Bodybuilders try many substances, both legal and illegal, to develop muscle mass. Lately, insulin has emerged as a popular muscle-enhancing agent, and, according to an article in the May 28, 1998 issue of theJournal of the American Medical Association, it could come with dangerous side effects.
“Insulin has a number of potentially devastating side effects when used as a muscle-enhancing agent, but most importantly, there is the risk of hypoglycemic shock and death,” says Josiah D. Rich, MD, MPH, of Providence, Rhode Island.
After interviewing 20 self-identified anabolic-steroid users, it was discovered that five of them used 10 units of Regular insulin at least 44 times during the six months prior to the interview. The subjects did not have type 1 or 2 diabetes, and used the insulin only as a muscle-enhancing agent. They obtained the insulin on the “black market” and from pharmacies.
“In most states, you need prescriptions for syringes,” says Rich. “If you ask most bodybuilders where they get their syringes, some will say they get them from needle exchange programs, but most get them from a friend, relative or acquaintance who has diabetes.”
Rich goes on to say that since insulin is not a prescribed medication, it can be obtained from a pharmacy with just a bit of coaxing.
“Even though insulin isn’t a controlled substance like steroids, most pharmacists would be unlikely to fill a prescription of insulin for somebody who does not have insulin-dependent diabetes,” says Rich. “These bodybuilders, however, can fabricate a story, and tell a pharmacist that they have diabetes and will die if they don’t get their prescription.”
Insulin can be used as a steroid because it promotes the development of body tissues. In the case of the five individuals interviewed by the researchers, none of them experienced any kind of hypoglycemia. There are documented cases of two bodybuilders who self-administered insulin and suffered hypoglycemia. One individual suffered a seizure after giving himself 320 units of Regular insulin prior to a workout. Following the seizure, the weightlifter admitted to injecting 80 units of Regular insulin in both thighs every hour over a three- to four-hour period each day, while ingesting large amounts of carbohydrates. The other bodybuilder suffered severe brain damage after experiencing neuroglycopenia (low blood sugar in the brain) after taking excessive amounts of insulin.
“They are not aware of the dangers,” says Rich. “Some might be, and will keep sugar nearby during workouts, but most are not. They just want to get big.”
Rich feels that health care professionals need to be aware that some bodybuilders use insulin, and must discourage this practice through education about the associated dangers.