We all know they make us bigger, but we never actually ask, how do steroids work.
These are some of the basics on “how do steroids work”…Steroids seem to have two functions: making people strong and screwing up their lives. We’ll take a look at how steroids accomplish both of these tasks. From bulking muscles to shrinking testicles, this is what happens when you put a steroid in your body.
When people bring up “steroids” while they’re talking about sports, we know what they mean, but the term “steroid” in medicine is so broad it’s almost meaningless. Link twenty-three carbon molecules together in a set of four rings and you’ve got a steroid or a sterol. Bile acid is a steroid, although not a powerful one.
More influential in the body, although still unglamorous, are corticosteroids. These steroids are hormones. They’re are used to treat inflammation, and they’re perfect models for how the nastier steroids work. When the body sustains damage in the form of infection, the inflammatory response kicks in. Chemicals called transcription factors activate certain genes, which produce proteins, which cause blood vessels to dilate (redness), fluid to pour into the area (swelling), and the entire area to heat up (fever). Corticosteroids are hormones that suppress these genes. They bind to receptor sites in cells and essentially turn the transcription process of the genes off. Corticosteroids are in everything from cheap over-the-counter topical creams to heavy-duty drugs that require prescriptions.
When muscles are worked hard they sustain damage. That damage is a signal to rebuild, but also to improve. Cells put out more proteins, building the muscles bigger and stronger. This happens in all healthy human beings, but there are hormones that amp up the natural response. One of these is testosterone. Testosterone starts out as androstenedione, a hormone made in the adrenal glands. It gets converted to testosterone in both men and women, although men have a bigger supply of the stuff, which is why they can generally put on more muscle mass than women. Damage a muscle and the hormone increases protein production, so not only do muscles get bigger, they heal faster. Faster healing muscles means more, and more intense, work-out sessions, which in turn mean that a person with a lot of testosterone going through their system can put on a lot of muscle in a short amount of time.
Human growth hormone, otherwise known as gonadotropin, works the same way. It gives people more hormones, more muscle, and more healing. It has the added benefit of being hard to detect. Natural human growth hormone (HGH) has a mix of molecular weights, while lab-made human growth hormone only has one, slightly higher, molecular weight. The difference is hard to detect at the best of times, and within a few days of ingestion the ratio of the hormones in a person’s body goes back to normal.
For a while, people were getting around the temporary detectability of HGH by collecting the hormone from corpses, but the practice turned out to spread a horrible degenerative brain disorder. That made users balk at using HGH, but it’s one of the few things that did. Anabolic steroids were developed all the way back in the 1930s, to help children with hormonal disorders or people with wasting diseases. Naturally they were popular among athletes, but they weren’t a guarantee of good performance. As late as the 1980s, investigations showed that half of people who took performance-enhancing steroids were getting no significant increased stamina or strength. Was it even worth it?
Anyone following sports in the past decades knows, the answer seems to be “yes.” This accounts for the scare ads—which you can see above—that public health organizations put up in the late 1980s as a failed attempt to stem the tide of steroid use. New designer steroids keep being developed as athletes look for drugs that are better, faster, and more difficult to detect. The most famous undetectable “designer drug” is tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), or “the clear.” The drug was able to connect with more receptor sites than other steroids, making the drug much more potent.
Go to almost any message board frequented by body-builders or other serious athletes and you’ll see testimonials to THG and other steroids. Athletes tend to think that steroids are, if not great, then at least better than losing. Although many disapprove of the banning of steroids in professional sports, even the most starry-eyed user admits there are drawbacks to steroid use.
Long-Term Effects of Steroids
Many of the side effects of steroids can be seen from someone’s outward appearance changes or through their behaviors. Some long-term effects of steroid abuse cannot be observed. Although steroid use does not trigger the same intense, immediate response in the brain as another substance like cocaine, it can create changes to the brain over time. These changes can impact the production and supply of certain chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters.
These changes in the brain can lead to changes in mood and behavior in the person. In the long-term, anabolic steroid abuse can cause:
- Anger and aggression (“roid rage”).
Tumors in the liver.
Blood-borne diseases from injection use.
Short-Term Effects of Steroids
People who use and abuse anabolic steroids do so for the effects related to improved physical performance and muscle growth.
However, with these intended improvements in strength and performance can come many unwanted short-term effects, which include:
Decreased sperm count.