Anabolic steroids are part of the steroid group of drugs that are synthesized from hormones naturally produced by the body. They are basically artificial versions of these natural chemicals. The other major group of steroids are the corticosteroids, which have a variety of medical uses.
Anabolic steroids are also used medically, especially to combat muscle wasting and hormone deficiencies, but they are best known for their illegal use by athletes and bodybuilders.
Basically, anabolic steroids mimic testosterone, the sex hormone responsible for male sexual characteristics and development, as well as various essential body functions. They are legal in most countries when used for medical purposes and prescribed by a physician, but any other use is generally illegal.
Anabolic steroids were first synthesized in the 1930s, after years of research by international scientists into the synthetic production and use of different forms of steroids. But it was in the 1950s that it was realized that they could enhance athletic performance and were abused when they were used by weightlifters in the Olympics.
Anabolic steroids are used by professional and amateur athletes mainly because they allow them to train harder, build muscle faster and recover more easily. In recent decades, they have also been used by “recreational” bodybuilders who want to build muscle to improve their performance.
However, the use of anabolic steroids for these purposes has a number of adverse effects on the health and state of mind of users, including physiological abnormalities and more aggressive behavior.
Because of these health risks and the unfair advantage it provides in sports competitions, anabolic steroids were banned by the International Olympic Committee in 1975 and most official sports organizations quickly followed suit. However, because the testing was still relatively crude, their use continued to be widespread among top athletes for many years, leading to much controversy. Today, “doping” tests to monitor athletes are much more sophisticated, but the use of steroids continues.
Anabolic steroids have also been banned without valid medical use or prescription by some, but not all, countries. In the United States, they were classified as a Schedule III drug in 1990. In the United Kingdom, they are classified as Class C drugs and can only be sold by prescription. However, their possession is not illegal unless they are clearly in a non-medical form.
Anabolic steroids can be used in tablet form or as a liquid to be injected with a hypodermic needle. They can also be used as a topical gel or cream.
In the media and in everyday conversation, anabolic steroids are often shortened to “steroids” when there is an important distinction between this type of steroid and corticosteroids, which have different potential for abuse.
Different types of anabolic steroids are available legally and on the black market. The most common are nandrolone, stanozolol, oxandrolone and testosterone. They are manufactured by many pharmaceutical companies and under different names, including Annadrol, Therabolin, Decadurabolin, Parabolin, Dianabol and Winstrol.
On the street, anabolic steroids are commonly referred to as juices, anabolics or white powder.
Athletes, bodybuilders and others primarily take anabolic steroids because they believe they will help them build muscle mass faster and get more out of their workouts. This is true to some extent, as anabolic steroids stimulate muscle production by binding to receptors on muscle cells.
However, in addition to their muscle building properties (which vary greatly), they have many other effects that are undesirable to say the least.
There are many cases where steroid use has made people more aggressive, even violent, as well as anxious and paranoid. These behaviors can, in turn, damage interpersonal relationships.
Because steroids contain sex hormones that define male and female characteristics, they can cause unexpected physical changes. In men, these can include breast development, shrinking testicles, hair loss and impotence. In women, anabolic steroids can make the voice deeper, grow a beard, shrink the breasts, create menstrual problems and enlarge the genitals.
There is no way to identify the actual content of anabolic steroids purchased on the black market, which makes them particularly dangerous. In the United States, steroids commonly used for livestock have been unwittingly purchased by bodybuilders.
Steroid abuse is also thought to be responsible for high blood pressure, heart attacks and health problems. Finally, in adolescents, they can disrupt growth.
Because anabolic steroids have legitimate medical uses, they are manufactured in many pharmaceutical companies around the world. However, in many countries, they are only available by prescription, so those who wish to use them to improve performance or build muscle must resort to the black market.
Steroid traffickers can obtain their products in a variety of ways: from pharmacies (with fake prescriptions), by stealing them or with the help of accomplices. They can also import them illegally from other countries with less stringent legislation.
Criminal organizations may be involved in the production and supply of anabolic steroids, sometimes manufactured illegally in clandestine laboratories. Stocks of steroids, sometimes intended only for veterinary use, can be diverted from legitimate distribution channels.
One of the biggest problems with the black market in anabolic steroids is that, due to lack of regulation, there is no way to determine the exact quality, purity or content of the products being sold. Like many other illegal drugs, the product is likely to be cut with other chemicals to enhance its effects or replaced entirely with another drug or even an inert substance.
On the street, steroids can be purchased discreetly from dealers in gyms, fitness clubs and similar places. There are also many websites that sell steroids, although in most cases they are counterfeit, ineffective or dangerous.
FACTS AND STATISTICS
- Anabolic steroids are not the only type of steroid produced, but the other main type, corticosteroids, do not have the same potential for abuse.
- Anabolic steroids are artificially synthesized versions of male sex hormones produced naturally by the body, including testosterone.
- They are primarily taken in pill form or as an injectable liquid.
Injection of this substance has additional risks, as with any use of intravenous needles: damage to blood vessels, abscesses and infections. If needles are shared, there is also an increased risk of contracting HIV.
- In many countries, anabolic steroids are illegal except for legitimate medical purposes, including the treatment of hormone deficiencies and muscle wasting.
- Athletes and bodybuilders use them to improve their musculature and performance.
- The use of steroids has been banned by most national and international sports organizations.
- Steroid abuse can be psychologically addictive and carries many risks, including breast development and testicular shrinkage in men, beard growth and voice loss in women, impotence, high blood pressure, mood swings and violent aggression.
- Some of the harmful effects of steroids are irreversible, even after use has stopped.
- Many anabolic steroids sold illegally, especially on the Internet, are counterfeit or “cut” with other substances, which further increases the risks.
- Some users take more than one type of steroid at a time (stacking).
In the United Kingdom, anabolic steroids are considered Class C drugs, which means they are legal only for legitimate medical purposes.
- A 2010 U.S. study found that 1.5% of high school seniors (ages 17-18) had used steroids illegally in the previous year. In the second grade (15-16 years), the figure was 1% and in the fourth grade (13-14 years) 0.5%.
- A 2010 study on crime in the UK estimated that 19,000 English and Welsh people aged 16-59 had abused anabolic steroids in the previous month. This compares to 50,000 in the previous year, while 226,000 people reported having abused them at some point in their lives.
- The same study found that 11,000 individuals aged 16 to 24 had used anabolic steroids in the previous month and 27,000 in the previous year.
- In the United States, possession of illegal steroids (without a legitimate purpose or prescription) is punishable by up to one year in prison and a substantial fine. Trafficking or supplying steroids is punishable by up to five years in prison and an even larger fine.
It is estimated that users of illegal anabolic steroids intended to enhance athletic performance or muscle tone consume between 10 and 100 times the dose administered in medical settings.
- Some steroid users are reportedly turning to hard drugs to manage the side effects of steroid use. A U.S. study of 227 men undergoing detoxification from opioids such as heroin found that nearly 10% had used anabolic steroids prior to using another drug.
- 86% of these individuals reported using opioids to alleviate steroid side effects such as insomnia.
SIGNS OF ADDICTION
Muscle gain is not necessarily a sign of anabolic steroid abuse, as it can be the result of intense weight training and consumption of legal supplements, such as protein shakes. On the other hand, people who train regularly with the goal of gaining muscle are more likely to use steroids.
One of the main signs of steroid use is a noticeable psychological and behavioral change. The person may become more aggressive and lash out at family and friends in ways that are out of character. They may also become paranoid and overly nervous. At times, these individuals may have outbursts of anger and react to situations in a totally inappropriate and disproportionate manner.
Visible physiological changes may also occur with steroid abuse. In men, these include rapid hair loss or breast development, and in women, the appearance of a beard and voice loss.
Other notable signs of repeated steroid use include acne, bad breath, impotence and mood swings.
Although steroids are not physically addictive in the sense that they are chemically addictive, they can be highly addictive psychologically. In this case, the person is aware of the harmful effects of anabolic steroids on their life and relationships, but feels compelled to continue using them.
Injection marks may be visible on the skin. Users may also have hypodermic syringes, liquid vials or tablets in their belongings or gym bag.
Although there is no evidence that anabolic steroids are physically addictive, they are known to be highly addictive psychologically, causing users to continue to use them despite their harmful effects and to experience withdrawal when not using them.
There are other similarities between steroid use and other drugs, including the large sums of money users spend on the substance and the way they let it ruin their lives. Despite high-profile warnings about the dangers of steroids, a large number of individuals, especially teenagers and men in their 20s, continue to make a habit of using steroids.
More research is needed to develop treatments specifically designed to combat anabolic steroid addiction. However, some doctors working in detoxification centers have achieved results by combining psychological and emotional support with medication.
One of the main problems with treatment is the severity and extent of withdrawal effects upon stopping use. To be effective, therefore, treatment will need to carefully manage these effects and provide relief.
Because steroids are essentially synthetic copies of important hormones naturally produced by the body, prolonged use often has profound consequences for the user’s hormonal balance. Basically, when the body detects too much of a chemical, it slows or even stops its production of that chemical. Therefore, when an individual stops taking anabolic steroids, the body no longer produces the right amount of hormones to maintain its balance, or homeostasis.
The body will gradually increase the production of these chemicals on its own, but this process is slow and in the meantime the person may experience various withdrawal effects: exhaustion, emotional distress, irritation, insomnia and severe depression. The latter can, in some cases, lead to suicidal thoughts or even suicide attempts, and can persist for months.
The first step in treatment is to inform the patient of these potential withdrawal effects. In some cases, the professional at the detox center may recommend a gradual decrease in use rather than an abrupt cessation, which can reduce the effects of withdrawal.
Patients may also take medication to restore their body’s natural balance and ease withdrawal symptoms. In more severe cases, a period of hospitalization or observation may be required first.
Because of the significant psychological and emotional effects of withdrawal, therapy or counseling is also often used. This can help the individual deal with negative thoughts and emotions related to stopping steroids, overcome the addiction and avoid relapse.
If the individual has undergone irreversible physical changes (external or internal) related to the androgenic effects of anabolic steroid abuse, he or she may also need counseling to manage this. Support groups can be particularly helpful in all phases of recovery.