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by Dr Mariam Doreen Joseph, Australia

Posted: Friday, June 16, 2000 04:30 PM CST

Anabolic/androgenic steroids are synthetic substances related to the male hormone testosterone. These substances have two effects, the androgenic (masculinising - causing the body to become more male - even if the user is female) and the anabolic (tissue building). Most people who use steroids want the tissue building effect and so use steroids with higher anabolic than androgenic properties. Anabolic steroids are banned in most sports, any athlete found using them is usually suspended for long periods and stripped of any titles they may have gained whilst they were using steroids. They are usually used during training to build muscles and contrary to popular belief are not usually used when the athlete is competing (if they are being used for that purpose). There is widespread use of steroids in the body building world due to the ability of steroids to make muscles larger at an increased rate when used with regular weight training.

Bodybuilders tend to use steroids in cycles, with rest periods in between. These cycles tend to vary from 4 to 12 weeks in length although there is no medical evidence to indicate how long a cycle should be. It would seem to be advisable to make rest periods as long as possible to let the body regain its natural balance.

Often a number of different steroids (and other substances) are used at the same time, this is known as 'stacking'. This obviously increases the risk to the users health and it is difficult if not impossible to determine how different drugs will react together. Steroids come in two forms, either injectable or as tablets which are swallowed.


Athletes have been taking substances to increase their performance since the times of the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. The use of anabolic steroids as we know them today started in the 1940s, however, it was during the 1950s that they took off and during the 60s and 70s there was a large demand. The backlash started in the 1980s with people being stripped of awards gained when they were using steroids and people being charged with dealing steroids. David Jenkins who won a silver medal for Britain in the 1972 Olympics was sentenced to seven years in jail for his part in steroid smuggling. Steroids use today is on a much larger scale than a lot of the authorities would admit to. In 1993 Nottingham's Drug Dependence Anonymous had steroids users accounting for well over half of their 840 drug injectors.


Injectable steroids seem to cause less damage (although steroids in pill form may be less dangerous for women - see below) as they do not damage the liver as much as steroids that are swallowed as pills. Any oral steroids with 'C-17' or 'alpha-alkylated' in the name should be avoided as they pass through the liver several times, making them particularly toxic. However, people using injectable steroids run all the risk associated with injecting any drug. Septicaemia (blood poisoning) is possible if people are injecting themselves in non-sterile conditions. Also if people share needles, syringes or even bottles of steroids there is a risk of spreading infections such as Hepatitis or HIV. There are a number of well known problems associated with steroid use. These include:-

  • Increased irritability and aggressiveness (sometimes called 'roid rages')
  • Acne, due to stimulation of oil glands in the skin. Faster hair loss.
  • Bloated appearance, due to salt and water being kept in the body.
  • Changes (increase or decrease) in sex drive.
  • Impotence and decline in sperm production in men.

The last effect is due to the effect of steroids on the testicles. The brain monitors the amount of testosterone in the body, if it detects a large amount (due to steroids) it will stop the testicles producing more and so less sperm is produced and impotence may occur.

Apart from the hair loss, the above effects are generally reversible upon stopping steroid use. Adolescent steroid use may lead to a premature fusion of the epiphyses (the end of growing bones) which can lead to stunted growth.

Long term effects

Long term heavy steroid use may cause damage to the heart, liver and kidneys. Heart problems are due to the blocking of arteries by fatty deposits and increased blood pressure due to water and salt being kept in the body (both could lead to a heart attack). Possible liver problems include jaundice, cancer of the liver and formation of blood 'blisters' in the liver tissue.

Women and steroids

In women steroids have a masculinising effect and can lead to growth of facial and body hair, baldness, voice deepening, and disruption of the menstrual cycle. In the main these effects are reversible. Steroids taken as tablets seem to cause less damage to women as they pass out of the body more quickly than injectable steroids. However, the liver is smaller in women and so is more likely to be damaged, whether they take tablet or injectible steroids.

References CEIDA- health service/ NSW, Australia. Drugs information on web sites.

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