Last published: June 27, 2019
What are anabolic steroids?
Anabolic steroids are drugs that help the growth and repair of muscle tissue. They are synthetic hormones that imitate male sex hormones, specifically testosterone.
They can increase lean muscle mass, strength and endurance, but only if used in conjunction with certain exercise and diet regimes.1 They can also help people reduce fat and recover quicker from injury.2
Anabolic steroids are classed as performance and image enhancing drugs (PIEDs). These substances are taken by people with the intention of improving their physical appearance or enhancing their sporting performance.
Corticosteroids are a class of drug used to treat inflammatory arthritis and other inflammatory conditions such as asthma. They are commonly referred to as 'steroids', and people often believe them to be the same thing as anabolic steroids.
How are they used?
Anabolic steroids can be injected or taken as a tablet.
Roids, gear or juice.
Who uses anabolic steroids and why?
- Competitive athletes – who are motivated by their desire to succeed.
- People concerned about their body image – recreational weight trainers and body builders and people working in the fashion and entertainment industries.
- Body building professionals – people involved in body building as a competitive sport.
- People who need muscle strength to do their job – bodyguards, security personal, construction workers, police and members of the armed services.
- Young men – who want to increase their athletic performance or who are striving to reach the same physical appearance that is often portrayed in the media.21
How do they work?
Anabolic steroids work by imitating the properties of naturally occurring hormones. They have a similar chemical composition to testosterone and are therefore able to activate testosterone receptors. Once the receptors are stimulated, a domino effect of metabolic reactions takes place as the drug instructs the body to increase muscle tissue production.3
Anabolic steroids are typically taken over a six to 12 week period. This is followed by a break of the same length to prevent muscle cells shutting down in the long term. This is known as cycling.2
Different anabolic steroids are often combined in a process known as stacking. This is done to achieve effects such as increasing muscle mass, making it leaner and getting greater muscle definition (known as cutting).2
There is no safe level of drug use
Use of any drug always carries some risk. It’s important to be careful when taking any type of drug.
Generally speaking, people who use anabolic steroids experience an increase in muscle strength very quickly. This means that people are able to train more often and for longer periods of time, with improved recovery. This can lead to a rapid increases in lean muscle tissue but fluid retention is common and can lead to muscles looking soft or bloated.
People may use anabolic steroids in what they believe to be a healthy lifestyle context. They may not see themselves as injecting drug users. However, there are risks associated with using steroids without a prescription or medical supervision, even as part of a fitness training program.
In the worst case, long-term heavy steroid use can lead to heart attack, stroke and death4, especially among men aged in their early 30s who combine steroids with stimulant drugs, such as speed and ecstasy.5,6
Anabolic steroids can also take a toll on personal relationships as they can cause mood swings, a higher sex drive and, in extreme cases, violent behaviour,7 especially when combined with alcohol.8
They can ruin sporting careers, with positive tests potentially resulting in fines, suspensions and bans from competitive sports.9 On a more superficial level, steroids can lead to premature baldness in men.
Anabolic steroids affect everyone differently. The following may be experienced:
- water retention – leading to facial bloating
- acne – leading to permanent scarring
- irritability and mood swings
- more frequent colds
- aggression and violence
- increased sex drive
- sleeping difficulties.10
Longer-term effects may include:
- liver damage
- kidney or prostate cancer
- high blood pressure
- cardiovascular complications
- tendon/ ligament damage.11
- reduced sperm count and fertility
- shrunken testicles
- gynaecomastia (developing breasts)
- involuntarily and long-lasting erection.12
- facial hair growth
- irregular periods
- deepened voice
- smaller breasts
- enlarged clitoris.13
Pregnant women who use steroids risk passing on male traits to unborn daughters due to the increased male hormones in their bloodstream. The only way to avoid the risk of fetal damage is to stop using steroids at least 4 months before falling pregnant, as well as during pregnancy.14
Young men are more likely than young women to use steroids to gain weight and muscle mass.
The risks of the following side effects are higher if steroids are injected by young men in their late teens/ early 20s, before they have stopped growing:
- stunted growth
- premature balding
- acne scarring
- stretch marks on chest and arms
- prematurely-aged, ‘leathery’ skin
- injuries from excessively intense gym workouts.15
Injecting steroids can cause permanent nerve damage, which can lead to sciatica.16 Injecting in unhygienic environments or sharing equipment with others also increases the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, tetanus or Hepatitis C or B.17
Anabolic steroids do not cause physical dependence but people can find themselves relying on them to build confidence and self-esteem.18 This reliance can make it difficult to stop using them in the longer term. Fear of losing muscle size or definition can lead to depression and the pressure to continue use.10
The following symptoms may be experienced after completing an anabolic steroid cycle:
- extreme tiredness
- weight loss due to decreased appetite
- decreased strength
It can take up to four months to restore the body’s natural testosterone levels (if taking high doses for an extended period of time).
Health and safety
Steroids should only be injected with a prescription for a specific medical reason or under medical supervision.
Injecting more than the recommended dose does not create larger muscles – the muscle simply becomes saturated. Higher doses only raise the risks of more adverse side effects without providing any additional benefits.19
It is not necessary to inject directly into specific muscles as the steroids are transported to all muscle groups via the bloodstream.20
There are many steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of harm caused by long-term steroid use. These include:
- using lower doses to reduce the risk of side effects
- never injecting anabolic steroids directly into biceps, calf muscles or pectorals, to avoid causing permanent nerve damage
- avoiding repeatedly injecting steroids into the same area of the body
- limiting cycles to 8 to 10 weeks to rest the kidneys, liver and endocrine system
- avoiding sharing injecting equipment with others to reduce the risk of contracting a blood-borne virus such as HIV or Hepatitis C
- using a clean needle from an unopened package with every injection
- avoiding combining steroids with diuretics such as caffeine, alcohol and other drugs like amphetamines (such as ice and speed)
- injecting anabolic steroids in a sterile location
- discussing anabolic steroid use with a doctor, even if it is without a prescription
- discussing the perceived need to take anabolic steroids with a counsellor.19,20
Help and support
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It is illegal to manufacture, import, possess, use or supply anabolic steroids without a prescription or medical practitioner licence. The penalties for illegally administering steroids varies for every Australian state and territory.22
It is also against the law to inject another person with steroids, or for them to be self-administered without a prescription.
Medical practitioners can only prescribe steroids for legitimate medical reasons.22
Steroid use is banned in competitive sport. Testing positive for steroids can result in fines, suspensions or permanent bans.23
See also, drugs and the law.
- According to the Australian Crime Commission the number of steroid seizures at our borders has decreased 2.7% from 5,657 in 2014-15 to 5,502 in 2015–16.22
- The Australian Needle and Syringe Program survey found
that performance and image enhancing drugs were reported as the last drug injected by between 4% and 7% of respondents over the period 2012 to 2016.23
- Kadi, F., Eriksson, A., Holmner, S. T. A. F. F. A. N., & Thornell, L. E. (1999). Effects of anabolic steroids on the muscle cells of strength-trained athletes. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 31(11), 1528–1534
- Evans, N. A. (1997). Gym and tonic: a profile of 100 male steroid users. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 31(1), 54–58.
- Kutscher, E. C., Lund, B. C., & Perry, P. J. (2002). Anabolic Steroids. Sports Medicine, 32(5), 285-296.
- Angell, M. P., Chester, N., Green, D., Somauroo, J., Whyte, G., & George, K. (2012). Anabolic steroids and cardiovascular risk. Sports medicine, 42(2), 119–134.
- Darke, S., Torok, M., & Duflou, J. (2014). Sudden or Unnatural Deaths Involving Anabolic‐androgenic Steroids. Journal of Forensic Sciences.
- Baggish, A. L., Weiner, R. B., Kanayama, G., Hudson, J. I., Picard, M. H., Hutter, A. M., & Pope, H. G. (2010). Long term anabolic-androgenic steroid use is associated with left ventricular dysfunction. Circulation: Heart Failure, CIRCHEARTFAILURE-109.
- Beaver, K. M., Vaughn, M. G., DeLisi, M., & Wright, J. P. (2008). Anabolic-androgenic steroid use and involvement in violent behavior in a nationally representative sample of young adult males in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 98(12), 2185.
- van Amsterdam, J., Opperhuizen, A., & Hartgens, F. (2010). Adverse health effects of anabolic–androgenic steroids. Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology, 57(1), 117–123.
- Todd, T. (2007). Anabolic Steroids. Women and Sports in the United States: A Documentary Reader, 14(1), 138.
- Hartgens, F., & Kuipers, H. (2004). Effects of androgenic-anabolic steroids in athletes. Sports Medicine, 34(8), 513–554.
- Kanayama, G., Hudson, J. I., & Pope Jr, H. G. (2008). Long-term psychiatric and medical consequences of anabolic–androgenic steroid abuse: A looming public health concern?. Drug and alcohol dependence, 98(1), 1–12.
- de Souza, G. L., & Hallak, J. (2011). Anabolic steroids and male infertility: a comprehensive review. BJU international, 108(11), 1860–1865.
- Maravelias, C., Dona, A., Stefanidou, M., & Spiliopoulou, C. (2005). Adverse effects of anabolic steroids in athletes: a constant threat. Toxicology Letters, 158(3), 167–175.
- Shahidi, N. T. (2001). A review of the chemistry, biological action, and clinical applications of anabolic-androgenic steroids. Clinical therapeutics, 23(9), 1355–1390.
- Parkinson, A. B., & Evans, N. A. (2006). Anabolic androgenic steroids: a survey of 500 users. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 38(4), 644–651.
- Perry, H. M., Wright, D., & Littlepage, B. N. (1992). Dying to be big: a review of anabolic steroid use. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 26(4), 259–261.
- Hoffman, J. R., Faigenbaum, A. D., Ratamess, N. A., Ross, R., Kang, J., & Tenenbaum, G. (2008). Nutritional supplementation and anabolic steroid use in adolescents. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 40(1), 15–24.
- Kanayama, G., Brower, K. J., Wood, R. I., Hudson, J. I., & Pope Jr, H. G. (2010). Treatment of anabolic–androgenic steroid dependence: Emerging evidence and its implications. Drug and alcohol dependence, 109(1), 6–13.
- Daly, R. C., Su, T. P., Schmidt, P. J., Pagliaro, M., Pickar, D., & Rubinow, D. R. (2003). Neuroendocrine and behavioral effects of high-dose anabolic steroid administration in male normal volunteers. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 28(3), 317–331.
- Busche, K. (2009). Neurologic disorders associated with weight lifting and bodybuilding. Physical medicine and rehabilitation clinics of North America, 20(1), 273–286.
- Peters, R., Copeland, J. & Dillion, P. (1999). Steroid Facts.
- Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission. 2017. Illicit Drug Data Report 2015-16.
- Memedovic S, Iversen J, Geddes L, and Maher L. Australian Needle Syringe Program Survey National Data Report 2012-2016: Prevalence of HIV, HCV and injecting and sexual behaviour among NSP attendees. Sydney: Kirby Institute.