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Last updated : July 13, 2018
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 regimes1. They can also help people reduce fat and recover quicker from injury2.
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.
Anabolic steroids can be injected or taken as a tablet.
‘roids’, ‘gear’ or ‘juice’
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 behaviour7, 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:
Longer-term effects may include:
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:
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:
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).
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:
acne, aggression, assist growth and repair of muscle, assist in bone growth, increase strength and endurance, increased sex drive, mood swings, more frequent colds, recover from injury, sleeping difficulties.