The Health Risks of Using Anabolic Steroids

Steroids can increase muscle mass and performance – but they also have potentially deadly side effects. Before you start taking steroids to fast track your muscle gains, you better learn about the potential negative side effects of anabolic steroids abuse. The desire to be the best is one of the reasons some athletes turn to anabolic steroids – performance enhancing drugs that can make them stronger and faster. But no matter what the benefits, steroids can have severe negative consequences, both physical and psychological. They should never be used unless prescribed by a physician to treat a medical condition.

Exactly what makes anabolic steroids so powerful? They are the synthetic version of testosterone, the primary male sex hormone. (Anabolic steroids have no relation to corticosteroids, used to treat asthma.) Anabolic steroids appeal mainly to the competitive athlete, from high school track runners to professional bodybuilders. These athletes use steroids primarily to improve athletic performance, enhance appearance, and increase muscle mass and strength.

Steroids allow both endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners, and power athletes, such as weightlifters, to train more frequently, with higher intensity, and for longer periods of time. They also help athletes recuperate more quickly than they would without the drugs.

Because of this performance boost, there are more than one million current or former users of anabolic steroids in the United States today. Since it’s illegal for physicians to prescribe steroids for non-medical uses, most steroid users must obtain the drugs on the black market, estimated by the Drug Enforcement Administration to result in more than $400 million dollars of sales each year. Many steroids are produced in underground laboratories in Europe and South America and smuggled into North America.

Studies show that numerous steroid users start as teenagers: As many as 3 to 11 percent of high school boys and up to 2 percent of senior girls have used steroids. Steroid use involves taking several tablets a day or many injections a week, in cycles of six to 12 or more weeks.

The long-term effects of anabolic steroids haven’t been studied, but much is known about the short-term effects. In both men and women, anabolic steroid use promotes acne, muscle mass, and secondary sex characteristics, including permanent deepening of the voice and facial hair growth, as well as increased libido. Steroids are also believed to increase aggressiveness, though there’s no strong consensus as to whether “roid rage” – sudden outbursts of violent behavior – is actually caused by steroid use.

The more serious effects of steroid use depend on the form in which they are taken. There are several types of anabolic steroids: orals, injections, gels, patches, and nasal sprays. Adolescents and less sophisticated users tend to use injectible or oral steroids. Oral steroids have more negative effects than injectible; they’re associated with liver abnormalities, as well as tumors.

After several days of oral steroid use, a person’s “good” cholesterol (that is, high-density lipoproteins or HDLs) can plummet to single-digit levels, which are dangerous and can increase risk of heart disease. (Ideally, HDLs should be above 35 milligrams per deciliter of blood in adults 20 years of age or older.) However, these problems usually disappear within a month of discontinuing steroid use.

All steroids shut down the production of testosterone by the testes in males, which stop sperm production. As a result, anabolic steroids have been tested as a male contraceptive, though the findings are still inconclusive.

Studies also suggest an association between anabolic steroid use and heart attack and stroke, probably due to increased blood clotting and spasms of the arteries. There have also been a number of cases of cardiomyopathy, an enlargement of the heart muscle where it becomes weakened and can’t pump blood efficiently, sometimes leading to congestive heart failure.

Though anabolic steroids aren’t addictive in a physical sense, users can become dependent on them. Like with any drug the user can easily become psychologically addicted.

Though using anabolic steroids may sound like a recipe for health problems, they do have legitimate medical benefits in certain cases. Anabolic steroids have been used as replacement therapy for men whose testes aren’t producing testosterone, helping them maintain their sex drive and their primary sex characteristics. They’re also given to HIV-positive individuals to increase appetite, give a sense of well-being, and maintain muscle mass.

Despite the risks, without better detection, education, and treatment, anabolic steroids will continue to be the drug of choice for athletes concerned about being the best, even when their overall health is at stake. You have to ask yourself this serious question. Is the possible performance enhancement benefits worth the associated health risk? I think not.