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What is EPO and why would Welington Castillo use it?

A surprisingly useful side benefit of going into tremendous debt to become a dogtor has been applying my medical knowledge to baseball. I can describe injuries and recovery time tables with confidence after some remodeling from quadruped to human. But the one I get the most excited for is drugs. Drugs are drugs are drugs, regardless of if you’re a human, cat, capybara, or goldfish. We use them for the same purposes across almost every species so I don’t even have to leave my wheelhouse. All of this is an incredibly long-winded way of explaining why I actually chortled upon reading that EPO was the substance that landed Welington Castillo his 80-game suspension.

So what is EPO? Erythropoietin, or EPO for the rest of this article because that word is too much too type, is a hormone produced in the kidneys in direct response to hypoxia (lack of oxygen). EPO stimulates the bone marrow into overproducing red blood cells, which you may remember from childhood biology classes as the thing that gets oxygen where it needs to go in your body. In the most basic terms, EPO is made when your body realizes it is not getting enough oxygen so it makes more transportation for what oxygen you have. More red blood cells are produced and they manage to last longer before ultimately undergoing apoptosis (designed cell death).

Why would an athlete want to use this? If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of blood doping before. That’s what EPO use is. The entire point of using it is too help combat fatigue and attempt to increase the efficiency at which your body can use oxygen. EPO is generally thought of as a drug used (illegally) by cyclists, marathoners, triathletes, and race horses. Athletes who are undergoing strenuous and physically grueling tests of strength and endurance where being even slightly less exhausted than the next competitor can have tremendous benefits.

Sound like something a person whose job is to crouch for three or so hours a night four to five times a week for half a year might be interested in? Imagine getting similar effects to greenies without having to worry about the jitters and tachycardia (increased heart rate) that comes with amphetamines. Pretty enticing, right? Well, EPO isn’t exactly harmless. A pretty severe adverse effect can be increased viscosity (thickness) of the blood, resulting in cardiac arrest and infarctions. It’s also an insanely easy drug to test for as the synthetic version (generally used to treat anemics and chemo patients) has a markedly different physical composition and would not be found in any tainted samples you could hope to blame for the failed test. It’s a risky drug both from a physical safety standpoint and a trying to get away with it one. Hopefully the 80 games off gives Castillo enough of a rest that he does not feel the need to play with such fire again any time soon.

Lead Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports


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