Anabolic steroids are synthetic versions of the hormone testosterone. While these drugs have some medical uses for which they are sometimes prescribed, many people use them illegally. Anabolic steroid abuse has become common not just among bodybuilders and weightlifters or other athletes, but also among the general population.
People abuse anabolic steroids to enhance their athletic performance and increase muscle growth. However, these drugs have serious side effects that include aggressiveness, irritability, paranoia, hormonal imbalances, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and an increased risk of many health problems. Some of these problems can be life-threatening.
The causes of anabolic steroid abuse aren’t entirely clear. These drugs could affect the brain’s reward system and neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. As a result, a person believes they need more to achieve better effects. Some people start abusing anabolic steroids because they socialize with individuals who do.
The main reason men use anabolic steroids is to take their athletic performance to a new level and build muscles. They often believe it’s impossible to achieve desired effects without steroids.
The average age range among anabolic steroid users is from the mid-20s to mid-30s. However, some teenagers also misuse anabolic steroids.
The main characteristic of anabolic steroid abuse is the continued usage despite the harmful effects they cause. Fortunately, this problem is manageable. Treatment of anabolic steroid abuse includes psychotherapy, endocrine therapy for people with hypogonadism, and psychosocial and pharmacological treatments. Some people may also get prescriptions for antidepressants.
Anabolic steroid is a synthetically produced variant of a naturally occurring male sex hormone testosterone. Also, anabolic steroid abuse refers to the use of steroids outside their intended purpose and without a doctor’s prescription.
Some anabolic steroids are used orally whereas others are injected intramuscularly or applied topically via gels or creams. People who abuse different types of steroids for bodybuilding tend to inject them into their bodies because it works faster.
Testosterone was first synthesized in 1935 when it was used to treat depression. However, in 1954, professional athletes started misusing steroids for muscle growth during the Olympics when Russian weightlifters used testosterone. A few decades later, in the 1980s, anabolic steroids “reached” the general population that started using them to enhance athletic performance, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Also known as anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), anabolic steroids are prescription-only medications that help men who don’t produce enough testosterone on their own. They’re also prescribed for certain kinds of anemia, gaining weight after injury or illness, and other purposes. However, many people use anabolic steroids illegally i.e. without a doctor’s prescription.
It is illegal to make, sell, or possess steroid precursors in the United States and many other countries worldwide.
Other terms and common street names for anabolic steroids include gym candy, Arnolds, roids, pumpers, weight trainers, stackers, and juice, DEA confirms.
As mentioned above, these steroids are also called anabolic-androgenic steroids where “anabolic” stands for muscle building and androgenic refers to enhanced male sex characteristics.
Anabolic steroids are used orally as tablets or injected into the muscle, but they’re also available as gels and creams a person applies to the skin. Many people start with the oral form of different types of anabolic steroids and then move on to the injectable forms because it causes less liver damage and it works faster.
Illegal usage of anabolic steroids is quite common and doses are 10 to 100 times higher compared to dosages prescribed to treat medical conditions. Some people use anabolic steroids as performance-enhancing drugs that decrease fat and increase muscle mass. They work because anabolic steroids mimic the effects of testosterone, NHS explains. However, this type of use of anabolic steroids is both illegal and unsafe.
People who use illegal steroids tend to follow different patterns such as cycling, stacking, pyramiding, and plateauing.
Cycling refers to taking multiple doses for a certain period of time, then stopping for a while, and continuing using steroids again. Stacking refers to combining or mixing and matching two or more steroids.
On the other hand, pyramiding is the pattern where a person slowly increases the frequency or dose of bodybuilding steroids until they reach the peak amount and then gradually decreases it. Plateauing refers to alternating, substituting, or overlapping one steroid with another to avoid becoming tolerant to these drugs.
Medical uses of anabolic steroids, for which doctors may issue a prescription, include treating delayed puberty, hormone problems in men (lack of testosterone), and loss of muscle mass due to some diseases.
Common effects of anabolic steroid use are both physical and psychological. The exact effects may differ from one person to another. Most people experience fluid retention, difficulty sleeping, skin changes, irritability, mood swings, and nerve damage due to anabolic steroid abuse.
Men may also notice their testicles and penis reduced in size. Their sperm counts can also reduce and they may experience problems such as erectile dysfunction or the opposite i.e. long-lasting and involuntary erection, and prostate problems.
On the flip side, women may notice their menstrual cycle has become irregular. Their voice may deepen and breasts may shrink.
In other words, anabolic steroids exhibit side effects on different aspects of a person’s health. They may affect cardiovascular health, liver, musculoskeletal system, hormonal system, skin, and mental health.
When a person uses anabolic steroids, they tend to experience hormonal imbalance. After all, anabolic steroids are synthetic forms of testosterone. Exogenous introduction of testosterone to your system can have a direct impact on the production and concentration of other hormones in the body.
Keep in mind, that hormones are chemical messengers. They send signals and regulate various functions. Hormonal balance is necessary for good health and wellbeing. Changes in this balance can lead to a domino effect or chain of reactions.
The abuse of anabolic steroids leads to an excessive increase in testosterone levels. In turn, the body’s ability to produce testosterone reduces significantly. This can lead to hormonal imbalance and both reversible and irreversible changes in people on steroids.
Reversible changes include hypogonadism (reduced function of the testes), decreased production of sperm, and testicular atrophy or shrinking of the testicles. On the other hand, irreversible changes range from gynecomastia or breast development to male-pattern baldness.
By causing hormonal imbalances, anabolic steroid abuse can increase the risk of testicular cancer. This risk is emphasized in men who use anabolic steroids with insulin-like growth factors.
Hormonal imbalances and changes don’t only affect men who abuse anabolic steroids. Women can experience some effects, as well. Abuse of anabolic steroids can cause masculinization in women. For example, their body fat and breast size can decrease, their voice deepens, and their skin becomes more coarse. Additionally, women may notice they’re losing hair on the scalp, but also gaining excessive body hair.
Anabolic steroids affect other hormones too, not just testosterone. They can also affect thyroid hormones, and estrogen, among others.
The use of anabolic steroids can cause stunted growth in a person’s body. This effect is mainly pronounced in young users i.e. adolescents. Generally speaking, anabolic steroids speed up bone growth. Sometimes teens who haven’t had a growth spurt in puberty misuse these steroids. As a result, anabolic steroids can restrict growth and cause premature aging.
Growth stunt associated with the use of steroids happens because these drugs cause bones to mature too quickly. For that reason, they stop developing at an early age. That happens because the body is conditioned to stop growing after puberty. When hormone levels reach a specific level, the body presumes it’s already experienced puberty and stops growing.
Fatal side effects of anabolic steroid abuse include kidney failure, severe liver damage and cancer or tumors, high risk of blood clots, hypertension, enlarged heart, and serious changes in cholesterol levels. For that reason, the harmful effects of steroids also extend to a higher risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases and events such as heart attack and stroke. These problems can occur even in young people.
When it comes to the liver, anabolic steroid abusers are at risk of developing peliosis hepatitis which includes the formation of blood-filled cysts on the liver. Cysts and tumors can rupture and cause internal bleeding, which can be life-threatening.
The abuse of anabolic steroids can cause various side effects. Some are more serious than others. Probably the most severe side effect of anabolic steroids is a shorter lifespan. WebMD reports that steroid use can shorten a person’s life. Also, abuse of these drugs can lead to sudden cardiac death.
People who abuse anabolic steroids may also have a weakened immune system. Strong immunity is necessary to protect the body against bacteria, viruses, and other invaders. By weakening the immune system, anabolic steroids put a person at a higher risk of developing various diseases.
People, especially young persons, who use injectable steroids are also at risk of hepatitis B and C. Sometimes people abuse steroids together and share non-sterile equipment that puts their health in danger.
Yes, using anabolic steroids can result in extreme mood changes. The users of anabolic steroids are more likely to report anxiety than people who don’t use these drugs. Evidence also shows anabolic steroid users also tend to experience aggressiveness, depression, and other mood disturbances.
A study from Pharmacotherapy also confirmed anabolic steroid abuse was strongly associated with depression and anxiety. These studies reveal the effects are strongly related to the frequency of use and dosages people take. The more they abuse anabolic steroids, the bigger the effects on their mood.
Moderate to high dosages of anabolic steroids are strongly linked to severe mood disorders such as hypomania, mania, and major depression. People who abuse anabolic steroids also experience paranoia.
Anabolic steroids cause mood changes through their impact on dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters in the brain. Dopamine regulates learning, mobility, appetite, emotions, and positive reinforcing effects. This neurotransmitter is crucial for the brain’s reward system. In other words, dopamine plays an important role in the development of addiction.
On the other hand, serotonin regulates movement, sleep patterns, emotions, sexuality, and appetite. Also, this neurotransmitter is linked to sustainable concentration and memory operations.
Anabolic steroid abuse acts on the response of the dopamine system to stimulating intoxicants. In turn, the release of neurotransmitters decreases along with the pleasure these intoxicants provide. Androgenic compounds have a direct effect on serotonin and dopamine release.
Large doses of anabolic steroids can cause programmed cell death in various cell types, including neuronal. Irreversible changes in the brain function and nervous system may ensue. This could explain why anabolic steroid abuse is strongly associated with psychiatric disorders and extreme mood changes.
Moreover, anabolic steroid abuse causes mood changes by increasing testosterone levels significantly. Evidence confirms that high testosterone levels are strongly related to increased rates of hypomania and depression. High levels of testosterone can also cause anxiety and irritability.
The use of anabolic steroids can cause several disfiguring effects. The impact of these drugs goes beyond bigger muscles and damage to physical and mental health. For example, abusing anabolic steroids can cause severe acne, baldness, and greasy hair.
Healthline reports that steroid acne affects around 50% of people who abuse anabolic steroids in large doses. It’s not entirely clear how steroids cause acne. One theory is that steroids can contribute to the production of TLR2 immune system receptors. These receptors play a role in acne formation when Propionibacterium acnes bacteria are also present.
Also, by increasing testosterone levels anabolic steroids can also contribute to greasy hair as well as acne. Remember, sometimes acne develop due to the buildup of sebum (fat, grease) in the pores, which become clogged and inflamed.
Internal damages to organs can occur with the use of the anabolic steroid. Evidence shows the misuse of anabolic steroids can cause multi-organ damage due to hypercalcemia (high calcium levels) and amino acids that exhibit negative effects on organs.
A study from the BMC Nephrology found that the use of anabolic steroids can contribute to acute kidney injury and chronic kidney diseases. Exogenous testosterone administration can cause renal dysfunction and progression of renal injury.
Additionally, anabolic steroids can cause damage to gonads (testicles or ovaries). They can also induce liver damage. This is particularly the case for oral anabolic steroids, which have slower clearance in the liver. The use of anabolic steroids can cause hepatic tumors, chronic vascular injury, toxicant-associated fatty liver disease, and other problems that impair the functioning of the liver, a study from the Current Sports Medicine Reports confirmed.
Anabolic steroids can also lead to the malfunction of the heart and, in some cases, the pancreas. One study found the use of anabolic steroids was a rare cause of acute pancreatitis.
Plus, prolonged use of anabolic steroids can disrupt functions of brain networks with high levels of androgen receptors and are involved in cognitive and emotional regulation.
In other words, the use of anabolic steroids can have a major impact on numerous organs and tissues in the body and affect their functionality.
Yes, anabolic steroid use can increase suicidal thoughts. The connection between suicidal thoughts or tendencies and anabolic steroids has been scientifically confirmed.
Back in December 1999, the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry published a study that explored the cases of suicides in 21- to 33-year-old men with current or discontinued use of anabolic steroids. Five suicides were committed during the current use of these drugs whereas two cases occurred 2 to 6 months after withdrawal. Men also developed depression. Only one person considered suicide before the use of anabolic steroids. Scientists concluded the use of anabolic steroids could contribute to suicidal thoughts and tendencies in predisposed persons.
More recent research also confirms the link between anabolic steroid use and suicidal thoughts or tendencies. For example, the June 2020 issue of Medicina published a study whose primary objective was to identify personality and psychiatric disorders to measure depression and anxiety in users of anabolic steroids. Results showed that all subjects reported side effects linked with the use of steroids. The most common adverse reactions were aggressiveness, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and criminality.
When a person takes steroids, their body suppresses the natural production of testosterone because these drugs are synthetic versions of that hormone.
However, hormonal changes can deeply affect some people and cause problems with mental health. This is also evident when a person stops taking anabolic steroids; it can take weeks or months for the body to start producing sufficient amounts of testosterone by itself.
Some people are vulnerable to profound mood changes, which is why they experience depression and suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Ahmed Zayed, MD, is a physician, an author, and a fitness lover, and he has a deep-seated desire to assist others in leading happier and more fulfilling lives.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed, who received his degree in medicine and surgery from the University of Alexandria, is committed to sharing his expertise with his audience and believes that readers deserve accurate information.
Dr. Zayed has the ability to explain difficult ideas in a way that a layperson can understand while still incorporating a scientific perspective into the discussions that surround those ideas.