If you spend any amount of time in the gym or in competitive sports, you’ve likely overheard the hushed whispers in the locker room or seen the side-eyed comments on social media. From weekend warriors to elite athletes, more and more people are wondering about the pros and cons of anabolic steroids.
It’s a topic rife with controversy, even as it grows in popularity. On one hand, you have proponents who argue that it’s a magic pill that can help you to speed up your muscle recovery, grow bigger and stronger muscles, and hit the bull’s eye on your fitness targets. Even Joe Rogan is an evangelist for it.
And on the other hand, you have medical professionals and “purists” who swear that taking anabolic steroids will cause irreversible harm and damage to your body — or even death!
But as with anything in the fitness and sports industry, neither side is 100% accurate.
What’s in the Name: What Are Anabolic Steroids?
"Anabolic" refers to building and growing your muscles.
It is the polar opposite of "androgenic," such as the androgenic stress hormone cortisol which is significantly linked with muscle atrophy, poor metabolism and muscle weakness.
In contrast to cortisol is testosterone. Testosterone is an anabolic hormone and the male sex hormone that boosts muscle growth and muscle strength while also helping to maintain lean body mass.
Approximately one in four men have low testosterone, and many of these guys show or feel no symptoms of a hormone imbalance. This may lead to poor sex drive, weight gain (specifically fat gain), mood disorders and difficulty building or maintaining muscle mass.
Such men, when diagnosed by their doctor, are often given an anabolic steroid as part of a hormone replacement therapy.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic compounds designed to mimic natural testosterone. They can remedy low testosterone. However, even men with normal levels of testosterone are turning more and more to synthetic testosterone to achieve big benefits in the gym and in their personal lives.
“People with normal testosterone levels are sometimes treated with testosterone at the recommendation of their doctors or they obtain the medication on their own,” reports researchers at the Harvard Medical School.
Harvard continues: “For example, [our study] found that even among men who started out with normal testosterone results noted loss of fat, increased muscle mass, better mood, and less anxiety when receiving testosterone therapy. Similar observations have been noted among women.”
Synthetic testosterone is primarily what people mean when discussing steroids. However, there is a growing market for so-called “designer steroids,” which are anabolic steroids which have yet to be designated for medical use but are obtained on the black market for various fitness or exercise purposes.
These include, but are not limited to:
- Deca Durabolin
Because the most-researched and primary form of anabolic steroids continues to be synthetic testosterone, we’ll focus on it in this article while also touching briefly on the other steroids, too.
One difficulty with steroid research is that it’s primarily testosterone that can be legally prescribed, leaving scientists unable to test, monitor and research other steroid compounds (similar to how there were very few North American research studies on marijuana until Canada began its decriminalization process).
First: A Note on Steroid Legality
Back in the ‘90s, the United States classified all anabolic steroids as controlled substances which makes it illegal to sell, distribute, manufacture or possess anabolic steroids without proper legal authorization. This includes monetary fines in the thousands of dollars.
Each individual U.S. state carries additional rules and regulations. If you’re considering buying or taking anabolic steroids, it’s imperative to talk to your doctor and research the various laws that apply to you.
How Steroids Work: The Benefits of Anabolic Steroids
“Athletes and bodybuilders have recognized for several decades that the use of anabolic steroids can promote muscle growth and strength but it is only relatively recently that these agents are being revisited for clinical purposes,” explains a team of researchers for their report published in the Journal of Pharmacology.
Researchers typically outline three primary ways that anabolic steroids may benefit you.
First, anabolic steroids bind/connect with the androgen receptor in your cells, thereby stimulating protein synthesis in your muscles. Improved protein synthesis assists with muscle growth, repair and strength.
In fact, measuring muscle protein synthesis is the “driving force” and primary measurement of how your muscles adapt to your training regimen.
Next, anabolic steroids bind/connect with your cells’ glucocorticoid receptors. This blocks the catabolic effects that androgenic hormones (such as cortisol) have on your muscles.
Finally, anabolic steroids bring many psychological effects due to their effects on your mood. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism found that higher levels of testosterone is linked with high levels of dominance, competitiveness, motivation and aggression. This may lead to more intensity and motivation when you’re working out.
Combined, taking anabolic steroids can help you overcome natural biological, physiological and psychological barriers. By artificially enhancing your hormone levels with synthetic drugs, you may enhance your performance and therefore your fitness results.
The Risks and Side Effects of Anabolic Steroids
Proponents of anabolic steroids argue that taking them is safe if you get regular blood tests. Regular blood tests allow you to monitor your hormone levels and adjust your medications appropriately in order to maintain the right numbers in your body.
However, as with any form of medication or drug, anabolic steroids can carry serious side effects and risks including:
- Mood disorders, such as paranoia
- Cardiovascular risks (e.g. some anabolic steroids affect your blood lipid values, increasing your risks of artery build up)
- Liver problems, especially if you’re taking oral steroids
- Gynecomastia in men (when you have high levels of testosterone, your body may convert some of it to estrogen, leading to the development of breasts or puffy nipples in men)
- Reduction in your own natural production of hormones (your body may shut down its own production because it “thinks” it doesn’t need to anymore due to your supplementation)
Are Anabolic Steroids Right For You?
Due to legal issues, there are very limited amounts of research on designer steroids. Thus, testosterone remains the main form of anabolic steroids that’s been studied more extensively.
When done under the guidance of a medical professional, anabolic steroids may carry few to no risks.
If performance enhancing drugs are taken at home with no medical supervision, your risks go up but may be mitigated by:
- Getting regular blood tests to monitor your hormone levels
- Monitoring your side effects
- Avoiding stacking too many drugs at once (the greater the variety of steroids you’re taking, the higher the risk of side effects, drug interactions, etc.)
Some athletes and fitness enthusiasts find that short, basic cycles of 10-12 weeks of testosterone, done once or twice a year, offers them the greatest amount of benefits with the least amount of risks.
It all comes down to your goals, your current state of health, and your personal tolerance for risks both legal and physical.