The Dangers of Anabolic Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Drugs

Many of us dream of having strong, toned bodies with visible muscles like the pictures of celebrities that we see in the media. For the average person, achieving this look can take years of hard work in the gym, and involves denying yourself a lot of life’s pleasures like fast food and sweets.

An increasing number of people however, most often young men, are turning to artificial substances to help achieve these results quicker, and with fewer sacrifices. Sounds good right? Well, these substances have a wide range of side effects, and because they are not regulated, can potentially cause you a lot of harm.

In this article, we will explore the three most commonly used performance enhancing drugs.

The number 1

Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids

Probably the most famous performance enhancing substances, anabolic steroids, have been used for decades by people wishing to quickly get bigger and stronger. This type of steroid acts in a similar way to the natural testosterone found in the body, but these steroids are man-made and are either taken by tablet, or injected (1). By mimicking the natural effect of testosterone, they increase muscle mass and can also reduce body fat, leading to the appearance of bigger muscles on a more “lean” body. In one study, it was reported that up to 12% of young Iraqi men use these steroids at some point during their life (2).

Are there any side effects of using anabolic steroids?

Anabolic steroids have a large number of side effects that it is incredibly important to be aware of. These include, but are not limited to, things like:

  • Aggression
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Infertility
  • Hair loss
  • Acne
  • Stomach pain
  • Erectile dysfunction and reduced testicular size
  • Low sex drive
  • Breast development
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Increased risk of blood clots
  • Heart attack or stroke

Most of these issues tend to resolve a few months after the affected person stops taking steroids, but some of these side effects can be permanent, and even fatal (3).

Are there any other risks to consider?

Alongside the side effects of the steroids themselves, it is vital to take into account the risk of being infected with HIV and Hepatitis. This can happen when the steroids are given using an injection with needles that are unclean or have been shared amongst different people.

Injection being given in the upper arm with a small needle.

Photo by Hyttalo Souza on Unsplash

Can you get addicted to anabolic steroids?

Yes. Even though they do not produce a euphoric state of feeling “ high ” like other typical substances, steroids are addictive. That is why some people continue to use them despite their side effects, because they feel that they are unable to stop (4).

Although the negative effects of steroids are often overlooked and under-publicized, it is vital that anyone who is currently using them, or plans to in the future, is aware of the potential risks that come with taking anabolic steroids.

However, steroids are not the only dangerous substance that are used in bodybuilding circles, they are simply the most common.

The number 2

Anti-oestrogens

As we have discussed, anabolic steroids can be very dangerous and can come with many side effects when they are taken for the purpose of building muscle and boosting gym performance. A lot of people who use steroids or other performance enhancing substances have done their research, and so many of them are aware of these risks. However, instead of not taking steroids, people sometimes add in further substances (such as anti-oestrogens) that they believe increase the safety and effectiveness of steroids.

What are anti-oestrogens?

An anti-oestrogen (also known as an oestrogen antagonist or oestrogen blocker), is a type of drug that stops your body from making or using a hormone called oestrogen. (13)

Oestrogen is a natural hormone produced in the body. Although it is often considered to be a “female” hormone, it is produced by both males and females. It is however, produced at a higher level in females, and is important in the development of breasts and the regulation of an individual’s sex drive (6). 

The reason why it is important to know about oestrogen is because when people take anabolic steroids, the steroids not only increase the levels of testosterone in the body, but they also increase the levels of oestrogen in the body too. (5) This therefore explains why certain side effects develop when taking steroids, such as:

  • The development of breast tissue (which gives the chest a bigger appearance).
  • A lower sex drive.

Why do people take anti-oestrogens?

Anti-oestrogens are usually used in the medical field to prevent and treat some breast cancers (7,13). However, some people who take steroids also take anti-oestrogens alongside them. This is because steroids can increase the levels of oestrogen in the body, which can cause certain side effects to develop (such as larger breast tissue). So in order to lower the chance of these side effects developing, people sometimes take anti-oestrogens to reduce the level of oestrogen in the body.

What are the side effects of taking anti-oestrogens?

Although reducing oestrogen levels might sound helpful, there are several issues with the use of these substances in bodybuilding. They can cause side effects which include, but are not limited to, the following (8):

  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Severe joint and muscle pain

Can anti-oestrogens be dangerous?

As well as the medical side effects they can cause, anti-oestrogens are prescription only medications. So if you manage to get access to anti-oestrogens for bodybuilding purposes, then they are either being prescribed and supplied illegally, or are being bought from unofficial and unregulated sources. 

If the anti-oestrogens are being bought from unofficial and unregulated sources, this can be extremely dangerous as the strength and contents of the tablets may be different to what is stated on their labels or packets. 

Many ‘homemade’ products are also produced in dirty conditions using substandard equipment and ingredients. For your own safety, it is therefore strongly recommended that you never buy or consume any prescription medications that have not been prescribed specifically for you by your doctor.

The number 3

Growth Hormone

It is clear that steroids, both alone and in combination with anti-oestrogen pills, have the potential to cause serious harm. Many people are aware of these risks, and because of this, they try to seek alternative substances which they perceive to be healthier or more natural than anabolic steroids. One of the most popular non-steroid substances that are used as an alternative to anabolic steroids is called growth hormone

What is growth hormone?

Growth hormone is a hormone that is found naturally in the body and is involved in building, maintaining and growing healthy tissues within the body. Similar to anti-oestrogens, it is also used for the treatment of some medical conditions. The conditions that growth hormone can be used to treat include (9):

  • Growth problems
  • Deficiency of growth hormone
  • Turner syndrome
  • Complications of HIV/AIDS.

How is growth hormone used in bodybuilding?

Growth hormone is injected several times a day, and users claim that it helps you to lose fat, whilst promoting muscle growth. 

There is some debate around the advantages of using growth hormone for bodybuilding, but because the long term side effects are still being studied, using this substance means that you are gambling with your health (10).

What are the side effects of taking growth hormone?

Although the long term side effects are still being studied, there are already some side effects that have been shown to develop as a result of taking growth hormone. These include, but are not limited to (11):

  • Swelling of the arms and legs
  • High cholesterol
  • Increased risk of heart disease and diabetes
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Permanent excess growth of the face, hands, and feet
  • Depression
  • Liver damage
  • Extreme fatigue

Growth hormone injections may not technically be the same as anabolic steroids, but they still come with many possible side effects, which makes them just as dangerous as steroids. They are also the most expensive substance to buy, and fake imitations of this substance are frequently sold in gyms and on the internet, which makes taking this substance even more risky. They should be considered to be in the same category as steroids and are not a healthier alternative.

What should you keep in mind if you are taking any of these substances?

You should carefully weigh up the risks and benefits of using any supplement, injection or tablet before you take it. It is also particularly vital to be aware of any further risks that may be present by using black market, unregulated products.

All of these substances are also banned in many professional sports and bodybuilding competitions. Using these substances can lead to disqualification from certain sports, as seen when an Iraqi bodybuilder entering Qatar for a competition was found in possession of anabolic steroids and was disqualified from the event before it had even started (12). 

These substances are not new and will not disappear overnight, but by educating people about their dangers and long term effects, it is possible to minimise the damaging health effects they can cause.

If you are worried about any symptoms you may be experiencing, or have any further questions about performance enhancing drugs, you should speak to a qualified doctor about them.

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  1. nhs.uk. (2018). Anabolic steroid misuse. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/anabolic-steroid-misuse/ [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  2. Lafta, R. and Mohammad, G. (2012). Anabolic Supplements Abuse among Athletes in Baghdad Gyms. Iraqi Journal of Community Medicine, [online] 4, pp.268 – 273. Available at: https://iasj.net/iasj?func=fulltext&aId=73773 [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  3. Wedro, B. (2019). Steroid Abuse Types, Symptoms, Side Effects & Treatment. [online] MedicineNet. Available at: https://www.medicinenet.com/anabolic_steroid_abuse/article.htm [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  4. nhs.uk. (2015). Addiction: what is it?. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/addiction-what-is-it/ [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  5. Fiore, K. (2014). Bodybuilders Bulk Up Using … Cancer Drugs?. [online] Medpagetoday.com. Available at: https://www.medpagetoday.com/primarycare/exercisefitness/43839 [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  6. Healthdirect.gov.au. (2017). Oestrogen. [online] Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/oestrogen [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  7. Fiore, K. (2014). Bodybuilders Bulk Up Using … Cancer Drugs?. [online] Medpagetoday.com. Available at: https://www.medpagetoday.com/primarycare/exercisefitness/43839 [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  8. Breast Cancer Now. (2019). Side effects of anastrozole (Arimidex). [online] Available at: https://breastcancernow.org/information-support/facing-breast-cancer/going-through-breast-cancer-treatment/side-effects-anastrozole-arimidex [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  9. Healthline. (2018). HGH: Side Effects in Men and Women. [online] Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/hgh-side-effects [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  10.  Monaghan, L. (2001). Bodybuilding, Drugs and Risk. Psychology Press, pp.145 – 146.
  11.  WebMD. (2019). HGH (Human Growth Hormone): Uses and Side Effects. [online] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/human-growth-hormone-hgh#2 [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  12.  The Irish Times. (2006). Bodybuilder disqualified. [online] Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/bodybuilder-disqualified-1.1037809 [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
  13.  National Cancer Institute. (2020). NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. [online] Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/antiestrogen [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
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