With steroids in the news lately, some words about them seem warranted. You may recognize a few different names, such as anabolic steroids, androgens or androgenic steroids, but how much do you actually know about them?
Steroids are often naturally produced and are either testosterone-derived or testosterone itself. Naturally-produced steroids are termed endogenous steroids, and are critical for normal hormonal function. By contrast, exogenous steroids are not produced by the body. They are used to increase lean body mass, decrease body fat, restore sexual function, increase nitrogen retention, etc. Exogenous steroids are typically used by athletes or vocational exercisers to increase performance or as aesthetic enhancement.
Although there are various products on the market, ranging from patches to creams, the two most common means of exogenous steroid delivery are intramuscular injections and oral ingestion. Ingested or injected steroids must be chemically modified in order to be effective, since pure testosterone has a very short half-life and is readily broken down by the liver. This may in turn damage the liver.
Once in the body, steroids can promote two types of effects: anabolic and androgenic. Androgenic effects of steroids benefit infertility, impotence and poor sexual development, while anabolic effects include increased lean body mass, reduced body fat and muscle gains. Sometimes the best athletic effects are achieved through a combination of the two, but in order to diminish negative side effects of androgenic steroids – such as the development of male characteristics in females – drug companies have created compounds with greater anabolic activity.
Steroids can act on the body in several ways. They can affect DNA to directly increase protein synthesis, they can bind to other substances and affect DNA indirectly, they may increase the production of certain hormones, or they can create a positive nitrogen balance.
Truthfully speaking, steroids are not “all bad.” There are a lot of uses for them in clinical settings, ranging from treatment of andropause, to sarcopenia and cachexia in diseased populations. In addition, there have been investigations into the use of steroids as male contraceptives. Benefits regarding athleticism are also numerous; they include increased muscle mass, decreased body fat, improvement in neuromuscular transmission, repair of injury and endurance capacity.
Nevertheless, side effects of steroids include liver damage, decrease in HDL and increase in LDL cholesterol, increase in blood pressure, increased chance of heart attacks, thrombosis, prostate cancer, and increased aggression. While these side effects cannot be ignored, it is important to note that most reported side effects come from individual cases, rather than large-scale studies. Importantly, most of the health-affecting side effects are caused by oral steroids ingested at high doses.
So all in all, steroids get a much worse wrap than they deserve. Their side effects are much milder than the side effects of some of the most commonly prescribed drugs, even some over-the-counter drugs. That said, you should always try and make a well-informed rational decision before using any substance that carries a potential detriment to your health. Play it safe, and always listen do your doctor.
Written by Nina Zisko, PhD candidate at CERG.