Anabolic steroids are synthetic drugs derived from testosterone, a hormone naturally produced in the body. When people think about commonly abused drugs, steroids typically are not the first substance or even one of the top 10 that comes to mind.
However, steroids have a long history of use and abuse within professional sports and athletics. Arnold Schwarzenegger has previously admitted to using steroids during his bodybuilding career, professional cyclist Lance Armstrong was once charged with doping, and Major League Baseball was plagued by steroid use scandals in the early 2000s.
And while steroid controversy is mostly out of the public eye today, the drug is still in use. As recently as 2018, a massive steroid conspiracy among Russian Olympic athletes was uncovered, barring them from participating in the Winter Olympics.
Even when steroids are prescribed for the legitimate treatment of health issues such as hormone deficiencies and severe asthma issues, they can have a variety of adverse side effects, which only increase and become more dangerous when steroids are abused.
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The short answer of how steroids work is that they alter the body’s natural hormone balance through the creation of excess testosterone.
When someone first takes up weight-lifting or is otherwise lifting objects that are heavier than what they’re used to, it causes microscopic tears in the body’s muscle fibers. When the body repairs these tears, it also tries to make these fibers stronger by using bigger cells.
The repeated process of tearing, repairing, and strengthening muscle fibers is how working out and lifting weights eventually gives people bigger muscles. Testosterone is a hormone that is key to the process of muscle growth and anabolic steroids significantly increase the levels of testosterone in the body to speed up the cell growth process.
Steroids do this by entering the body’s muscle tissue via the bloodstream and binding to what are known as androgen receptors. Androgens, which include testosterone, are hormones that control not only the development of male sexual characteristics but also regulating functions like sex drive and hair growth in both men and women, which is in part why those two functions are majorly impacted by steroid use.
When steroids bind to androgen receptors in the body’s muscle fibers, they activate them and stimulate them into overproduction, building more muscle faster as well as blocking hormones that help break down muscle, leading to faster recovery times.
The major difference between steroids and most other commonly abused substances is that steroids do not work in the brain in the same way as alcohol or other kinds of addictive drugs.
For example, steroids do not increase the levels of brain chemicals like dopamine to get a user high, nor do they depress the central nervous system to produce feelings of sedation or relaxation.
Instead, many people can become psychologically addicted to using steroids because they feel like they “need” them to avoid being weak, fat, or anything else they feel are physical deficiencies. In other words, regular steroid use can actually strengthen feelings of body dysmorphia and make them much worse.
One way steroid addiction is more similar to other addictive drugs is that with regular use and abuse comes increased tolerance to the point where the user requires more and more steroids to achieve the same effects.
People become physically addicted to steroids due to their body adapting to regular steroid use and becoming dependent on them so it can keep performing at the same physical level.
While you might assume steroid abuse and addiction would be easy to spot since the appearance of someone abusing steroids will be noticeably different.
However, steroid misuse and abuse are no longer really part of the mainstream addiction conversation anymore. Because of this, even if someone starts displaying the physical changes and other symptoms associated with steroid abuse, it is possible to miss these signs, as they’re not necessarily something you will be looking for.
There are also gender-specific signs of long-term steroid abuse and possible addiction, which for women include:
And in men:
If you are personally experiencing these signs of steroid addiction or have observed them in someone you care about, it is important that you treat the situation with the importance that it deserves and seek out professional addiction services as soon as possible. Continued steroid abuse can have catastrophic permanent health consequences.
Because steroids are not addictive in the same way as other substances, some may assume that steroids would be much easier to quit and not require addiction recovery treatment. However, this is not the case.
In fact, it can actually be extremely difficult to quit using steroids due to the presence of co-occurring disorders and mental health issues associated with body image that may have contributed to someone’s psychological dependence on steroids.
In this case, both issues will need to be treated in what’s known as dual diagnosis treatment. This is a specific form of addiction treatment that treats both the addiction itself and whatever mental health disorders have become linked with it at the same time.
Dual diagnosis treatment aims to decrease the risk of someone who has completed their recovery falling back into old addictive behaviors due to untreated mental health disorders.
But before this can be done, the first step in steroid addiction treatment is medical detoxification. Detox removes all traces of steroids out from someone’s system and stops them from causing any more damage than they already have.
While steroid withdrawal is generally mild enough that it can be conducted on an outpatient basis, it should still not be attempted alone as it can involve intense psychological symptoms, such as severe depression and suicidal behavior. Doctors can also prescribe synthetic hormones to help rebalance testosterone levels and get the body’s naturally produced hormones back in balance.
After detox, the next step in steroid addiction treatment is to receive care in an addiction recovery program regularly. As previously mentioned, this should be done so that the individual in question can undergo dual diagnosis treatment, if needed, as well as general behavioral therapy to help confront the issues behind their steroid addiction and learn how to manage them.
Because steroid use has been portrayed so frequently within the world of professional sports, some people, especially teens and young adults, may be under the mistaken belief that steroids are safe to misuse without serious consequences.
However, the dangers of steroids and steroid abuse have been well-documented for decades at this point. The previously mentioned effects of hormonal imbalance, including breast growth in men and testicular atrophy in men will remain even after they stop using steroids, and can potentially be permanent.
Apart from the negative physical effects already mentioned, steroid addiction can also cause severe health problems, particularly where the heart is concerned, such as:
Steroids are also made even more dangerous when mixed with other drugs. It is not uncommon for people to abuse steroids in combination with stimulants like Adderall or even cocaine to increase their energy as part of their athletic performance enhancement.
Steroid abuse already puts a significant amount of strain on the heart, and the additional stress caused by any stimulant use greatly increases the chances of a stroke, heart attack or total heart failure.
Many people struggling with an addiction to steroids will also turn to depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines, or opioids as a means of self-medicating against the symptoms of aggression, anxiety, and insomnia caused by chronic steroid abuse.
However, steroids actually work to diminish the effects of these and other drugs, which can lead users to take much higher doses than normal, making them much more vulnerable to an accidental overdose.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to steroids, don’t delay in seeking treatment. At Pathway to Hope, we understand that quitting is never easy, but that’s why we work with you to provide the resources, tools, and guidance necessary to help get you or your loved one on the path to a sober, substance-free future.
Horn, S., Gregory, P., & Guskiewicz, K. M. (2009, March). Self-Reported Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids Use and Musculoskeletal Injuries. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19847128
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016, March). Anabolic Steroids. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/anabolic-steroids
Otterson, J. (2017, July 31). Steroid Abuse in High School and College Athletes. Retrieved from https://www.nfhs.org/articles/infographic-steroid-abuse-in-high-school-and-college-athletes/
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2015, August). AR gene – Genetics Home Reference. Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/AR