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You heard about em, the news told you they are one of most dangerous substances around, your best friend’s cousin’s uncle took them and either got swole or had a heart attack. So you google but end up more confused.
“Steroids” is a buzz word that has come to mean almost anything that an athlete uses illegally, from amphetamines to blood transfusions. So what exactly are steroids? Simply put, steroids are hormones that the body makes from cholesterol. These include estrogen, progesterone, the anabolic testosterone and the catabolic cortisol. Steroids have many functions, one of which is to effect sexual differentiation in males and females.
But the steroid controversy revolves around the ones classified as anabolic steroids, those which mimic male hormones like testosterone. The role of these hormones in the body is to effect secondary masculine sex characteristics, one of which, to the boon of bodybuilders everywhere, is increased muscle mass.
Just as there are dangers in using non-anabolic steroids—birth control pills have been associated with higher risk of certain cancers, and hydrocortisone injections can cause debilitating deterioration of connective tissue—anabolic steroids have their share of side effects. But are they rightly singled out as the most dangerous and therefore the criminalized of the bunch? If alcohol, tobacco, and meat laced with these steroids are all legal, why don’t these substances cut it?
Criminalization of steroids is commonly justified on the much hyped “dangers of steroids,” including, but probably not limited to liver or kidney failure, heart attack, permanently impaired hormonal output and killer ‘roid rage. Where did these claims come from and do they have any basis in reality?
An important point to start off with is that anabolic steroids, such as testosterone, are not in themselves toxic. They are similar or the same as hormones that are already naturally present in the body. But by increasing hormones far beyond naturally occurring levels, steroid use brings about quasi-supernatural feats of strength, speed and stature.
Injecting steroids, contrary to common opinion, is the least invasive delivery method; on the other hand oral steroids present a unique situation. When the steroid is injected into muscle it begins a slow seep into the bloodstream where it is immediately active. On the other hand, a substance swallowed must survive the digestive system and the liver before it can enter the blood. Unless protected, it will simply be destroyed. For this reason, oral steroids contain an added ‘methyl’ group, which the liver attempts and fails to break down. While the claim of kidney failure has no apparent basis in reality, the danger of liver damage is real. Much like Tylenol, at high doses used over long periods of time, the methyl group attached would cause liver damage. It should be obvious from this explanation that this danger stems not from the steroid itself, but the means of delivering it.
Many other problems with steroids arise as symptoms of their suppression and criminalization. Because they are sold on the black market, brewed in bathtubs without oversight or quality control, steroids are often of suspect purity and potency. There is also the ever present danger of contamination, be that chemical or bacterial. Add to this risk the restriction on the sale of syringes, which may force users to re-use and share needles, and the possibility of local infections and abscesses is compounded by the prospect of blood-borne disease. For the inexperienced, injection itself poses a danger. If oil is injected intravenously rather than intramuscularly, the result can be a fatal clot. The confusion of anabolic steroids and other substances such as synthol further grays the field. Synthol, which has its own slew of dangers and side effects, (as Greg Valentino found out) is actually closer to olive oil.
Concerns about heart problems and heart enlargement have arisen, but without a single conclusive study to back it up. Though there has been a correlation between enlarged heart and steroids, the former is also a side effect of elite-level athletics. This basically makes it impossible to separate here which of a confluence of possible causes is responsible for the effect.
So you might at this point be wondering if any of the side effects are real? The truth is, for most people, the side effects of steroids are mild and temporary. Acne is one of the most common side effects and usually goes away after hormonal levels stabilize. Prostate problems would be a possibility if you already have prostate cancer, as steroids may encourage its growth. Steroids can have a negative effect on HDL/LDL ratio, which can be offset through diet and exercise.
Gynecomastia is only a concern with steroids that aromatize, as aromatization is the process by which testosterone is converted to estrogen. In the graph below you can see the path all steroids take, and the processes by which the body manipulates them. Special synthetic compounds have been formulated to resist aromatization which makes them ideal if you want to keep estrogen levels low. Even with steroids that do aromatize gyno will develop only in susceptible individuals (or worsen when already present).
As with any exogenous hormone, from birth control to thyroid supplementation, anabolic steroids will suppress natural hormone output. This effect can be controlled through cycling and proper post cycle therapy. As mentioned earlier, estrogen in males is produced from testosterone. For this reason, taking an estrogen blocker will make the body produce more testosterone through the negative feedback loop, kick starting its natural production again. Human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) can also be used to stimulate the pituitary gland to restore testosterone production.
The biggest problems with steroids occur when they are used by kids, teens, and females. Youth, whose endocrine systems are still developing, and in fact won’t reach maturity until the late teens, are uniquely vulnerable. If the body senses elevated levels of testosterone it will curtail hormone production, leaving the child with an underdeveloped and permanently impaired endocrine system. Another issue is that aromatization of exogenous testosterone will increase estrogen levels which can lead to stunted growth. In females, androgenic steroids can cause irreversible virilization which may include deepening of the voice, facial and body hair growth, enlarged clitoris, and temporary or permanent sterility.
Psychological effects such as ‘roid rage and depression have been overblown in a manner akin to Reefer Madness. Steroids effect different people differently but depression is most common after a cycle, when hormone levels are temporarily suppressed. This is why PCT is so important. As for roid rage, if you already are an asshole, steroids will just make you a bigger asshole.
I know this whole thing reads like a drug ad but I think it’s important to learn as much as you can before you start dumping any drug into your body. I really recommend reading Anabolics 2005 or any other edition. If you desire some lite steroids entertainment/education, check out the movie Bigger Stronger Faster.
This is it for part 1. In the next installment we will examine how important steroids are, when should you take them, and what is possible with and without them. If you do have any questions you want answered you can email us or ask away in the forums.