By now many of us have decided that cyclist Lance Armstrong must have “enhanced” his performance to achieve his record breaking Tour de France wins. He’s been stripped of those wins due to doping allegations although he continues to deny ever using drugs. Right or wrong, doping culture is alive and well, not just in cycling, but wherever people are called upon to perform.
At home, that could be the bedroom. Viagra, Cialis and Levitra are now culturally accepted drugs used for sexual performance. We don’t say we ‘dope’ to enhance sexual function; rather it’s done to ‘augment’ the mechanics. (The only thing unfair here is that men have a drug for it and women don’t. At least not yet.)
In the workplace, coffee is the performance stimulant of choice. We don’t often think of caffeine as a drug, but it is. A cup (8 oz or 240 ml) or two per day stimulates the brain via the cortisol hormone, improving blood flow through increased heart rate and blood pressure. These ‘small doses’ may also have some anti-oxidative effects. But like all drugs, if abused, coffee can have negative side effects. Too much caffeine can cause us to be irritable, panicky and can lead to memory loss. (A sure sign of caffeine withdrawal is insomnia and headaches. I hear far too often from my patients that they drink five or more cups of coffee or tea a day! This is performance unenhancing.)
And then there are people who want peak performance for work and play. Many baby boomers, for example, have been focused on working hard and playing hard. They make plenty of money and get in lots of ‘play’ time, be it cycling, golf, tennis, or hockey. Their must-do lists include exotic travel destinations and experiences. The result? Boomers arrive at our clinic complaining of body aches, dulled memory (perhaps too many bucket lists?) and an inability to lose those few extra pounds they’ve gained from ‘living well’.
To genuinely and safely enhance performance at work and play, here’s what you can do:
1. Watch your diet. Carbs make you overweight, sleepy and tired. And go easy on the coffee! Vegetarian diets aren’t the easy answer either. They’re often lacking in many critical energy and memory-related nutrients such as B vitamins, iron and amino acids.
2. Be active physically to ensure you’re getting oxygen to your tissues and brain, which affects all bodily function.
3. Get a good night’s sleep. Poor sleep affects your cortisol levels—the stress hormone—and that has negative effects on memory and leads to weight gain.
4. Consider what’s happening naturally with your hormones as you age and what you can do about it.
The first three suggestions are well-known to most people, but the fourth much less so. A quick primer: Hormonal changes play a role in performance, often in our peak earning years. As we age, testosterone and estrogen drops. This affects both men and women; in the former it’s called andropause and in the latter, menopause. The effects—hot flashes, night sweats, loss of libido—can be similar for both but not as suddenly dramatic for men because their hormone levels drop more gradually.
Growth hormone levels also diminish as we age, decreasing our metabolic rate, and slowing recovery time after exercise or injury.
All of these changes can affect our work performance and that’s where hormone replacement therapy—testosterone, estrogen, and DHEA (short for dehydroepiandrosterone)—can help.
I’ve been enhancing performance through nutrients and hormones for many years using strict protocols and caution. My rule is to recommend the hormone route only after reviewing a person’s medical status and discussing all the pros and cons regarding the therapy. We use lab work (eg. organ function testing, inflammation and protein markers) and imaging diagnostics (ultrasound, CT scans and MRIs) to ensure there is no looming evidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer or other medical conditions which could be aggravated by hormone manipulation.
Hormones have to be used carefully, starting with low doses and monitoring, and a regular review of blood or saliva to ensure their levels are appropriate for your age. Most important, you should only get treatment from medical experts trained to monitor the therapy’s side effects. Without the right advice and action, performance enhancement might come back to bite you.
Dr. Elaine Chin is founder of the Executive Health Centre.