The effects of anabolic steroids
Reviewed by our clinical team
It’s commonly accepted that girls and women face a lot of pressure to look a certain way. This can lead to low self-esteem and depression or excessive dieting, unhealthy eating habits and eating disorders. Problems with their body image can cause some women to have plastic or intimate surgery because they feel their bodies aren't good enough.
What’s talked about less is that many men feel the same pressures when it comes to body image. Amongst men, there can be a particular focus on muscle definition, and especially a type that can be hard to achieve through diet and exercise alone.
The “solution” for some men – and some women too – is to take anabolic steroids, despite the fact that they are unlicensed for this use and can cause serious health complications.
serious health complications.
In this article we’ll look at what anabolic steroids are and how they can potentially damage your health.
What are anabolic steroids?
Anabolic steroids are synthetically produced drugs that mimic the effects of natural testosterone. They are sometimes used very occasionally to stimulate muscle regrowth after surgery or as part of treatment for an unusual type of anaemia.
The problem is that anabolic steroids (often simply called “steroids” or “roids”) are often used in an unlicensed way. They are used by bodybuilders and athletes to enhance performance and build up muscle.
Where do people get anabolic steroids from?
You might be prescribed anabolic steroids for certain medical conditions. If a clinician has prescribed you anabolic steroids, they will be safe for you to take – provided you use them as directed.
Outside of medical settings, people tend to get hold of anabolic steroid through unregulated websites. Anything you order online or get from your gym is most likely unlicensed and illegal. Sometimes they are marketed as "legal steroids"- unfortunately there's no such thing.
Although it’s not illegal to possess anabolic steroids for personal use, it’s illegal to supply or sell them to other people. They are a class C drug and can only be obtained through a pharmacy with a valid prescription.
Are there other types of steroids?
Anabolic steroids are not to be confused with corticosteroids such as eczema creams, preventer (steroid) inhalers to help you through an asthma attack or prednisolone tablets to relieve arthritis or skin conditions.
Corticosteroids have their own side effects, including difficulty sleeping, mood changes, and weight gain. They will only be prescribed by your doctor when it’s deemed safe and necessary.
Why do people take anabolic steroids?
Outside of licensed medical uses, people tend to use anabolic steroids in bodybuilding, because they can quickly build muscle mass, decrease body fat, and improve athletic performance. Other, often younger people people might use them for body dysmorphia.
Most sports organisations have banned the use of anabolic steroids, and other performance-enhancing drugs, and will carry out regular tests on all competitors.
Anabolic steroid side effects
Anabolic steroid misuse can cause a variety of physical and mental side effects, which can be dangerous in the long and short-term.
If you’ve been prescribed anabolic steroids, there is the potential for these kinds of side effects. The difference is that your doctor will have weighed up the benefits versus the risks before prescribing them to you. Your specialist will choose a dosage that will be safe and effective, with the lowest risk of complications or side effects.
Anabolic steroids physical side effects
For anyone using anabolic steroids, there’s an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fluid retention, blood clots, and problems with the liver and kidneys.
Most anabolic steroids are injected so there is a risk of HIV and hepatitis if needles are being shared.
If you start taking anabolic steroids as a young person, they can disrupt how your body develops, stopping you from growing properly.
For men, misusing anabolic steroids can cause:
- Erectile dysfunction
- Problems with fertility
- Hair loss
- Shrinking testicles
- Breasts development
- An increased risk of prostate cancer
For women, misusing anabolic steroids can cause:
- Excess facial hair
- A deeper voice
- Hair loss
- Shrinking breasts
- An enlarged clitoris
- Menstrual problems
- Changes to your sex drive
Mental health risks associated with anabolic steroids
Anabolic steroids are known to make users feel aggressive, paranoid and this can result in violence. They also can experience mood swings, as well as trouble sleeping. So, it’s not unheard of for anabolic steroid users to snap at or be aggressive with family, friends or colleagues.
Some users will also experience manic behaviour and may start having hallucinations.
Anabolic steroids an be addictive because they can initially make you feel great about yourself and your body. After some time, you might notice you need more and more to get the same effect. You might also find it hard to stop taking them and feel withdrawal symptoms if you do stop.
Withdrawal symptoms from anabolic steroids vary, but can include:
- Problems concentrating
- Insomnia and/or tiredness
- Decreases sex drive
Anabolic steroid misuse can cause fertility issues for both men and women. It’s also associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fluid retention, blood clots, and problems with the liver and kidneys. In men it can increase the risk of prostate cancer. It can also cause acne. Most anabolic steroids are injected so there is a risk of HIV and hepatitis if needles are being shared.
There can also be psychological effects, including mood swings, paranoia, and aggressive or manic behaviour. Anabolic steroids can cause addiction.
How people think they can get around side effects
Often people are aware of the impact of steroids so try to take them in a certain way to avoid side effects. Users might:
- Switch between using anabolic steroids and not using them - this is called 'cycling'
- Take more than one type of steroid at once - this is called 'stacking'
- Start with low doses of one or more anabolic steroids, increase the dose to a maximum and then stop for a period of no steroid. This combination of 'cycling' and 'stacking' is called 'pyramiding'.
There's no evidence to suggest that these methods will lessen the harmful side effects of taking anabolic steroids.
Getting help with anabolic steroid misuse
If you think you might be addicted to anabolic steroids, you should try and see your GP. They might refer you to a specialist addiction service or a trained drugs counsellor. These services will also be able to help with advice on weaning yourself off the steroids.
You can also find specialist addiction support services in your area here, or the Talk to Frank website has lots of useful resources
You can also get help with some of the less serious side-effects such as acne, hair loss and erection difficulties.