- What are steroids?
- Corticosteroids and anabolics explained
- What do hormones have to do with steroids?
- The science behind anabolic steroids and the body
- Using steroids
- What types of steroids are there?
- What are the ‘benefits’ of anabolic steroids?
- What are the side effects of anabolic steroids?
- The verdict on steroids
Why do athletes use steroids?
When anabolic steroids are used by athletes and other fitness enthusiasts (illegally without a prescription), the goal of these drugs is to increase the body’s natural rate of building muscle and in turn, fat burning capabilities when adhering to a healthy exercise and diet regimen. Thus, when anabolic steroids are used by someone with a healthy body (i.e. not suffering from any sort of chronic illness) their body will use the hormones to increase their weight through muscle gain, improving the individual’s performance and the body’s aesthetic appearance.
Although a number of testing procedures have been put into place in order for the use and abuse of steroids to be deterred amongst Olympic and other professional athletes, new designer steroids are constantly becoming available that are able to escape detection, thus athletes who are willing to be ‘one step ahead’ of their peers through illegal doping are often able to do so.
There is also a group of athletes and people who suffer from a condition known as body or muscle dysmorphia. This causes the individual to have an image of their bodies that is distorted. Typically, men who have muscle dysmorphia believe they are never ‘big enough’ and think they look small or weak when they look in the mirror, regardless of how they realistically look in the eyes of others. On the other hand, women who suffer from this condition may believe that they look flabby or fat, even if they are muscular and lean.
Athletes and body builders do not only use steroids to attain an athletic physique, increased strength and muscle hypotrophy, but some also use steroids when they need a faster recovery time for overused, tired and sore muscles. When you exercise intensely, your body (i.e. your adrenal glands) will release cortisol, cortisol is what corticosteroids attempt to mimic the effects of in their synthetic makeup.
Cortisol is the main stress hormone and that is said to be catabolic, meaning it has the opposite effect to anabolic steroids such as testosterone and growth hormones in the fact that it plays a role in the breakdown of muscle tissue (catabolism). Cortisol aids in helping the body to use glucose (sugar) and fat and turn these into energy, therefore regulating blood sugar levels. Cortisol also aids in regulating blood pressure and metabolism, helps the body respond to stress and reduces inflammation. Cortisol levels are elevated as a result of extreme mental and physical stress (which is what some athletes have to undergo to reach their physical prime). The body recognises severe stress levels as a state of emergency and releases more cortisol than normal.
Cortisol’s three main roles in the body are the following:
- Reducing protein synthesis
- Facilitating the process of converting protein to sugar for energy (glucose)
- Halting tissue growth
These three functions are explained in context below:
The reduction of the process of protein synthesis occurs in order to allow for glycogen synthesis (the process of using sugar for energy) which leads to a decrease in the uptake of amino acids (amino acids make up proteins which are needed for muscle growth). This, in turn, halts tissue growth.
So, when a person has exercised intensely and cortisol has been released as a result, their muscles may not experience the growth and strength needed in order to improve performance. This results in the breakdown of muscle tissue due to increased levels of cortisol in the body is signalling the tissues that they are under an increased amount of stress and should halt any growth in order for the body to recover from the intense training.
When athletes use steroids they often stack these with drugs or use a specific form of steroid that will block the effects of cortisol release in the body which will allow for them to achieve increased muscle gain and performance that may have been unattainable when not using steroids, this is explained further below.
But, I thought that exercise makes you happy not stressed?
In essence, exercise releases endorphins which are released by your pituitary gland and aid in relieving pain and bringing about feelings of euphoria or pleasure. The issue comes in when athletes over train their bodies through intense workouts without taking breaks, therefore physically and emotionally exerting themselves to the extent that their body recognises this state as a stressful situation needing higher levels of cortisol than normal. This can hinder muscle growth and even break down the muscle tissue. Cortisol can also lead to excess abdominal fat.
Athletes then take certain forms of AAS to block the effects of cortisol on their muscles, in turn blocking the hormones from binding to the receptor sites of their muscle cells, diminishing the process of muscle loss. This also allows for faster recovery from training.
Bear in mind, when anabolic steroids block cortisol levels to an extent where the natural functions of cortisol can no longer be performed, this can have a negative impact on the body and can result in a number of issues such as dehydration, extreme fatigue, decreased appetite and irritability, to name a few.
How do athletes take steroids?
Some steroid users cycle their doses of steroids. This refers to taking a number of doses over a specific period of time, stopping for some time and then starting again, therefore, taking breaks in between.
The term ‘stacking’ refers to taking two or in some cases, more, different kinds of anabolic steroids. Other users may use a ‘pyramid’ technique which means they will start on a lower dose and gradually increase this through either frequency or quantity, and then taper off on their dosage in order for a cycle to be completed.
Steroid users believe that the technique of ‘stacking’ will enhance the anabolic effects of the steroids and ‘pyramiding’ will allow for their body to grow accustomed to higher doses of the steroids, with the periods in between that are ‘steroid-free’ helping their bodies to recuperate from the effects of the drugs. However, there is currently no scientific evidence that backs any of these beliefs.
Why do people abuse anabolic steroids?
Steroid abuse applies to cases where the user takes 10 to even 100 times higher doses than those recommended for specific medical conditions.
A number of steroid users believe that they will only use the drugs until they are able to achieve their desired results, however, these results, such as lean muscle gain, can often become addictive and once the user has reached their initial goal, they may want to take it one step further, up their dose, take a different kind of steroid or prolong their current course. This is when the drugs form part of an addiction and when stopped, the user can experience a number of withdrawal symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, restlessness, mood swings, depression and a loss of appetite.
Always bear in mind that anabolic steroids are powerful hormones and affect the body as a whole.
The effects you experience may be different to someone else’s as everyone’s body is different. Many steroids users note a drastic muscle gain in the first few cycles of using steroids, after which they have to increase their dosage in order to get the same effects. This opens the door for more side effects and further complications as the dosage is increased.
Anabolic steroids are often abused because of the fact that these drugs are able to give athletes the competitive edge they need to be the best, get bigger, look leaner and lift heavier. Compared to the ‘natural’ alternative of eating well and living a healthy life, steroids are able to boost strength and allow for the user to get to their goal a lot quicker without the fatigue, muscle soreness and burnout that is often associated with fitness and exercise. But one must ask the question, “is this short-term gain worth the long-term side effects that may occur?”
What happens to your body when you stop taking steroids?
Earlier we spoke about the cause and effect relationship between testosterone and oestrogen hormone levels in both men and women.
When users stop taking steroids their testosterone levels will be lower, and if their body has inhibited the production of this hormone, their levels of testosterone may be close to non-existent. On top of this, oestrogen levels may be higher than normal as a result of the body attempting to balance the previous excess of testosterone present. Because of this, many steroid users prefer to use steroids in 12 weeks or fewer cycles or periods of time in order for their bodies to adjust more gradually, the effectiveness of this method is not proven and does not guarantee that the side effects of steroids are prevented.
The body will work towards regaining its natural balance of hormones, however, this can take weeks and even months to reach. During this period of time, the user will experience a large amount of muscle loss as a result of the breakdown of muscle tissue due to the loss of the ‘muscle fuel’ testosterone being diminished.
The hormonal imbalance created is a contributing factor to the number of side effects of anabolic steroid abuse.