Steroids are organic compounds with a set chemical structure. Some steroids, such as cholesterol, estrogen and testosterone, are quite common. There are also hundreds of others found in animals, plants and even fungi, and each of these reacts a different way within the organism, leading to a variety of effects. Human bodies naturally produce and use steroids to aid in reproduction, regulate metabolism, and enhance muscle and bone growth. As such, they are very useful chemicals and, if used properly, can have numerous benefits.
Within the media, most negative publicity goes to steroid hormones, which can be used to trigger certain bodily effects if taken. These substances can be classified into the following types:
* Sex steroids (or gonadal steroids)
* Anabolic steroids
Most stories of steroid abuse or misuse typically involve anabolic steroids, although there have been some cases of where corticosteroids are the substance of choice as well.
The standard definition of substance abuse is when the costs outweigh the benefits, yet the individual keeps on using. This phenomenon is actually quite rare when it comes to steroid users. The majority of people will take the drug in a controlled way once appraised of the facts. Professional athletes are some of the most likely people to take steroids in order to boost their performance or body image. Most of the time, these individuals will have advice from their coaches, other athletes or a medical professional about how to take the drug in a safe manner. There are, however, cases when use can then lead to abuse. The individual cam become addicted, physically and psychologically dependent on the drug, and how it makes them feel. It is also possible for someone to take steroids without having access to all of the facts, meaning that they are then exposed to a myriad of negative side effects and dangers.
The majority of cases of steroid abuse involve anabolic steroids. These compounds are mainly used to increase muscle mass, strength and endurance in athletes, military personnel and law enforcement. They occur naturally within the body, but can also be purchased in the form of tablets, injections and skin patches.
Within the US, the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990 made possession and distribution of steroids a criminal offense, punishable by a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. In the UK, the law is more relaxed and possessing steroids is not a criminal offense as long as it is self-administered and used as a medical product. However, the legal terms, in particular the phrase medical product, have not been adequately defined and so there have been cases of individuals still being charged for the possession of steroids.
Despite these laws, steroid use and abuse continues to be a problem. The practice has even spread to high school students. In 2007, The University of Michigan conducted the Monitoring the Future Survey and found that 2.7% of grade 12 students, 1.8% of grade 10 students and 1.6% of grade 8 students had tried using anabolic steroids at least once in their lives. This is quite alarming, as the risks and dangers of steroids are compounded when used by adolescents. Particular concerning is the fact that these substances act as hormones within individuals who are already experiencing several drastic hormonal changes due to puberty.
Those taking anabolic steroids can exhibit a number of side effects, both positive and negative. The majority of people take these substances to stimulate growth and increase muscle mass. Bodybuilders, football players and other professional sports players can use these drugs to enhance their performance and gain an edge over their competition. For these reasons, steroids have been banned by all major international sporting bodies and regular testing is conducted to ensure that no one abuses the drug in private.
The negative effects of anabolic steroids can vary from person to person and are largely dependent on the dose. The more common risks are listed below:
* Changes in cholesterol levels
* Clitoromegaly (enlarging of the clitoris)
* Decreased sexual function and infertility
* Fetal deformities (male features on a female baby and vice versa) if taken while pregnant
* Gynecomastia (breast-development in males)
* Higher blood pressure and hypertension
* Increased body hair and deepening of the voice in females
* Increased risk of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease
* Irregular menstrual cycles
* Liver damage
* Premature baldness
* Testicular atrophy (a decrease in the size of the testes)
Those taking anabolic steroids during adolescence will be exposed to even more risks, since the body is already undergoing rapid changes during this stage. The introduction of these hormones can result in the following unwanted side effects:
* Accelerated bone maturation
* Increased frequency and duration of erections
* Premature sexual development
* Stunted growth
As well as the above physical effects, anabolic steroids can also lead to several mental changes, such as aggression, violence, mania, depression and suicidal tendencies. There are also a number of withdrawal symptoms, which may exhibit themselves if an individual has been using steroids for an extended period. These include mood disorders and possible progression to other forms of drug abuse. More studies need to be done in this area, however, as the amount of data is limited.
Although less frequent, there have still been cases of corticosteroid abuse in which doctors have overdosed a patient who then exhibits a number of unwanted side effects. Typically, these substances are used within hospitals and clinics to treat a range of inflammatory skin diseases. If taken in a controlled manner, they can help an individual heal rapidly, especially if prescribed for a short period of time. Without the proper safety precautions, however, these substances are very dangerous and can lead to the following side effects:
* Glucose intolerance (higher than average glucose levels in the blood)
* HPA axis suppression (inability to regulate energy and stress levels)
* Increased chance of bacterial and fungal infection
* Myopathy (disease resulting in muscle weakness)
* Osteoporosis (disease resulting in an increased risk of bone fracture)
Fortunately, most western doctors are fully aware of the risks of using corticosteroids for extended periods of time and will know how to minimize the side effects and treat their patients in the proper manner. Because of this, cases of substance abuse with these types of drugs are relatively rare.