Runner Shelby Houlihan Tested Positive for Nandrolone, a Steroid She Says Came From Pork-Is This Possible?
Olympic runner Shelby Houlihan has been barred from competition for four years after testing positive for a banned steroid-something that Houlihan says unintentionally happened after she picked up from a pork burrito.
The middle distance runner and American record holder explained the situation in an in-depth Instagram post on June 14. "Since I started running when I was 5 years old, I've had dreams of running professionally, setting records, winning an Olympic gold medal and being one of the best in the world. I have always blindly believed that I was good enough to achieve those things," she began.
"As I've gotten older, I've put in more time, more miles, have become more dedicated, and have learned to genuinely love this sport. It's what brings me the most joy. It's where I feel the most me. I have always done it the right way. I've put my head down and just worked at being better year after year. I've stayed patient and trusted that the work and consistency would show."
But Houlihan, 28, said she received an email from the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) in January that told her a drug-testing sample she provided on December 15, 2020 tested positive for an anabolic steroid called nandrolone. As a result, she said, she was given an "immediate provisional suspension."
"When I got that email, I had to read it over about 10 times and Google what it was that I had just tested positive for. I had never even heard of nandrolone," Houlihan said. "I have since learned that it has long been understood by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) that eating pork can lead to a false positive for nandrolone, since certain types of pigs produce it naturally in high amounts. Pig organ meat (offal) has the highest levels of nandrolone."
Houlihan said she put together a food log of everything she ate the week of her December 15 drug test. "We concluded that the most likely explanation was a burrito purchased and consumed approximately 10 hours before that drug test from an authentic Mexican food truck that serves pig offal near my house in Beaverton, Oregon," she said. "I notified the AIU that I believed this was the source."
Houlihan said that even though the levels of the steroid in her body were "consistent" with people in studies who were tested hours after eating pork "and WADA technical guidelines require the lab to consider it when analyzing nandrolone, the lab never accounted for this possibility. They could have reported this as an atypical finding and followed up with further testing. The anti-doping experts I have reached out to say they should have."
Houlihan said that she "did everything I could to prove my innocence," including passing a polygraph test and having her hair sampled "by one of the world's foremost toxicologists."
"WADA agreed that test proved that there was no build up of this substance in my body, which there would have been if I were taking it regularly," she said. "Nothing moved the lab from their initial snap decision. Instead, they simply concluded that I was a cheater and that a steroid was ingested orally, but not regularly. I believe my explanation fits the facts much better-because it's true. I also believe it was dismissed without proper due process."
Despite her own research and efforts to prove her innocence, Houlihan said she was told on June 11 that the Court of Arbitration didn't accept her explanation and banned her from the sport for four years.
"I feel completely devastated, lost, broken, angry, confused and betrayed by the very sport that I've loved and poured myself into just to see how good I was," she said. "I want to be very clear. I have never taken any performance-enhancing substances. And that includes that of which I am being accused. I believe in the sport and pushing your body to the limit just to see where the limit is. I'm not interested in cheating. I don't do this for the accolades, money, or for people to know my name. I do this because I love it. I have so much fun doing it and it's always the best part of my day."
Houlihan received an outpouring of support online, including from other professional runners. Fellow Nike runner Vanessa Fraser wrote this of Houlihan: "She won't even wear any new and innovative footwear in practice because she wants to see how far her body can go in its most natural form and is worried a shoe will give her some sort of advantage. Her life, dreams, career, reputation should have never been destroyed by a broken system."
Marathoner Shalane Flanagan wrote, "Shelby is a GREAT person… . I refuse to believe this is acceptable and neither should you."
Something similar has happened before. Boxing star Canela Alvarez said in 2018 that he received a positive blood test for the steroid-like chemical Clenbuterol after eating tainted meat in Mexico. Kenya distance runner James Kibet also cited pork as the reason for testing positive for nandrolone in 2019. He has been banned from the sport until 2023.
You probably have some big questions after reading this. Here's what you need to know.
What is nandrolone, again?
Nandrolone is a synthetic derivative of testosterone, Jamie Alan, PharmD, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology at Michigan State University, tells Health. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has actually approved the use of synthetic versions of testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen to help increase the animals' growth rate and the efficiency by which they convert the food they eat into meat.
However, the FDA says this online: "No steroid hormone implants are approved for growth purposes in dairy cows, veal calves, pigs, or poultry."
Can eating pork increase levels of nandrolone in your body?
At least one study has found a link between eating certain meats and increased levels of nandrolone in the body. The study analyzed urine samples from three men who ate boar meat and found that they tested positive for nandrolone afterward. "We have thus proved that eating tissues of non-castrated male pork (in which 17beta-nandrolone is present) might induce some false accusations of the abuse of nandrolone in antidoping," the researchers concluded.
"Pigs and boars do make some of this on their own," Alan says. "Steroids are fat soluble, and they will carry along in the meat and in the fat." But, Alan says, there are a lot of details missing that make it tough to say for sure what happened in this case. Albert Matheny, MS, RD, CSCS, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab, Promix Nutrition and ARENA, agrees. "There's really not enough context on the numbers to know," he tells Health.
Alan says that a false positive "is possible" but, she adds, "I am not sure how likely."
Scott Keatley, RD, of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy, tells Health a false positive is possible but unlikely. "Much like the classic poppy-seed bagel causing a false positive, it is within reason that contaminated meat can cause a false positive on a drug test," explains Keatley. "Pigs create this chemical naturally, and consuming the organ meats of uncastrated male pigs-boar-could potentially cause a false positive. However, it is extremely unlikely that the burrito consumed was filled with boar organs, because most pork in the United States comes from animals less than a year old and the males are castrated. Boar taint has a very unpleasant odor and is avoided by most producers."
For what it's worth, Alan says that this is not something that the average, non-professional athlete needs to worry about. "The FDA tightly regulates steroid and other drug levels and tests these levels in pork and other meat products," she says.
But, if you're concerned about hormones in your meats, she recommends only buying products that say "hormone-free" on the packaging.
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