Steroid and Hormone Abuse
Linn Goldberg, MD
Fady Hannah-Shmouni, MD
Hormone abuse by adults and children is a serious concern. Recent studies show that 4.2% of all high school males and 2.9% of high school females report having taken anabolic steroids without a doctor’s prescription. Anabolic steroids are related to testosterone, the major male hormone. Abuse of this hormone can lead to physical and psychological side effects. These problems include breast development and hair loss among men, and facial hair growth, menstrual problems and a deepened voice in women. The possible long-term health effects can be serious: liver tumors, abnormal cholesterol levels and heart disease, and stunted height among adolescents. High doses have been related to irritable and aggressive behavior.
Hormones are substances produced by glands (or organs) that regulate bodily functions and behavior. Steroid hormones are one type that are chemically similar to each other, but may have different biological functions. For example, the adrenal glands produce an anti-inflammatory steroid similar to cortisone. These steroids may be prescribed to treat asthma, rashes, and various kinds of swelling or inflammation.
Another kind of steroid is called an anabolic steroid. The term anabolic means building up of a bodily substance, like building bone or muscle. Anabolic steroids given by injection, pill, creams or gels are laboratory forms related to testosterone, which is produced in the testes of men and in the adrenal glands in both men and women. These chemicals are recognized for their effects on building muscle. They are only available by a doctor’s prescription.
Approved Anabloic Steroid Uses
Synthetic (laboratory-made) anabolic steroids have some accepted uses as prescribed medications, but they are best used in specific situations, and, in some cases, for a limited period of time. For example, anabolic steroids can help rebuild tissues that have become weakened because of serious injury or illness. They also can be used to treat certain types of anemia and breast cancer or to replace testosterone among men who do not produce enough of their own testosterone. These drugs can be used to treat a rare genetic problem that causes episodes of swelling, called angioedema.
While anabolic steroids have a beneficial role in the body, these powerful drugs can create serious health risks, especially for our nation's youth, when used in higher doses than the body normally produces. The abuse of anabolic steroids has evolved into a significant health problem in the United States.
Anabolic Steroid Abuse
Anabolic steroids attract young people and adults, who take these drugs to enhance athletic performance and improve their body image. Even though they may take these steroids with good intentions, they may not understand that the drugs are potentially harmful. These problems include aggressive behavior, liver disease, and increased risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Anabolic steroids also can cause permanent undesirable changes in sex characteristics, such as breast growth in men and increased facial hair and deepened voice in women. Among youth who have not attained their natural height, anabolic steroids can stunt their growth. Anabolic steroids should never be taken except while under a doctor's care.
Anabolic steroid use among professional and Olympic athletes is believed to be widespread. Some athletes use steroids to build muscle mass, strength, and speed and to assist in recovery from training and injuries. Others use them to improve their physical appearance.
High-profile athletes who use anabolic steroids may become role models to children and teens because of the athletes' appearance and success in sports. Their use of performance-enhancing substances can influence the behavior of some teens, who begin to use steroids themselves. Although sports can build skills in cooperation, competition, and enhance self-esteem, use of anabolic steroids can harm young athletes' bodies as well as their minds.
In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 3.5% of all high school students in the United States ad 4.8% of 12th grade males reported using anabolic steroids without a doctor’s prescription. Although males are more likely to have used illegal steroids without a prescription than females, girls are also at risk, especially 9th and 10th grade females whose use during 2015 was 3.4%.
Here are more facts about hormone abuse that you should know:
- The CDC's 2011 survey found that nearly 4% of high school students in the United States used anabolic steroid pills or shots without a prescription. Young people can find these drugs from users who are at gyms and sports-training centers, and on the Internet.
- Anabolic steroids have been found in over-the-counter supplements, without being identified on the label.
- Publications available online and elsewhere give recipes for "stacking" and "cycling." Stacking refers to using several steroids at once. Cycling describes how to use steroids for several weeks and then stop using for several weeks. Easy-to-obtain catalogs and advertisements show how to purchase steroids.
- Young people have abused anabolic steroids meant for animals by getting access to veterinary steroids. These steroids are often cheaper and easier to obtain than anabolic steroids designed for people.
- Steroid users are often risk-takers who use a variety of harmful substances. 25% of steroid users share needles, which increases the risk of infectious disease.
- Some evidence shows that anabolic steroids can be addictive, but more research is needed. There is evidence that large doses of anabolic steroids affect the brain's chemistry and produce mental changes.
- Telling youngsters only about the harmful effects of steroids is not enough to stop them. In fact there is evidence that “scare tactics” can be counterproductive. This is because young athletes know about professional athletes who have used steroids successfully and look fine. The best approach may be to admit the positive effects of steroids, but discuss the dangerous and permanent consequences of their use.