Roger Clemens and his ex-trainer Brian McNamee are set to testify before Congress on Wednesday as part of an ongoing probe into the Mitchell report. McNamee says he injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone at least 16 times in 1998, 2000, and 2001. The pitcher contends McNamee shot him in the rear end not with illegal performance-enhancing drugs but with vitamin B-12. Why would someone inject B-12 into his buttocks?
To treat his pernicious anemia. Some people—mostly seniors—develop B-12 deficiencies because they don’t have enough intrinsic factor, a protein produced by the stomach lining that controls absorption of the vitamin. This leads to anemia, fatigue, pallor, and loss of appetite. In such cases, doctors recommend B-12 injections straight into the bloodstream, usually via the buttocks or shoulder (areas less sensitive to pain). Injections may also be necessary for someone who suffers from gastrointestinal disease or has had part of his stomach removed. For vegans who don’t have sufficient B-12 in their diets, swallowing a pill rather than going through the ordeal of an injection would do the trick.
B-12 has become modish among athletes who believe the vitamin can ward off disease, boost energy levels, and enhance performance, much like caffeine pills or greenies. It’s also widely regarded as a longevity drug that can slow the effects of aging. Anna Nicole Smith, for example, was injecting a battery of so-called anti-aging substances—including B-12, immunoglobulins, and HGH—in the weeks leading up to her death. If B-12 deficiency causes lethargy, the conventional wisdom holds, surely a surplus can work wonders. Yet there’s no proof that above-average intake affects endurance or appearance more than a sugar pill.
Athletes and age-phobics inject, rather than swallow, the vitamin for faster absorption. (It’s true that certain drugs absorb poorly along the G.I. tract.) The appearance of injectable B-12 may also have something to do with its popularity: Its vibrant red color can make it seem healthy or energizing.
If it turns out that Clemens was really injecting HGH, then B-12 will enter the ranks of notorious scapegoat substances. Marion Jones, who won five Olympic medals, and Barry Bonds, who set the home run record, both denied knowingly taking steroids. The excuse? They thought they were taking flaxseed oil, which helps maintain cardiovascular health.
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Explainer thanks Scott Brickett of the University of Tampa, Henry Lukaski of the Department of Agriculture, William Roberts of the University of Minnesota Medical School, Kent Sepkowitz of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and Sydney Spiesel of the Yale University School of Medicine.