To increase muscle strength and power beyond the natural limit, some people turn to substances like anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS).
Anabolic refers to growth promotion, whereas androgenic refers to developing male sex characteristics.
While steroids’ muscle-building capabilities are well documented, they have several potential side effects.
This article reviews anabolic-androgenic steroids, including their uses, side effects, dangers, and legal status.
What are steroids?
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are a synthetic form of testosterone, the primary male sex hormone.
They affect various body parts, such as your muscles, hair follicles, bones, liver, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems.
Humans naturally produce this hormone.
In men, its levels increase during puberty to promote the development of male sex traits, such as body hair growth, a deeper voice, sex drive, and increased height and muscle mass.
Though traditionally considered a male hormone, women also produce testosterone but in much smaller amounts. It serves several functions for women, primarily promoting bone density and a healthy libido.
Normal testosterone levels range from 300–1,000 ng/dL for men and 15–70 ng/dL for women. Taking steroids raises levels of this hormone, which causes effects such as increased muscle mass and strength.
Summary: Steroids are a synthetic form of testosterone, a sex hormone naturally produced by men and women alike. Taking steroids increases testosterone levels, causing increased muscle mass and strength.
Main uses and potential benefits of steroids
When you think of steroids, the first thing that may come to mind is their use in bodybuilding to promote muscle gain. While this is a common application, AAS are used for several other purposes.
The main potential benefits associated with anabolic steroids are the following:
- increases in muscle tissue due to enhanced protein synthesis
- decreased body fat percentage
- increased muscle strength and power
- enhanced recovery from workouts and injury
- improved bone mineral density
- better muscle endurance
- increased red blood cell production
These potential effects may benefit various groups of individuals.
Athletes looking to improve speed and power output
Athletes constantly seek ways to get an edge over the competition in sports.
While advanced strength and conditioning exercises and nutrition go a long way in this regard, some athletes take it a step further by taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).
AAS are one of the major PEDs used by athletes. They have been shown to increase muscle mass, which leads to increased speed and power output.
Athletes using AAS can experience strength gains of 5–20% and weight gains of 4.5–11 pounds (2–5 kg), possibly due to increased lean body mass.
In competitive sports, steroid dosing tends to be fairly conservative to avoid detection. Muscle mass is not the main concern here, as they’re used more for recovery and increased power output.
Though most sporting federations ban AAS, some athletes feel the risk of getting caught is worth the benefits.
Strength athletes looking to increase muscle mass and strength
Regarding strength sports, including bodybuilding, powerlifting, and Olympic weightlifting, anabolic steroids are widely used to increase muscle mass, strength, and power output.
Muscle strength, size, and power directly relate to overall performance in these sports.
While the goal of bodybuilding is maximum muscle mass in a given category, strength and muscle size are closely related, though other factors are also at play.
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The dosing of AAS in strength sports tends to be more liberal, as many federations don’t test for these and other substances. While more potent effects may be seen at higher doses, the risk of side effects also increases.
Many users in this category also utilize “stacking,” a slang term for mixing multiple types of AAS. Some athletes also include other synthetic hormones, such as growth hormone and insulin.
Those with muscle-wasting diseases
Several conditions can lead to muscle loss, including AIDS, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, and kidney and liver disease. While not as common, AAS can be used in these populations to help preserve muscle mass.
Loss of muscle mass has been closely linked to mortality in these diseases, and preventing it can improve therapeutic outcomes and extend lifespan.
While AAS use is not the only method to preserve muscle mass, it may benefit these populations. Still, potential side effects must be taken into consideration.
Summary: Common uses for steroids include improving athletic performance, increasing muscle mass in strength athletes, and preserving muscle mass in those with muscle-wasting diseases.
Possible side effects of steroids
Despite their potential benefits, AAS have several possible side effects, whose severity varies depending on how much you use these substances.
Individual genetics also affect how you respond to AAS.
The anabolic-to-androgenic ratio varies between different types of AAS, which may also affect adverse reactions. Anabolic refers to muscle growth properties, whereas androgenic refers to promoting male sex traits.
The main side effects associated with AAS use are the following:
- Increased risk of heart disease. AAS used in combination with resistance exercise can increase the size of the left ventricle of your heart, as well as blood pressure. This may increase your risk of heart disease and related death.
- Can increase aggressive behavior. Steroid use has been associated with increased aggression and impulsivity in male teenagers and adults.
- Can affect body image. AAS use and dependence are classified as a body image disorder in the diagnostic manual for mental disorders.
- Can cause liver damage. AAS, specifically those taken orally, have been shown to increase your risk of liver dysfunction.
- May cause gynecomastia. Defined as swollen male breast tissue caused by a hormone imbalance, gynecomastia may occur when you stop taking AAS.
- Decreased production of testosterone. Steroid use is associated with hypogonadism, characterized by the testes’ shrinking and decreased function.
- Can cause infertility. Due to its potential to decrease sperm production, steroid use may cause infertility.
- May cause male pattern baldness. The androgenic effects of AAS may cause or worsen male pattern baldness. This effect may vary depending on the specific drug used.
Side effects for women
While the above side effects can occur in men and women alike, women should be aware of additional ones, including:
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- deepening voice
- facial changes and hair growth
- enlarged clitoris
- irregular menstrual cycles
- decreased breast size
Summary: Steroid use is associated with several adverse effects, such as an increased risk of heart disease and liver toxicity. Additional side effects are seen in women who use AAS.
Steroids can be dangerous
AAS use comes with several risks, potentially dangerous for most people. While certain methods can minimize some risks, they cannot be fully avoided.
Frequent blood work is important
AAS use can affect several lab values, making frequent blood work important to avoid major complications. Steroid use can affect the following lab values:
- Can increase hemoglobin and hematocrit. These blood markers are important in oxygen delivery throughout your body. Increased levels can thicken your blood and increase your heart attack and stroke risk.
- Can reduce HDL (good) cholesterol and raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. HDL and LDL cholesterol should be within healthy ranges. Lower HDL and higher LDL levels may increase heart disease risk.
- Can increase liver markers. AAS use has been associated with increased aspartate transaminase (AST) and alanine transaminase (ALT), two markers of liver function. Elevated levels may indicate liver dysfunction.
You should consult your medical provider before beginning a regimen that alters your body’s natural hormone levels.
Risk of infection
When taking AAS, the risk of infection can be fairly high. This is because many steroids are produced in illegal labs that don’t follow the same procedures as commercial labs.
There is an increased risk of contamination and infection for steroids that must be injected.
When procuring AAS on the black market, there is a chance of mislabeled or counterfeit substances, further increasing your risk of infection.
Steroids are illegal in most places
The legal status of AAS varies by country and region, though they’re classified as illegal in most places if used for non-therapeutic purposes.
Anabolic steroids are classified as a schedule III drug in the United States. Illegal possession can carry a maximum penalty of 1 year in prison and a minimum $1,000 fine for the first offense.
The only way to obtain and use AAS legally would be to have them prescribed by a medical professional for a certain condition, such as low testosterone or a muscle-wasting disease.
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People who choose to use them illegally put themselves at risk of legal consequences.
Steroids may be mentally addictive
Though AAS are not classified as physically addictive, continued use may be associated with mental addiction that can lead to dependence.
A common psychological side effect of AAS use is muscle dysmorphia, in which users become preoccupied with having a muscular physique.
Summary: Steroid use is dangerous for several reasons, including the high risk of infection, illegal status in most places, and potential for mental addiction. Frequent blood work is essential to monitor potential negative health effects.
Is there a safe dosage for steroids?
While lower, well-calculated doses of AAS can be significantly safer than uncontrolled doses associated with abuse, no studies have compared the safety of different steroid doses.
Synthetic testosterone is also used to treat individuals with low testosterone, referred to as testosterone replacement therapy (TRT).
When administered by a medical professional, TRT is generally safe for men with low testosterone levels. Data to determine the safety of TRT for women is insufficient.
The higher doses commonly used in competitive athletics and strength sports are linked to an increased risk of side effects and cannot be deemed safe.
Regardless of the dose, taking AAS always has a level of associated risk.
People respond differently to AAS due to variations in genetic makeup. Therefore, it’s difficult to know exactly how your body will react.
Summary: While lower, controlled doses associated with testosterone replacement therapy are generally accepted as safe for men with low testosterone, taking steroids in any amount can pose health risks. More serious side effects are seen with higher doses.
Other types of steroids
While AAS are the most commonly talked-about type of steroid, there is another variety called glucocorticoids or corticosteroids. These are naturally occurring hormones produced in the adrenal glands on top of your kidneys.
They serve as a feedback mechanism in your immune system, which regulates inflammation. Synthetic versions are often used to treat certain conditions caused by an overactive immune system, including:
- autoimmune diseases
While they work well to regulate certain illnesses, they can cause several side effects, such as elevated blood sugar levels and weight gain. For this reason, they’re reserved only for moderate to severe inflammatory conditions.
Summary: Corticosteroids are another type of steroid naturally produced in your body to help regulate inflammatory immune processes. Synthetic forms are used to reduce inflammation in many autoimmune diseases.
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are a synthetic form of testosterone used to increase muscle mass and strength.
While their health risks vary by the type and amount taken, they can be dangerous and cause side effects at any dose. Plus, they’re illegal in most places.
Using AAS is a very serious decision, and the risks generally outweigh any benefits.