support of HGH as a pure performance enhancer is rather weak. Some studies have shown a decrease in body fat and increase in lean body mass after using HGH—but noted that no improvement in muscle strength was present.
HGH’s greatest perceived effect to many athletes is its “anti-aging” effect—another claim with weak evidence behind it.
Perhaps the final word should belong to baseball’s own famed Mitchell Report, a 2007 document in which United States Senator George Mitchell released his finding from a 21-month investigation into the use of anabolic steroids and HGH in Major League Baseball. Senator Mitchell’s five conclusions were highlighted by the observation that around 2003, MLB’s reaction to anabolic steroids led many players to switch to HGH as an alternative. Even in an official report, Senator Mitchell’s words implied skepticism as to the positive effects of HGH for ballplayers.
“Players who use Human Growth Hormone apparently believe that it assists their ability to recover from injuries and fatigue during a long season,” he wrote.
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