A Quick Guide to Steroids in Sports

Steroid Use Continues Despite Health Risks to Athletes

Man doing a dead lift with a lot of weight
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Drugs commonly referred to as steroids can be classified as anabolic (anabolic-androgenic) steroids or corticosteroids. Corticosteroids, such as cortisone or prednisone are drugs that doctors often prescribe to help control inflammation in the body. Corticosteroids are not the same as the anabolic steroids that are often linked with illegal use in sports.

Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic steroids (anabolic-androgenic steroids) are synthetic versions of the male hormone testosterone. They are a class of drugs that are legally available only by prescription and are prescribed to treat a variety of conditions that cause a loss of lean muscle mass.

Non-medical use of anabolic steroids is illegal and banned by most major sports organizations. In January 2005, the Anabolic Steroid Control Act was amended with the Controlled Substance Act that added anabolic steroids and prohormones (a precursor to a hormone) to the list of controlled substances and makes possession of the substances a federal crime. Still, some athletes continue to use them illegally despite evidence that using them this way can cause many serious health problems.

How They Work

Anabolic steroids are testosterone derivatives that help the body metabolize ingested proteins and facilitate the synthesis of skeletal muscle. They also delay fatigue and may create a feeling of euphoria.

Commonly Used Steroids

  • Androstenedione (Andro)Andro is a designer steroid often mentioned in relation with athletes, although there is little scientific evidence to support its effectiveness in improving sports performance. Andro is a supplement made from a naturally occurring steroid hormone. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of Andro due to increasing evidence that showed serious health risks to those using the substance.
  • Primobolan (Methenolone): This banned steroid has been linked to several Major League Baseball players, including Alex Rodriguez. It can be injected or taken in a tablet form. Primobolan has been a popular steroid among athletes because it builds strength without muscle bulk and without many of the negative side effects of other steroids.
  • Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG): THG is another designer steroid that has a similar chemical structure to other banned steroids. It appears that THG was specifically manufactured so it would not be detected in doping tests. The FDA banned the sale of THG in 2003, saying it was not a supplement but an unapproved drug, which makes any sale or use of it illegal.
  • ClenbuterolClenbuterol (Clen) is a selective beta-2 agonist/antagonist and a bronchodilator sometimes prescribed for obstructive pulmonary disease. Like anabolic steroids, it can increase lean muscle mass, but it also has potentially serious side effects.
  • DHEADHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a natural steroid prohormone that's produced by the adrenal glands. The body then converts DHEA to male and female sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone). DHEA supplements have been marketed as anti-aging supplements but research on this is limited at this time. DHEA supplements were taken off the U.S. market in 1985 and made available only by prescription. DHEA was then reintroduced as a nutritional supplement in 1994 after the passing of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. DHEA is still considered a banned substance by many sports organizations and athletes are cautioned about its use.

Other Banned Steroids

Anabolic steroids are banned by all major sports bodies including the Olympics, the NBA, the NHL, and the NFL. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) maintains an extensive list of all banned performance-enhancing substances. Some include the following:

Oral Steroids

  • Anadrol (oxymetholone)
  • Oxandrin (oxandrolone)
  • Dianabol (methandrostenolone)
  • Winstrol (stanozolol)

Injectable Steroids

  • Deca-Durabolin (nandrolone decanoate)
  • Durabolin (nandrolone phenpropionate)
  • Depo-Testosterone (testosterone cypionate)
  • Equipoise (boldenone undecylenate)

Why Athletes Take Them

The widespread use of anabolic steroids among athletes is in the hopes of improving performance. Although drug testing is widespread, new designer drugs are made specifically to avoid detection. However, technology continually evolves, blood and urine samples from years earlier are now being retested with new science and exposing athletes who used illegal substances in the past.

How They Are Taken 

Steroids are taken in either pill form or injections. The most common dosing is done in cycles of weeks or months, with a short break between. This is called "cycling." "Stacking" refers to the use of several different types of steroids at the same time. "Pyramiding," involves slowly increasing the number, the amount, or the frequency of steroids to reach a peak and then gradually tapering the amount and frequency of the drug.

Doses taken by steroid abusers are often 10 to 100 times higher than the what would be medically prescribed for legitimate use.

Health Risks 

There are many health risks from the use and abuse of anabolic steroids, including the following.

Effects in Men

  • infertility
  • breast development
  • shrinking of the testicles
  • male-pattern baldness
  • severe acne and cysts

Effects in Women

  • Deeper voice
  • enlargement of the clitoris
  • excessive growth of body hair
  • male-pattern baldness
  • severe acne and cysts

Other Effects

  • delayed growth in adolescents
  • tendon rupture
  • increased LDL cholesterol
  • decreased HDL cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • heart attacks
  • enlargement of the heart's left ventricle
  • cancer
  • jaundice
  • fluid retention
  • HIV/AIDS
  • hepatitis
  • "roid rage" - rage and aggression
  • mania
  • delusions

Withdrawal

Athletes who use steroids can experience withdrawal symptoms when they quit. The symptoms include mood swings, depression, fatigue and irritability, loss of appetite, insomnia, and aggression. Depression can even lead to suicide attempts, if untreated.

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