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The Most Dangerous Drugs

DNP is a cellular poison that researchers use to destroy cells. It’s also used as an insecticide and in various industrial settings for things like paint removal. While that doesn’t sound very appetizing, it hasn’t kept some people from using DNP for fat-loss purposes.

Although anabolic steroids have been demonized, they don’t come close to being the most immediately dangerous drugs used in sports and bodybuilding. The key word here is immediate, since most side effects of anabolic steroids are linked to long-term use. Those effects may include cardiovascular and liver problems, as well as such minor problems as acne and hair loss. If you check the medical literature, though, you’ll come away with two conclusions: 1) There is no direct evidence connecting the use of anabolic steroids to the death of any athlete, only indirect or circumstantial evidence; and 2) no one ever died immediately after using an anabolic steroid drug. Other drugs athletes and bodybuilders use are far more acutely dangerous than any anabolic steroid or other anabolic hormone, with the possible exception of injected insulin.

Insulin lowers blood glucose rapidly, and using too large a dose or not eating sufficient carbohydrate in conjunction with insulin can result in an insulin-induced coma. That’s occurred in several bodybuilders. Luckily, however, none died. (Let’s hope they walked away a bit wiser about the power of insulin injections.) Too much insulin can also cause convulsions, which can be dangerous but which rarely result in death, as the cure is simply to take in a readily available source of glucose, or sugar.

The truly dangerous drugs are dinitrophenol and pharmaceutical diuretics. DNP is a cellular poison that researchers use to destroy cells. It’s also used as an insecticide and in various industrial settings for things like paint removal. While that doesn’t sound very appetizing, it hasn’t kept some people from using DNP for fat-loss purposes.

In fact, DNP was one of the original weight-loss drugs, introduced in the early 1930s. An epidemic of cataracts in female users, as well as a few deaths in which hapless victims were literally cooked from the inside out, led to the removal of DNP from the market by the nascent Food and Drug Administration in 1938. Without getting into technical detail, we can say definitely that DNP interferes with cellular energy production, forcing the body to rely on fat stores as an energy source. Some cases on record indicate DNP-related fat loss of up to a half pound per day. That’s what makes it attractive to bodybuilders. There is, however, a narrow range of safety and effectiveness. Use just a tad too much, and bodyfat loss will be the least of your concerns. You can die a quick and agonizing death from a small overdose. In addition, idiosyncratic reactions can occur, so even the “safe” dose of DNP can cause death. That happened in a few recent cases where DNP users followed dosing advice they found on the Internet and died.

Let’s assume that no rational person would take a clearly toxic substance just to lose bodyfat. Indeed, while most competitive bodybuilders are highly motivated to compete successfully, few are deranged enough to place their lives on the line with DNP. Not only can it cause death from internal overheating, but emerging evidence shows that it may be related to cancer through cellular mutations caused by excessive free-radical production. So DNP can kill you either quickly or slowly. Only the dose establishes the time line.

The other most acutely dangerous drugs in the athletic pharmacy are diuretics. Diuretics are often prescribed to treat high blood pressure, since by facilitating water loss, they lower the water content of the blood. That enables freer blood flow, which lowers blood pressure. Cardiovascular disease is frequently associated with water retention, and the water reduction produced by diuretics lowers heart stress. Ironically, most cases of heart failure result from long-term hypertension, or high blood pressure. Rapidly acting intravenous diuretics, such as injectable furosemide (tradename Lasix), can prove lifesaving when administered to those suffering from pulmonary edema, or excessive fluid retention in the lungs.

Athletes use diuretics for various purposes, depending on the activity. Some use them to meet a weight limit prior to a competition. Unfortunately, they can have a definite ergolytic effect, which means that they can weaken athletic performance. One way that happens is through excessive loss of blood volume, which is mostly water. That lowers oxygen delivery to working muscles, followed rapidly by muscle weakness and fatigue. A graphic example occurred late in the career of boxer Muhammad Ali. He took a diuretic (despite not having to make weight, since he was a heavyweight), and the drug made him listless and weak in the ring, and his punching power, as well as his legendary speed, were greatly diminished, resulting in his loss to a less-skilled opponent.

At one time diuretics were used to dilute the urine in order to beat drug tests. The hope was that extreme dilution of urine would produce fewer metabolites of banned drugs. Officials, however, soon figured out the technique and now monitor athletes as they produce their urine sample (also known as the “piss patrol”), and testing procedures can catch diuretic use. The most recent such incident involved some professional football players caught using the potent loop diuretic Bumex in October 2008.

Bodybuilders use diuretics to eliminate excess water. Water retention can obscure muscular definition, and the less water you have just below the skin, the more muscular you’ll appear onstage, assuming you also have low bodyfat.

Anyone who’s regularly attended bodybuilding contests has likely witnessed the results of diuretic abuse. They can include anything from severe muscle cramps to fainting—both of which are linked to excess loss of water and impact on blood volume. The cramping is caused by dehydration and loss of electrolytes, meaning minerals. The worst effect, however, is complete cardiovascular collapse. Diuretics are the only drugs tested for at many major bodybuilding events. The organizations still don’t test for anabolic steroids and other common drugs; the rationale is that diuretics are far more immediately dangerous, which is true.

Among the notable examples of diuretic abuse on record are the following:

1988: Pro bodybuilder Albert Beckles collapses and convulses while posing at a pro contest. He is subsequently resuscitated by paramedics and found to be suffering from diuretic-induced dehydration.

1991: At a British amateur bodybuilding competition, competitor Andy Rody collapses and dies onstage from an overdose of diuretics.

1992: Pro bodybuilder Mohammed “Momo” Benaziza dies after competing in a grand prix contest in Europe. An autopsy shows that he was severely dehydrated and that he succumbed to cardiovascular failure at age 33. He had used a combination of potent diuretics prior to the show. Earlier that year Momo had told me off the record that American bodybuilders were “sissies” because of their unfounded fear of drugs.

1993: Pro bodybuilder Mike Matarazzo and I share a van ride to the Columbus auditorium where he is about to compete in the Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic. When I ask Mike how he feels, his response is, “Jerry, I feel like I’m going to die.” He doesn’t explain what’s behind such sobering words. Later that day Mike has to be treated at a hospital for potassium overload. He’d mistakenly combined a potassium-sparing diuretic with large doses of supplemental potassium.

1994: Gargantuan pro bodybuilder Paul Dillett stiffens onstage—and I mean in a bad way—while posing at the Arnold. The audience then watches in stunned silence as Paul is carted off the stage by four burly men. Once again, the problem turns out to be extreme dehydration caused this time by Paul’s use of injectable Lasix. He’s rushed to the hospital and successfully treated for mineral and water depletion. He recovers rapidly enough to join me at my table during the postcontest dinner.

That’s only a small sample of diuretic use gone wrong. I could recount dozens of others, such as the case of one fellow who was about to fall off the stage at the USA one year. Or the case of a well-known pro who called me to his room after complaining of being unable to move. I’m not a medical doctor, but my advice to this man led to his rapid recovery and a victory at the contest later that same night. In his autobiography published years later, he mentioned this incident and said that I saved his life, although my name was misspelled as “Jerry Brenner.” His problem was that he’d doubled up on two potent diuretics without realizing they were the same drug. My magical treatment consisted simply of quinine to relieve his muscle cramps, electrolytes and water.

I’ll have more on diuretics next month as well as a number of natural ways to reduce water retention.

Editor’s note: Jerry Brainum has been an exercise and nutrition researcher and journalist for more than 25 years. He’s worked with pro bodybuilders as well as many Olympic and professional athletes. To get his new e-book, Natural Anabolics—Nutrients, Compounds and Supplements  That Can Accelerate Muscle Growth Without Drugs, visit IM

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