Safety and Wellness

Are Steroids Worth the Risk?

Dominic has baseball on the brain. Just being good isn't enough — he wants to be the best. He dreams of playing in the majors someday, but worries about the intense competition for a position on a major league team. His girlfriend, Deborah, is also a highly competitive athlete whose appearance and performance are very important to her. She wants to stand out — both physically and athletically.

Because of the pressure they each feel to excel, Dominic and Deborah wonder whether steroids would help them. They've heard rumors about the bad side effects of steroids, but they don't have many facts. Here's the scoop on steroids.

What Are Steroids?

Steroids, sometimes referred to as "roids" or "juice" are the same as, or similar to, certain hormones in the body. The body produces steroids naturally to support such functions as fighting stress and promoting growth and development. But some people use steroid pills, gels, creams, or injections because they think steroids can improve their sports performance or the way they look.

Anabolic steroids are artificially produced hormones that are the same as, or similar to, androgens, the male-type sex hormones in the body. There are more than 100 variations of anabolic steroids. The most powerful androgen is testosterone (pronounced: tess-TOSS-tuh-rone). Although testosterone is mainly a mature male hormone, girls' bodies produce smaller amounts. Testosterone helps build muscle and promotes the masculine traits that guys develop during puberty, such as deepening of the voice and growth of body hair. Testosterone levels can also affect how aggressive a person is.

Athletes sometimes take anabolic steroids because of their testosterone-like effects.

Another group of steroids, sometimes called steroidal supplements, contains dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and/or androstenedione (also known as andro). For the most part, steroidal supplements, which used to be found at health food stores or gyms, are now illegal and require a prescription. DHEA is one of the few exceptions and can still be bought over the counter.

Steroid supplements are weaker forms of androgen. Their effects aren't well known, but it's thought that, when taken in large doses, they cause effects similar to other androgens like testosterone. Here's what is known about steroidal supplements: Companies that manufacture them often use false claims and very little is known about the long-term effects some of these substances have on the body. That’s one reason why the government took action to protect citizens by passing laws controlling steroid distribution.

How Do Anabolic Steroids Work?

Anabolic steroids stimulate muscle tissue to grow and "bulk up" in response to training by mimicking the effect of naturally produced testosterone on the body. Anabolic steroids can remain in the body anywhere from a couple of days to about a year. Steroids have become popular because they may improve endurance, strength, and muscle mass. However, research has not shown that steroids improve skill, agility, or athletic performance.

Dangers of Steroids

Anabolic steroids cause many different types of problems. Some of the common side effects are:

  • acne
  • premature balding or hair loss
  • weight gain
  • mood swings
  • aggression
  • problems sleeping
  • high blood pressure
  • greater chance of injuring muscles and tendons
  • jaundice or yellowing of the skin; liver damage
  • stunted growth
  • increased risk of developing heart disease, blood clots, stroke, and some types of cancer

Risks for Girls

Specific risks for girls associated with anabolic steroids include:

  • increased facial and body hair growth
  • development of masculine traits, such as deepening of the voice, and loss of feminine body characteristics, such as shrinking of the breasts
  • enlargement of the clitoris
  • menstrual cycle changes

Risks for Guys

Specific risks for guys include:

  • testicular shrinkage
  • pain when urinating
  • breast development
  • impotence (inability to get an erection)
  • reduced sperm count and infertility

Other Problems

Steroids can also have serious psychological side effects. Some users may become aggressive or combative, believe things that aren't true (delusions), or have extreme feelings of mistrust or fear (paranoia). And people who use steroids also appear to be at higher risk for using other drugs, such as alcohol or cocaine, often to counteract some of the negative effects of steroids.

Drinking and Steroids

Steroid users who inject the drugs with a needle are at risk for infection with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the virus that causes AIDS, if they share needles with other users. People who use dirty needles are also at greater risk for contracting hepatitis, a disease of the liver, or bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart.

Steroids: Stacking and Addiction

Some people “cycle” their steroid doses. This means they take multiple doses of steroids over a period of time, then stop for a period then start up again. "Stacking" means taking two or more different anabolic steroids. Other steroid users may "pyramid" their steroids, starting with a low dose and gradually increasing the dose, frequency, or number of anabolic steroids taken, then tapering off to complete a cycle. Users believe that stacking enhances the effects of each individual drug, pyramiding allows the body to get used to high doses of steroids, and steroid-free periods help the body recuperate from the drugs. There is no scientific evidence to support any of these claims.

A lot of people tell themselves they'll only use steroids for a season or a school year. Unfortunately, steroids can be addictive, making it hard to stop taking them.

And once users stop taking steroids, they can have withdrawal symptoms including loss of appetite, fatigue, restlessness, insomnia, mood swings, and depression.

Strong Alternatives to Steroids

Anabolic steroid use is illegal and banned by professional sports organizations and medical associations. In spite of this, some athletes continue to take steroids because they think it gives them a competitive advantage. As seen in the high-profile cases, if an athlete is caught using steroids, his or her career can be destroyed. And there are serious health consequences.

When it comes right down to it, harming your body or getting disqualified aren't smart ways to try to improve your athletic performance. Being a star athlete means working hard and training the healthy way: eating the right foods, practicing, and strength training without the use of drugs.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: June 2013



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