Chemically speaking, steroids are types of organic compounds such as cholesterol (yes cholesterol!), sex hormones, and anti-inflammatory drugs. The types of steroids mentioned here are steroid hormones, particularly anabolic steroids. Other steroid hormones include sex steroids, corticosteroids, and as mentioned cholesterol. Anabolic steroids are in a class of their own in that they bind to the body’s androgen receptors to increase muscle mass and bone density. Steroids exist in both natural and synthetic forms. In modern culture, saying “steroids” is often associated with anabolic steroids.
The four major classes of steroid hormones are:
1) progestogens (progesterone – a female sex hormone)
2) corticosteroids (aldosterone, cortisol)
3) androgens (testosterone – the primary male sex hormone)
4) estrogens (estrogen – another female sex hormone)
Estrogen and progesterone originate in women’s ovaries and adrenal glands during pregnancy, while testosterone originates in male testicles (gonads). Anabolic steroids are synthetic derivatives of testosterone. They were originally synthesized to retain and magnify testosterone’s anabolic effects while reducing or alleviating some of the androgenic effects.
However, the “perfect” anabolic steroid, one that enhances testosterone’s anabolic functions while eliminating the androgenic functions, has never been developed. Nearly every conceivable alteration to testosterone’s steroid molecular structure has been synthesized and studied in attempts to find the perfect anaboic steroid.
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Each of these anabolic steroids has a unique molecular structure that is similar to testosterone but no two are the same. Steroid androgens (aka anabolic steroids) are synthetic and they include oxandrolone, oxabolone, testosterone, and nandrolone. They are composed of 19 carbon atoms that are bonded together to create four joined rings, which oxidize. Because all anabolic steroids retain some androgenic potential, they are often referred to as anabolic-androgenic steroids.
Anabolic steroids are not “true” hormones since they are not made by glands in the human body. However, within the body, they function as steroid hormones. Different anabolic steroids have different effects on the body. This is due to the androgen receptors and their location throughout the body. Anabolic steroids seem to have different affinities for binding to these receptors to cause an effect.
For instance, one anabolic steroid may tend to bind more to muscle cell receptors than to brain cell receptors. Another anabolic steroid may tend to bind more to osteoblast receptors in bone than to hair cell receptors, and so forth. Some may not alter themselves through reduction, hydroxylation, or aromatization. This concept of “selective receptor binding” has been used to determine the anabolic-to-androgenic ratio of a particular anabolic steroid.
In the Beginning
Today’s widely known anabolic steroids were initially formulated to treat low testosterone levels among males. Such low levels meant a person’s biological growth would become stunted. A condition known as hypogonadism would naturally limit sexual function as well. Males who suffered from delayed puberty, impotence, and an inability to hold excretions (which resulted in infections), were successfully treated with steroids.
Eventually, it was discovered that steroid treatments caused muscle growth among lab animals, which is primarily why they became so desired among bodybuilders and athletes alike. By the mid-1960s, the attempts to find the perfect anabolic steroid resulted in over a dozen anabolic steroids being used as a medicinal drug.
Ever since anabolic steroids were first invented for use on animals, their use has increased among bodybuilders mainly from the widespread belief that they enhance performance levels and improve physical appearance. There are well-documented effects of steroid use, which include: increased protein synthesis, an increase in muscle mass and strength, form changes including the growth of bone tissue, enhanced appetite, increased production of red blood cells, additional hair growth, enlargement of the vocal cords which lead to a deeper sounding voice, and increasing libido while suppressing internal sex hormones. The effects of steroids have varied greatly.
Throughout the years, steroids have been called “roid juice”, “weight trainers”, “stackers”, etc. The list goes on. Those of us taking them called them what we have learned them to be. Like other naturally occurring hormones that our bodies produce, steroids help support vital functions such as reducing stress and promoting biological development.
Steroid Cycling – Patterns & Administration of Use
No two groups of athletes who use anabolic steroids seem to use the same pattern of drug administration. It is this observation that, above all, confuses attempts to make comparisons between anabolic steroid efficacies (see below). There are a number of ways to administer anabolics, though each has its variations and often they may be combined to be used concurrently. They are administered commonly by injection and/or orally.
In order to maximize the effects of anabolic steroids, it is important to follow a strict frequency. The main objective of frequent use is to 1) reduce any side effects by allowing for “measured gaps” during use and 2) to accelerate the anabolic results (i.e. achieving results sooner instead of later). Some known steroid cycles include:
A period of administration followed by a similar period of abstinence before the administration is recommenced. Typical cycling patterns are short: 6-8 weeks on drugs, 6-8 weeks’ abstinence; or long: 6-18 weeks on drugs with up to 12 months’ abstinence. The rationale here is that the periods of abstinence may reduce the incidence of side-effects. This regime is preferred by bodybuilders.
A variation of cycling in which the dose is gradually built up in the cycle to a peak and then gradually reduced again towards the end of the cycle. The regime is said to cause fewer behavioral side-effects such as lowered mood, caused by the withdrawal of the drug.
The use of more than one anabolic steroid at a time. In its simplest form, this regime involves the simultaneous use of both an orally administered steroid and an injectable one. More sophisticated patterns involve intricate schedules of administration using many different steroids each with different pharmacological profiles. The aim of this technique is to avoid plateauing, that is, the development of tolerance to a particular drug. According to pharmacologists, these ‘super stacking’ programs allow more receptor sites to be stimulated.
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Doses used by weightlifters and bodybuilders are least 100 times those indicated for therapeutic use and also in most scientific studies. Scientific studies also indicate that the doses used are sufficient to cause improvements in lean body mass. It is claimed that endurance and sprint athletes who use steroids may use doses closer to clinical recommendations.
These steroid cycles are often followed (in males) by a dose of human chorionic gonadotrophin (HGG), which is used to stimulate testosterone production that has been suppressed by the chronic administration of testosterone or anabolic steroids.
Clinical Use of Anabolic Steroids
- Replacement therapy in men – may be given to stimulate sexual development in cases of delayed puberty.
- Replacement therapy in women – usually given if sexual infantilism occurs as well as a lack of libido and absence of pubic and axillary hair.
- Gynaecological disorders – occasionally used to treat gynaecological conditions in women. Sometimes used to repress lactation (after childbirth) and to combat breast tumors in premenopausal women.
- Protein anabolism – used to inhibit the loss of protein and aid muscle regeneration after major surgery, and in debilitating disorders such as muscular dystrophy and diabetes. May be able to reverse muscle loss and decline of lean body mass in AIDS patients.
- Anaemia – sometimes used in large doses to treat anaemias which proved resistant to other therapies.
- Osteoporosis – able to inhibit bone degeneration in this disorder.
- Growth stimulation – may be used to increase growth in prepubertal boys who have failed to reach thier expected height for thier age.
Anabolic Steroids and Sport
The desire to increase sporting performance and athletic prowess by means other than physical training has been experienced for at least 2000 years. The ancient Greeks knew that a high protein diet was essential for bodybuilding and athletic achievement.
The Greeks, of course, knew nothing of protein structure or biosynthesis but they felt that by eating the flesh of a strong animal such as the ox, the athlete would gain strength himself. One of the first therapeutic uses of anabolic steroids was in treating the protein loss and muscle wasting suffered by concentration camp victims.
Following the results of these treatments, it was natural that anabolic steroids be used in an attempt to increase muscle strength in athletes. An athlete would want to know the following about the use of an anabolic steroid: where are they obtained?; how are they used?; does it work?; does it provide any advantage over normal training practices?; what are the side effects?; what are the long- and short-term consequences?
In addition, the athlete needs to know whether the practice is ethical and for the sports administrator, how to discover whether anabolic steroids are being taken. Future trends should also be considered.
The Law & Anabolic Steroids
The increased usage of anabolic steroids by athletes and the spread of usage from sport to the general population has prompted government intervention in several countries and created an investigation into the illicit supply of anabolic steroids and the control of their abuse.
In Great Britain, anabolic steroids are licensed by the Department of Health’s Medicine Control Agency (MCA) as prescription-only medicines (POM’s) within the meaning of the Medicines Act 1968. This means that it is illegal for a doctor or pharmacist to supply them other than by a doctor’s prescription and there are recorded cases of individual procesution for illegal supply.
The UK government has classified anabolic steroids as controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This makes export, import, and supply without a prescription illegal. Under UK law, possession of anabolic steroids is not illegal unless it is “with intent to supply” whether for profit or not. This attitude has been contested by many experts on addiction and those closely associated with counseling and treating anabolic problems in gyms and sports clubs.
In the USA, anabolic steroids were added to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act 1994, making supply and possession (wihout a prescription) of the drugs a federal offence. State laws can also be applied in order to enforce the ways they are used in each State.
However, the American Medical Association (AMA) opposed this legislation because they contend that most of the illicitly used anabolic steroids are illegally smuggled in or manufactured, and such legislation, when enacted for cocaine, led to an increase in its illegal supply.
Anabolic steroids are beneficial when used in a controlled, responsible manner. They are used under these circumstances every day, worldwide. Since the 1960s, prescriptions for anabolic steroids in the USA have increased. So have the attempts to supply them from non-conventional means. In the US, the major external sources appear to be Panama and Mexico, while illegal synthesis by “street traders” is another major source. Both these internal and external sources provide drugs that are untested, unstandardized, contain potentially toxic impurities, and have not been produced in stringently hygienic conditions of the modern pharmaceutical industry.
Separately, in the spirit of fair play, many international sporting organizations (IOC, FIFA, NBA, NFL, MLB, etc) have also banned the use of steroids because their performance enhancing abilities give athletes an unfair advantage over non-users. Lifetime bans from sport have been given to athletes who have been caught taking them during competition, even in trace amounts.
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