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The use of anabolic steroids without a doctor's prescription and a legitimate medical use has been against the law for some time. Using steroids has been against the rules of sport for even longer. Athletic-enhancing drugs have been written about extensively in the popular press and been the subject of endless debate on television. Nonetheless, it is amazing how little most people---including many physicians, legislators and sports officials---actually know about what these drugs are, what they do and what their medical side effects really are.
How has this happened? Why has there been so much miscommunication---or even disinformation---disseminated regarding these drugs? If so much written and said has been untrue, why haven't experts who know the truth stepped forward and attempted to set the record straight?
One reason is the fear of seeming to endorse steroid use by appearing not to condemn them with sufficient energy. Unfortunately, steroids have been so incredibly demonized in the media, their dangers and negative effects so exaggerated, that anyone who voices the opinion that they may not be as dangerous as made out to be (in many cases) or that the negative effects are not so terrible as advertised can seem to be acting as an apologist for these drugs.
A good analogy to this can be drawn from the McCarthy "red-baiting" period of the early 1950s. They had names for people back then who took the position that, "Yes, Soviet Communism is a bad thing and ought to be guarded against, but I don't really think the State Department is riddled with Communist agents. Those who failed to agree with the virulent anti-Communist position as advocated by the senator from Wisconsin ran the risk of being called fellow travelers, communist sympathizers, Soviet dupes and pinkoes.
The same sort of thing is likely to happen today to those who attempt to put the dangers of using anabolic steroids into some reasonable perspective. Which is one reason why medical scientists, who know better, are loathe to speak out against the exaggerated and often hysterical claims made against these drugs.
If they did speak up, what would these "experts" say? That steroids have some negative side effects, but are not as dangerous as made out to be by the media.
Also, while there are some athletic advantages to their use, steroids are far less effective in enhancing performance than generally believed.
What Are Anabolic Steroids?
In simple terms, anabolic steroids are synthetic analogs of testosterone. Testosterone is a "male hormone" that is nonetheless found in both males and females, although the amount of testosterone in the female body tends to be only about 1/100th of that found in the male.
For purposes of discussion, hormones like this have two different effects on the body: an androgenic effect, which influences sexual characteristics; and an anabolic one, which affects such things as muscle mass and strength.
Anabolic steroids in general have been engineered so as to differ from testosterone by increasing the anabolic effect of the drugs while diminishing the androgenic aspect. Chemists have devised specific anabolic steroids with slightly different molecular structures so that each has more or less effect on such things as mass, strength, and endurance and to have higher or lower androgenic properties.
Anabolic steroids are also anti-inflammatories and have a positive effect on rehabilitation of injuries. Actually, these drugs are very closely related to cortisone, and have many of the same effects, both positive and negative.
What Anabolic Steroids Do?
Anabolic steroids, depending upon the particular drug being used, have a number of effects upon the body.
Among Other Things They:
- Increase the body's ability to utilize protein, allowing an athlete to train with greater intensity without going into negative nitrogen balance (losing muscle mass);
- Increase the ability to build muscle mass;
- Increase the ability to build strength;
- Increase the ability to build endurance;
- Act as an anti-inflammatory, both helping to protect the body from injury and speeding up recovery after injury has occurred.
However, taking these drugs does not automatically produce the effects listed above. Far from it. None of these "athletic benefits" is achieved without a regimen of hard, consistent training, and even then the effects achieved may not be all that dramatic.
Contrary to public opinion, you can't get bigger or stronger to any degree simply by taking a drug. Instead, what seems to be the case is that anabolic steroids allow athletes to train harder, longer and more often without becoming overtrained, and therefore allow them to derive benefit from this type of more intense workout regimen.
Steroids And Athletic Ability
Doctors and publications like the Physician's Desk Reference have claimed for years that anabolic steroids produce no athletic benefits. Several generations of athletes have known this not to be true, which is why many have continued to use them despite the dangers to their careers of failing drug tests.
But the question remains as to exactly how much benefit can be derived from using anabolic drugs. And the answer is---a lot less than the public has been lead to believe.
The Main Components Of Athletic Achievement Are:
- Good genetics
- Hard training
- Good coaching
- Proper diet
An athlete who lacks any of these is not going to succeed because of taking some kind of anabolic drug. These chemicals just don't do that much.
It's hard to measure just how much benefit elite, well-trained athletes do gain from anabolic drugs when competing against each other.
However, in comparing the lift totals in drug-tested and non-drug-tested powerlifting contests, it was noticed that the lifts done by older, more experienced and mature competitors were almost the same in both types of events, and the slightly more they lifted in non-tested contests might well be attributed to psychological factors (such as the possibility that they "felt" weaker because of not taking anabolics).
Younger, less-experienced weightlifters, on the other hand, performed significantly less well when drug-tested. This difference in performance in the two groups seems to indicate that anabolics don't increase the ultimate potential of highly-trained athletes but might allow still-developing competitors whose abilities don't yet approach their potential to work temporarily at a more advanced level.
What Are The Dangers Of Steroids?
In spite of all the warning from the medical community, athletes have been taking anabolic steroids, often in large amounts, since the early 1960s. Relatively few of them have suffered serious or life-threatening effects. But this is not to say that steroids are safe. Far from it. They are potent medications with a number of potentially harmful side-effects. For example:
In men, they include a short-term increase in the sex drive, followed by a suppression of natural testosterone output and potential shrinkage of the testes. Another common side-effect is gynecomastia (deposits of estrogen in the area of the nipple.
For women, a very dangerous side-effect is masculinization due to the androgenic effects of the drugs. This can include deepening of the voice, menstrual irregularities, development of facial hair, clitoral enlargement and even the appearance of male-pattern baldness.
Increased acne is a problem for both genders. Depending on the particular drug used, anabolic steroids can also increase aggression and irritability, cause changes in blood-pressure and blood chemistry (HDL levels, for example) and acne.
Using anabolic steroids is particularly dangerous for teenagers. In addition to interfering with the normal effect of hormones on a growing body, there can also be a premature of the epiphysis, the end of the bone, resulting in stunted growth.
Steroid Danger Factors
How Dangerous Steroids Might Be Is Dependent On A Number Of Factors:
- In what form they are taken.
- What dosages are taken.
- For how long a period they are taken.
- The age, gender and state of health of the user.
Oral Vs. Injectable Steroids
Anabolic steroids are commonly taken in two ways: orally or by injection. Oral steroids tend to have the greatest number of side effects. When they are ingested, they have to pass through the digestive system and the liver in order to get into the bloodstream. They have to be designed so as to survive this process, and taken in sufficiently large amounts to insure that there is enough left afterwards to have an effect.
Steroids taken in this form are subject to aggressive action by the liver, whose job it is in large part to remove such substances from the body. This puts a great deal of strain on the liver and, in some cases, this can result in significant liver damage.
Steroids taken by injection can be water-based or oil-based. Generally, the oil-based steroids have a longer half-life than those that are water-based (and much longer than the orals), making those the substances that most often show up in steroid tests. Because they are not designed to pass through the digestive system, as well as other technical reasons, injectable steroids tend to have a much less stressful effect on the liver.
Women And Anabolic Steroids
Studies have shown that the dangers to men from using steroids are more time related than dose related. That is, their bodies can cope with large amounts of these drugs for relatively short periods of time much better than smaller doses over an extended period of time.
This is why male athletes often "cycle" their steroid use, taking the drugs for a period of weeks and then going off them for a time before resuming their use.
The danger to women, on the other hand, is more dose related than time related. The reason is simple---even though the androgenic effect of anabolic steroids has been reduced considerably, it still functions in the body as a male hormone. If you introduce too much male hormone into the body of a woman you begin to transform her into a male. In sex-change procedures, hormone therapy always proceeds surgery.
Ironically, from one point of view it can be said that using anabolic steroids is actually safer for women than for men. The reason is that very low dosages give women, who have so relatively little male hormone in their bodies to start with, a considerable anabolic effect. They get a lot of result from very small amounts of steroids. On the other hand, overdose or abuse of anabolic steroids is much more dangerous for women, since these hormones in large quantities have an irreversible masculinizing effect.
Of course, for both men and women, one of the greatest dangers of using steroids - as demonstrated by the recent Olympic Games - is getting caught on a drug test.
The Effects Of Prohibition
Prohibition against the use of a substance generally involves censorship of information as to how to use that substance in the safest possible way. It also prevents the user from seeking the benefits of medical supervision. In that sense, drug prohibition, whatever it's other benefits, always leads to increases in drug abuse.
In the majority of cases, athletes who decided to use anabolic substances in spite of the rules (and laws) against them end up having to self-medicate. In the past, when steroids were legal, a blood test might give a physician early warning as to problems with a patient using a given anabolic substance. That is usually no longer the case. Athletes often decide on their own what to take, what combination of drugs to take, how much and how often to take them. Or they rely on the advice of "steroid gurus" who usually have no medical training and do no testing or monitoring of side-effects.
Even drug-testing can lead to unforeseen complications. For example, it is clear that taking injectable forms of steroids is far less toxic to the system than ingesting the drugs in oral forms. But the injectable steroids are the ones that stay in the body the longest and show up most easily on the tests. The oral steroids, on the other hand, cycle much more quickly out of the body (which is one reason for their additional toxicity). Therefore, drug testing often encourages athletes to take more dangerous and more toxic forms of the drugs rather than less dangerous and less toxic forms in order to be able to pass the tests.
Besides, the majority of steroid users will never be in a position to be drug tested. They aren't the elite athletes, but instead are the legions of wanna-bees in gyms or tracks around the world who simply aren't good enough to ever ascend the ladder of athletic success to the level at which drug tests at given. Even at high schools, you may test the football team, but what about all those who are not good enough to make the team but dream of being bigger, stronger and faster, who want to impress their friends, and think that taking an anabolic drug will help them to achieve this? Youngsters like this will rarely, if ever, be subjected to a steroid test.
DISCLAIMER: This article discusses the nature and effects of anabolic steroids. It does not advocate the use of these substances but is presented for educational purposes only.