Corticosteroids and anabolics explained

Corticosteroids and anabolics explained

It is important that you do not confuse anabolic steroids with corticosteroids. To very simply explain the difference (fret not, we will get into more detail on these later), anabolic steroids that are used by athletes are synthetic (man-made) versions of testosterone used for muscle growth. Testosterone is produced naturally by men and women in varying degrees.

Corticosteroids, on the other hand, aid in suppressing an overactive immune system and reduce inflammation and swelling. For example, cortisone is a synthetic version of cortisol and is used for patients suffering from arthritis to aid in reducing inflammation caused by the condition. 

For the purpose of this information provided, we will be focusing on the performance-enhancing class of steroids, being anabolic and/or androgenic steroids as these are used predominantly in the world of body building and athletics.

But, to give you some context, corticosteroids are briefly described below:


These are a group of steroids that fight off inflammation in the body. Corticosteroids refer to hormones that are able to mimic or replicate the effects of certain hormones that the body produces naturally. Cortisol, produced by your adrenal glands, is one of these hormones that corticosteroids replicate in its effects. Corticosteroids work by suppressing your immune system through blocking certain substances produced that trigger inflammatory responses.

Some conditions which corticosteroids are prescribed to treat include1:

  • Asthma
  • MS (multiple sclerosis)
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Skin conditions and rashes (i.e. eczema)
  • Arthritis

What are anabolic steroids?

Anabolic steroids, which are also known as anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), are synthetic (man-made) versions of the hormone testosterone that is naturally made by the body (the main anabolic steroid produced in the body is testosterone). Testosterone is a sex hormone (androgen) that aids in muscle growth, amongst other things. The hormone is produced by the testicles in men and the ovaries in women. The adrenal glands, situated just above the kidneys, also make a small amount of testosterone.

Anabolic steroids increase strength and muscle mass.

There are two main effects of testosterone on the body:

  1. Anabolic effects – These effects involve an increase in the amount of tissue in the body through increasing the production of proteins (the promotion of muscle growth).
  2. Androgenic effects – These effects are responsible for developing male characteristics, including a deeper voice and facial hair.

Your pituitary gland (which is located at the base of your brain), aids in regulating the production of testosterone and the secretion of it. FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and growth hormone (produced by the pituitary gland) are among some of the hormones that stimulate the function of the ovaries and testes.

Why do women need testosterone?

Women need testosterone (in smaller amounts than men), as a part of their vital mix of hormones that regulate mood, sex drive, energy levels and other bodily functions.

Lean woman

Why are anabolic steroids prescribed?

Androgenic and anabolic steroids are prescribed by doctors as medications to treat patients whose bodies produce abnormally low levels of specific hormones, the main one being testosterone or when the patient suffers from an illness that results in muscle depletion (muscle atrophy), as is seen in cancer and AIDS patients.

In some cases, steroids may also be used for the treatment of delayed puberty or the loss of function of the testes, this may lead to a loss of sex drive, also known as libido.

By law, doctors are not allowed to prescribe steroids simply to enhance someone’s athletic performance.

**My Med Memo - Muscle atrophy refers to the wasting away of muscle.  Muscle hypertrophy refers to a growth and increase in size of the muscle.

Are steroids illegal?

Yes. In the majority of countries, if you do not have a medical prescription for the use of steroids to treat a condition, then it is illegal to sell, possess, distribute or use steroids.




  1. Medicine Plus. 16 May 2016. Steroids. Available: [Accessed 31.07.2017]
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