The Museum’s Health Sciences Department is partnering with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to publish a monthly series on the Museum blog called “Know Health”. The articles focus on current health topics selected by CU’s medical and graduate students in order to provide both English and Spanish speaking communities with current, accurate information. The posts in the “Know Health” series are edited versions of articles that first appeared in Contrapoder magazine. Thank you to the students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for bringing these stories to life.
(aka Dr. Nicole Garneau, chair and curator, Health Sciences Department)
Anabolic Steroid Use: Is the Gain Worth the Loss?
Guest Author, Kelsey Repine, Intern at the Center for Global Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
In 2013, world-renowned cyclist Lance Armstrong admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs after denying allegations for years. He was subsequently stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and his Olympic bronze medal. After this incident, people worldwide were left with questions about “doping.”
In their quest for enhanced performance, some athletes and bodybuilders push the limits to gain muscle mass by using anabolic steroids. Also known as “juice” or performance-enhancing drugs, these synthetic medications are available as tablets, creams, liquids, and gels.
Originally developed and approved for treating lean muscle loss that results from various cancers, hormone disorders, and AIDS, steroids help minimize muscle atrophy by mimicking the male hormone testosterone. High levels of testosterone (natural or synthetic) encourage muscle building and strength in patients. For this reason the use of anabolic steroids is appealing to some athletes and body builders.
If physicians prescribe steroids to assist with disease recovery as described above, then shouldn’t they be safe to use in other contexts?
Not exactly. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves medications based on acceptable risks related to the disease they are prescribed to treat. When used appropriately under the supervision of a physician, anabolic steroids may significantly and safely prevent muscle atrophy. Whether prescribed or illegally-obtained, steroids may cause side effects such as psychiatric disorders, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and infection. Even though many of these are temporary and only last during the use of the steroid, some side effects have long-term consequences, including impotence and infertility.
There are two ways synthetic testosterone can be detected in urine. Although it functions like hormones naturally present in the body, it has a different molecular structure, which can be detected in one type of test. Additionally, testosterone naturally occurring in the body is present in an equivalent amount to another hormone called epistestosterone. The presence of an anabolic steroid will skew this ratio, which can be seen in a second type of test.
Although men use steroids more frequently than women, both risk damaging the reproductive system. In a study of male bodybuilders, more than half exhibited shrinking testicles. Women who use steroids may experience menstrual dysfunction and masculinization like the growth of facial hair and deepening of the voice. Medications and surgical intervention can be used to revive fertility, however, results are not guaranteed. Abuse of anabolic steroids significantly increases the probability and severity of these negative side effects.
Alarmingly, steroid use is no longer limited to professional athletes, and is increasingly seen among amateur and adolescent athletes. Approximately four out of every 100 of American high school students admits to using illegally-obtained anabolic steroids at some point, while roughly one out of every hundred students admit to using within the last month.
Even though physicians worldwide frequently prescribe anabolic steroids for medical therapy, global trends indicate an increase in illegal use of steroids. Misuse of anabolic steroids may result in severe and irreversible consequences. Healthy people take these risks in pursuit of enhanced performance. So the question remains: how far is too far when pursuing a chiseled physique?