Blood Doping and Your Health


Erythropoietin (EPO) is most recognized as the drug used in blood doping.

Blood doping is an illegal and medically sophisticated method of tinkering with an athlete's physical performance ability. While it has been known to enhance athletic outcomes, it is quite a dangerous routine for the athlete. Nevertheless, the dangers of blood doping have not been enough to prevent its use and it has been associated with several high profile sports scandals.

But erythropoietin, the hormone that is manipulated in blood doping, is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the body. And it has recently been found to be beneficial as a stroke treatment in some scientific research studies.

Erythropoietin (EPO)

EPO is a hormone produced by the kidneys. EPO works on the bone marrow to stimulate the production of red blood cells. Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin, which carries and delivers oxygen to organs throughout the body. When our oxygen level is low, the kidneys produce more EPO. This results in an increase of red blood cell production and ultimately, efficient oxygen delivery to the body's organs.

There are many causes of low oxygen levels in the body. When breathing is inefficient or when there are not enough red blood cells in the body- the body's oxygen level may become too low.  If you were to donate blood, you body would compensate for the blood loss by producing EPO.

Similarly, bleeding, especially severe bleeding, will trigger EPO production in the kidneys.

EPO in Blood Doping

The injection of high levels of EPO can actually increase the body's red blood cell production to a level higher than normal. The incentive for athletes to use this method to cheat in competitions is that the more red blood cells the body has, the higher the body’s oxygen concentration.

When oxygen reaches concentrations that are above normal levels, this actually serves to enhance the body's physical energy and endurance.

Dangers of EPO

If EPO  can produce better than normal endurance and energy- why shouldn’t everyone do it? Unfortunately, the use of EPO is not a safe way to increase energy and endurance. The elevated number of red blood cells in the body can make the blood cells more likely to clot. This can result in a heart attack or a stroke- two conditions that decrease physical abilities for the long-term and may even cause death.

EPO for Stroke Treatment

If EPO can cause a stroke, why would it be used to treat a stroke? Interestingly, EPO has been studied in experiment trials as a possible treatment for stroke. EPO may protect the brain from the chemical damage of ischemia. An article published in the November 2014 issue of the journal, “Experimental Biology and Medicine,” describes several chemical mechanisms by which EPO decreases brain injury after a stroke. A number of human research experiments using high dose EPO as a stroke treatment have shown some preliminary potential but still have not reached a verdict with regard to side effects or the ideal dosing.

Several of the studies reported safety concerns, and EPO is not used in stroke therapy outside of the experimental studies.

What You Need to Know

EPO injections and blood doping are not safe methods to build sports endurance because of the risk of stroke. EPO, however, is useful for a number of medical conditions, including chronic diseases that lower red blood cell production and function. EPO has not been an established stroke treatment, but recent studies show that it may become useful as a complementary therapy in some patients.

The most important thing you need to know about a stroke is how to recognize it and to get help right away. You should also know that stroke research is at an exciting time in history- brain damage from a stroke can be stopped or even reversed with new treatments such as hypothermia, stem cell therapy, electrical treatment, computer stimulation and EPO.


Erythropoietin: Powerful protection of ischemic and post-ischemic brain, Nguyen AQ, Cherry BH, Scott GF, Ryou MG, Mallet RT, Experimental Biology and Medicine, November 2014 

High-dose erythropoietin for tissue protection, Lund A1, Lundby C, Olsen NV, European Journal of Clinical Investigation, October 2014

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