Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Healthy Athletes: An Umbrella Review of Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses

Alec A. Warrier, Eric N. Azua, Luke B. Kasson, Sachin Allahabadi, Zeeshan A. Khan, Enzo S. Mameri, Hasani W. Swindell, John M. Tokish, Jorge Chahla

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Context: Many clinicians, trainers, and athletes do not have a true understanding of the effects of commonly used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) on performance and health. Objective: To provide an evidence-based review of 7 commonly used pharmacological interventions for performance enhancement in athletes. Data Sources: PubMed and Scopus databases were searched on April 8, 2022. Study Selection: Systematic reviews (SRs) and meta-analyses (MAs) assessing the performance-enhancing effects of the following interventions were included: androgenic anabolic steroids (AAS), growth hormone (GH), selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs), creatine, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE)-inhibitors, recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO), and cannabis. Study Design: Umbrella review of SRs and MAs. Level of Evidence: Level 4. Data Extraction: Primary outcomes collected were (1) body mass, (2) muscle strength, (3) performance, and (4) recovery. Adverse effects were also noted. Results: A total of 27 papers evaluating 5 pharmacological interventions met inclusion criteria. No studies evaluating SARMs or ACE-inhibitors were included. AAS lead to a 5% to 52% increase in strength and a 0.62 standard mean difference in lean body mass with subsequent lipid derangements. GH alters body composition, without providing a strength or performance benefit, but potential risks include soft tissue edema, fatigue, arthralgias, and carpel tunnel syndrome. Creatine use during resistance training can safely increase total and lean body mass, strength, and performance in high-intensity, short-duration, repetitive tasks. Limited evidence supports rHuEPO benefit on performance despite increases in both VO2max and maximal power output, and severe cardiovascular risks are documented. Cannabis provides no performance benefit and may even impair athletic performance. Conclusion: In young healthy persons and athletes, creatine can safely provide a performance-enhancing benefit when taken in controlled doses. AAS, GH, and rHuEPO are associated with severe adverse events and do not support a performance benefit, despite showing the ability to change bodily composition, strength, and/or physiologic measures. Cannabis may have an ergolytic, instead of ergogenic, effect.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalSports Health
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • athletes
  • doping
  • performance-enhancing drugs
  • sport supplements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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