Anabolic Steroids are part of the larger steroid group of drugs that are synthesised from hormones that occur naturally in the body. These drugs are basically man-made versions of these natural chemicals. The other major group of steroids is corticosteroids and these have a wide variety of medical uses.
Anabolic steroids also have medical uses, including counteracting muscle wasting conditions and dealing with hormone deficiencies, but they are best known for their illicit use by athletes and bodybuilders.
Anabolic steroids basically work by mimicking testosterone – the sex hormone which is responsible for male sexual characteristics and development, as well as a range of essential functions within the body. They are legal in most countries when used legitimately for a medical purpose, and with a prescription from a doctor, but uses that fall outside of this remit are usually illegal.
Anabolic steroids were first synthesised in the 1930s, following many years of research by international scientists into the synthetic production and uses of various forms of steroids. It was in the 1950s though when their potential for athletic enhancement and for abuse was first realised, when they were used by Olympic weightlifters.
The principal reasons that Anabolic Steroids are used by professional and amateur athletes are that they enable them to train more vigorously, build muscle faster, and recover from training more rapidly. In the past couple of decades they have also been used by ‘recreational’ bodybuilders who want to bulk up to improve their performance.
However the use of Anabolic Steroids for these purposes comes with a significant number of adverse effects on the user’s health and state of mind, including physiological abnormalities and increased aggression.
Because of these health risks and the unfair advantage they provide in athletic and sporting competitions, Anabolic Steroids were outlawed by the International Olympic Committee in 1975, and the majority of official sporting bodies soon followed suit. However, because the tests to ascertain steroid use were relatively primitive, widespread steroid use amongst sport stars continued for many years, with many controversies ensuing. Today the ‘doping’ tests used to monitor athletes are far more sophisticated, but some use continues.
Anabolic Steroids were also made illegal without a valid medical use and prescription by some countries, though not all. In the US, Anabolic Steroids were classified as a Schedule III drug in 1990. In the UK they are a Class C drug and can only be sold via prescription, however their possession is not illegal unless they are in a clearly non-medical form.
Anabolic Steroids may be used in tablet form, or as a liquid used for injection with a hypodermic needle. In some cases they may also be available as a topical gel or cream.
Often, in the media and in everyday conversation Anabolic Steroids are simply shortened to ‘steroids’, though there is an important distinction between these types of steroids and corticosteroids, which do not have the same potential for abuse.
There are many different Anabolic Steroids available both legitimately and through the black market. Common types of anabolic steroids include Nandrolone, Stanozozol, Oxandrolone and Testosterone. They are manufactured by many different pharmaceutical companies under a variety of names. Common trade names include Annadrol, Therabolin, Decadurabolin, Parabolin, Dianabol and Winstrol.
Street names for Anabolic Steroids include: Juice (hence the term ‘Juicers’ to describe those who take them for performance enhancing purposes), Roids, Anabolics, Gym Candy and Sauce.
The main reasons that athletes, amateur bodybuilders and others take Anabolic Steroids are that they believe they will enable them to gain muscle mass more quickly, and to get more out their training regime. This may be true to a certain extent, because many Anabolic Steroids do stimulate the faster production of muscle by binding to receptors in muscle cells.
However, in addition to these muscle building properties (which can vary greatly), there are a wide range of other effects that Anabolic Steroids produce, most of which are unwanted to say the least.
There are numerous cases in which steroid use has made individuals more aggressive, sometimes violently so, as well as becoming anxious and paranoid. This in turn can do serious damage to interpersonal relationships.
Because steroids contain sex hormones which define male and female characteristics, they can create unforeseen physical changes in the body. In men they may lead to the development of breasts and the shrinking of the testicles, as well as hair loss and impotency. In women, Anabolic Steroid use can lead to deepening of the voice, growth of facial hair, breast shrinkage, menstrual problems and enlarged parts of the genitalia.
Because there is no way of determining the actual content of Anabolic Steroids bought on the black market, their use can be particularly risky. In the US there have been instances where steroids that are usually only used on livestock have been sold to unwitting bodybuilders.
Steroid abuse has also been associated with heightened blood pressure, heart attacks and poor health. In teenagers it can have adverse affects on natural growth processes.
Because Anabolic Steroids have legitimate medical uses they are manufactured in many pharmaceutical laboratories around the world. However in many countries these drugs are only available on prescription, so those who wish to use them for performance enhancing and muscle growth purposes must obtain them from black market sources.
Black market dealers in steroids may acquire their supplies of the drugs from a number of sources. They may obtain them from pharmacies by forging prescriptions, by theft or by collusion. They may also import them illegally from other countries which do not have such strict laws governing the production and sale of Anabolic Steroids.
In some cases, organised crime gangs are involved in the production and procurement of Anabolic steroids, and they are sometimes produced illegally in underground laboratories. Supplies of steroids, sometimes intended solely for veterinary use, may be diverted from legitimate channels.
One of the biggest problems of the black market trade in Anabolic Steroids is that without any form of regulation there is no way of telling the quality, purity or exact content of what is sold. As with a great many other illegal drugs, there is a high risk that the drug is cut with other chemicals to boost profits or substituted for another drug entirely, or even an inert substance.
At street level steroids may be purchased discretely from dealers at gyms, health clubs and similar venues. There are also a great many websites that sell steroids, though in many cases the products actually sold are counterfeit, and at best useless, or at worst dangerous.
Increased muscle growth alone is not necessarily a sign of Anabolic Steroid abuse, as this may simply be the product of vigorous workout sessions and legal nutritional supplements such as protein shakes. But those who work out regularly with the aim of ‘bulking up’ are more likely to take steroids than other sections of the population.
One common sign of steroid use is noticeable psychological and behavioural changes. The individual may become more aggressive and ‘lash out’ at loved ones and friends in an uncharacteristic manner. They may also appear to be paranoid and overly excitable. At times they may be overcome with rage and react to situations in an entirely inappropriate and disproportionate way.
Visible physiological changes can also take place when someone is abusing steroids. In the case of men they suffer rapid hair loss or breast growth, while women may develop facial hair and their voice may deepen.
Other noticeable signs of repeated steroid abuse include acne, bad breath, impotence and mood swings.
Though steroids are not physically addictive in the sense that they create a chemical dependency, they can create a powerful psychological addiction. In such cases, the person is aware of the detrimental effects that the drugs are having on their life and relationships, but they still feel compelled to continue using Anabolic Steroids.
Needle marks may be visible on the skin if the individual is injecting steroids. They may also have hypodermic needles, vials of liquid or tablets amongst their possessions or in their gym bag.
Though there is no evidence to suggest that Anabolic Steroids are physically addictive, they are known to create a powerful psychological addiction in which the user continues to abuse them despite their negative effects, and craves them during periods of non-use.
Further similarities between steroid abuse and other drug abuse are the ways in which users spend large amounts of money acquiring the drug, and in many ways let its use consume their lives. Despite well publicised warnings of the dangers of steroid abuse, large numbers of people, predominantly teenagers and men in their 20s continue to develop steroid-taking habits.
Further research is needed to develop treatments more specifically designed for treating addiction to Anabolic Steroids. However some doctors working in rehabilitation have found success with a combination of psychological and emotional support, and medications.
One of the major concerns when treating steroid abusers is the severity and extent of the withdrawal effects upon cessation of taking the drugs, so any successful treatment will seek to carefully manage and ease these.
Because steroids are essentially synthetic copies of important hormones that are produced naturally in the body, their continued use often has profound effects on the hormonal balance of the individual. Essentially, when the body detects that there is too much of one particular chemical present, it will slow down or even shut down its own production of the chemical. So when the individual stops taking Anabolic Steroids, their body will not be producing the right amount of its own hormones to maintain balance, or homeostasis.
The body will gradually up production of these chemicals of its own accord, but this is a slow process and in the meantime the individual may experience a range of withdrawal effects including fatigue, emotional disturbance, irritation, insomnia and severe depression. The latter can in some instances result in suicidal thoughts or even suicide attempts, and can persist for many months.
The first treatment step is to educate the patient about the possibility that they may suffer from these and other withdrawals. In some cases the rehabilitation professional may recommend a slow tapering off of the drug rather than an abrupt cessation, as this can lessen the severity of the withdrawal.
Patients may also be given medications to help restore the body’s natural balance, and ease the withdrawal symptoms. In particularly heavy cases of steroid abuse, a period of hospitalisation or inpatient monitoring may be necessary at first.
Because of the strong psychological and emotional effects of withdrawal, some form of therapy or counselling is often also used. This can help the individual to deal with the negative thoughts and emotions they are experiencing as a result of coming off of steroids, and to come to terms with their former addiction and prevent future relapses.
If the individual has suffered irreversible changes to their outward appearance or physiology as a result of the androgenic effects of Anabolic steroid abuse, they may also require counselling to deal with this aspect. Support groups can also be particularly helpful during all stages of recovery.