Anabolic Steroids | Health, Medicine and Fitness

chris woolston

What are anabolic steroids?

Anabolic steroids are a class of synthetic drugs that closely mimic male sex hormones such as testosterone. They can be taken by mouth, applied as a patch, spread on the skin as a cream or gel, or injected. The term “anabolic” means that drugs can build muscle – often at an unusual rate. Doctors frequently prescribe the drugs to AIDS patients and others who are losing muscle mass. Anabolic steroids are also sometimes prescribed to men with delayed puberty or other conditions related to a lack of testosterone. These muscle-building drugs should not be confused with corticosteroids, a common class of drugs used to treat inflammation.

What are the benefits and risks of anabolic steroids?

When taken as prescribed by a doctor, anabolic steroids are often safe and effective. Patients who have low testosterone levels for various reasons may benefit from taking steroids to maintain normal testosterone levels. It can improve short-term symptoms without serious side effects. What doctors don’t know is whether long-term steroid use is completely safe.

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Anyone looking for an edge on the playground or in the gym should definitely look elsewhere. The long list of potential long-term side effects should be enough to scare off any muscular man (or woman). For starters, men can develop overgrown pectoral muscles; women can develop facial hair and a version of male pattern baldness, and both sexes can suffer from severe acne. Drugs can interrupt the growth spurt of teenagers, leaving them much smaller than they would have been. And while steroids can bulk up a man’s muscles, they can also shrink his testicles and cause his sperm count and fertility to plummet.

Users may also develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and kidney or liver tumors. Athletes who abuse steroids are known to suffer heart attacks and strokes before they turn 30. Lyle Alzado, a fierce National Football League defensive lineman, blamed his longtime use of steroids for the brain tumors that ultimately claimed his life. Currently, however, there is no proven link between steroid abuse and brain cancer.

Steroid abuse can certainly wreak other forms of havoc in the brain. Many users suffer from depression and wild mood swings, a side effect often referred to as “roid rage”. Some experts believe that steroids can cause aggression and even violent crime, but the link is still theoretical.

Additionally, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) claims that addicts take the drugs in amounts that are sometimes 10 to 100 times stronger than those recommended for the legitimate treatment of testosterone deficiency. Additionally, people who use them non-medically often “stack” their doses by taking two or more different steroids at once.

Why are anabolic steroids abused?

Anabolic steroids were first produced in the 1930s, and it didn’t take long before they found their way into gyms and locker rooms across the country. Bodybuilders, weightlifters and other athletes soon discovered that drugs could make them bigger and stronger. But since doctors weren’t likely to prescribe steroids to improve a boxer’s jab or pump up a weightlifter’s biceps, athletes found other ways to get the drugs. Today, anabolic steroids are often smuggled from overseas or prepared in makeshift labs.

How common is anabolic steroid abuse?

Nobody knows how many athletes abuse anabolic steroids. Relatively few professionals are caught in the act, but it is widely believed that many take the drugs in secret. For example, football players and other athletes could easily take drugs during the off-season without fear of detection. When major league baseball first began wide-scale testing of steroids in 2003, about 5% of players tested positive.

The percentage of athletes who actually abuse drugs could be much higher. Some can beat the system by using untraceable versions of drugs. In October 2003, the United States Anti-Doping Agency revealed that a laboratory in Burlingame, California had developed an “undetectable” steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). When tests were updated to detect THG, urine samples from several track and field competitors came back positive. Other so-called “designer” drugs designed to evade drug testing include deoxymethyltestosterone (Madol) and norbolethon (Genabol).

In recent years, the number of steroid doping allegations has increased. These allegations and subsequent admissions resulted in Olympians like Marion Jones having their medals stripped. Many well-known baseball players were also implicated. In 2007, Jason Giambi admitted to using steroids in previous years and apologized to his fans. That same year, Barry Bonds was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to a grand jury about knowingly using steroids.

There is no doubt that the abuse of anabolic steroids extends far beyond elite sports. According to the Mayo Clinic, approximately 3 million people in the United States use anabolic steroids. NIDA reports that hundreds of thousands of adults take steroids at least once a year. According to his surveys, the percentage of high school students who have tried steroids has declined in recent years, but is still above 2%.

Some people who abuse steroids develop all the classic signs of addiction. They spend a lot of their time and energy getting the drugs, they keep taking them regardless of the consequences, and they suffer withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit. Depression is a particularly common side effect of stopping steroids. According to the NIDA, depression due to steroid withdrawal can last over a year if not properly treated. Fortunately, antidepressants, especially when combined with behavioral counseling, can help ex-addicts through this difficult transition. Certainly, the benefits of getting rid of high dose steroids that are prescribed for non-medical reasons far outweigh the hassle of quitting smoking.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Watching the Future: Findings from the National Drug Use Survey.

CBS News. Barry Bonds wins legal victory in steroids case. June 11, 2010.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. Watching the future: results from the national drug use survey 1975-2006. Volume 1.

Mayo Clinic. Performance-Enhancing Drugs and Your Teenage Athlete. Report: Track and field star Marion Jones admits to using steroids before the 2000 Olympics. October 2007.

Mayo Clinic. Performance-enhancing drugs: do they pose a risk to your health? December 23, 2008.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. InfoFacts. Steroids (anabolic androgens).