What are steroids? What are the different types of steroids?
Steroids are synthetic compounds that mimic the hormones produced by the body. There are two types of steroids, corticosteroids and anabolic-androgenic steroids. Corticosteroids are similar to hormones produced by the adrenal gland located just above the kidneys, which are used to fight stress associated with illness and injuries. Corticosteroids are commonly used as an anti-inflammatory medicine for the treatment of autoimmune diseases and symptoms of inflammatory conditions.
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are the steroids that attract all the publicity these days. They are synthetic forms of testosterone, the male sex hormone produced by the testicles and the female ovaries. Anabolic means muscle building, and androgenic means male characteristics. AAS were originally synthesized for the treatment of hypogonadism (the diminished functionality of the testis or ovaries), tumors, hypercalcemia (elevated calcium levels in the blood), hypercalciuria (elevated calcium in the urine) and other chronic diseases. However, shortly after their discovery, it was the discovered that the use of AAS may enhance physique and athletic performance. These lead to the abuse of the substance by armature and professional athletes as well as by the general public.
So do anabolic steroids work in improving athletics performances?
That after all, is the basis of anabolic steroid use in the athletics world. The answer to this question is not as clear-cut as you think. The actual efficacy of AAS had been debated and questioned over the years, with many suggesting that the changes experienced by AAS users are more psychological than physical. However, more recent studies seem to support the idea that short term administration of AAS can increase 5-20% of strength and increments of 2-5kg of body weight due to the increase of lean body mass. However, the gain on lean body mass is not associated with fat loss, so it doesn't make you slimmer. In addition, taking AAS doesn't seem to affect endurance, even though steroid use has been shown to affect the production of red blood cells and blood hemoglobin concentrations (Hartgens and Kuipers 2004, Sports Medicine). I understand many people claim that steroid use can improve endurance, which contradicts with findings from scientific literatures. One of the possible reasons for this is that anabolic steroids can significantly alter the psychological behavior of a person, and thus improve performance and endurance through training, motivation on top of the increased lean body mass.
How are AAS used as performance enhancing substances?
AAS are usually administered orally, through injections or as a topical agent. In order to achieve desired anabolic effects, users can sometimes use up to 10 - 100 times higher doses of AAS compare to what doctors normally prescribe to treat medical conditions. AAS are usually taken in cycles in order to avoid or reduce unwanted side effects and allows the body to recover. Sometimes, different types of steroids are used in conjunction with other supplements to maximize the effectiveness of the regime. This is called stacking.
What are side effects of taking AAS?
It was discovered that, short-term use of AAS at physiological doses may leave no significant adverse side effects (Evans 2004, American Journal of Sports Medicine). However, illicit users of AAS often use excessively high doses, which could potentially cause irreversible side effects. Below is a list of the side effects that can be caused by short-term and long-term use of anabolic steroids. Keep in mind that most scientific studies only administered relatively low-doses of steroids into their test subjects, hence they do not approximate the doses used by illicit users. As a result, the data obtained may be an underestimation of the actual untoward effects.
- The use of AAS can cause increases in sexual drive, body hair, aggressive behaviors and occurrence of acne in male users.
- Long term, continuous use of AAS can cause testicular atrophy (shrinkage of testicles), reduced sperm count or infertility, development of breasts, and increases the risk for prostate cancer in males.
- The continuous use of AAS in females can cause male pattern boldness, growth of facial hair, deepening of voice, and cessation in menstrual cycles.
- The use of AAS in adolescents can cause stunted growth due to premature skeletal maturation and accelerated puberty changes.
- The administration of AAS will disturb the body's production of testosterone and gonadotropin, which can persist for months after drug withdrawal.
- Chronic exposure to AAS has been suspected to significantly alter the cardiovascular system. A direct link between AAS use and cardiac muscle hypertrophy and myocardio fibrosis was established (Higgins et al. 2012, Southern Medical Journal).
- AAS abuse has been associated with a number of psychological problems, including irritability, aggressiveness, anxiety and depression (Hallberg 2011, Minireviews in Medicinal Chemistry).
- High concentration of AAS (similar to doses used by athletes) can produce apoptotic effects (self-destruction) on neuron cells, leads to the speculation that AAS use can cause irreversible neuropsychiatric toxicity (Kanayama et al. 2008, Drug and Alcohol Dependance).
- A study has shown that 25% of AAS users develop some sort of dependence (addition). AAS dependent users had a higher rate of heroin use and major depressive disorders compared to non-dependent users (Ip et al. 2012, Pharmacotherapy).
- High doses of AAS have been shown to affect the function of liver, kidney and the gastrointestinal system (Modlinski and Fields 2006, Current Sports Medicine Reports).
So is it worth it?
Having an appropriate diet and good, effective training regime can get you to where AAS could plus a lot more, without the adverse consequences. No matter how you look at it, investing your health for the temporary quick gain of a bit of lean body mass doesn't seem like a sweet deal to me. The ultimate decision is yours, but remember, be prepared to accept the consequences.