The news broke yesterday that Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez was being suspended for 50 games for violating Major League Baseball's performance-enhancing drug policy. Ramirez, 36, was suspended after baseball officials discovered he had been prescribed human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), according to the New York Times. HCG is a hormone used as a fertility drug in women—so what would a male athlete stand to gain by using it?

In a statement released by the players' union, Ramirez provided few details, saying only that the suspension, which he is not appealing, stemmed from "a medication, not a steroid" that his doctor prescribed "for a personal health issue."

We checked in with Andrew Kicman, head of R&D at the King's College London Drug Control Center and lead author of the 1991 study "Human chorionic gonadotrophin and sport," published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

In addition to helping women conceive, Kicman says, HCG can be used to artificially stimulate testosterone production in men, which in turn boosts muscle strength and overall athletic performance, "but this will only result in a two- to three-fold increase [in testosterone] in the serum for a few days following injection." That may sound like a lot, but doping regimens often increase testosterone levels by double that amount.

For pure testosterone-boosting purposes, Kicman adds, athletes have superior cheats available. "I don't think any well-informed individual would use HCG for this purpose," he says, "especially with the availability of short-acting preparations of testosterone," such as gels that can be applied to the skin. (Indeed, Ramirez was also found to have artificial testosterone in his body, according to ESPN's sources, but was apparently suspended for HCG on the strength of the documentary evidence for his using it.)

The hormone does, however, help male athletes right their chemical balance after the use of other performance enhancers. "Basically, HCG may be used in an attempt to prevent testicular atrophy (shrinkage) that otherwise may occur when using anabolic steroids for prolonged periods," Kicman says. Anabolic steroids are synthetic substances derived from male sex hormones that promote improved endurance and boost muscle mass and strength. "HCG may also be used," he says, "following cessation of prolonged anabolic steroid use, to try to hasten a return to normal testicular function," when the athlete would have very low levels of circulating male hormones.

Photo of Ramirez courtesy of shgmom56 on Flickr