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Can Anabolic Steroids Improve Blood Cell Production?

Donald Christman
Published by Donald Christman
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: May 24, 2022

As a personal fitness trainer, I regularly have conversations with nutritionists and medical doctors about drugs that my clients might be taking for illnesses and injury recovery.

In some situations, this involves people legitimately taking anabolic steroids to help build up strength after long recovery periods. While it’s those strength gains that many athletes try to take advantage of illegally, I came across some interesting impacts on red blood cells as well.

It’s an important part of why doctors prescribe certain steroids and could explain some experiences that illegal steroid users encounter.

Quick Summary

  • Anabolic medicine is predominantly prescribed to deal with stunted growth and the impact of diseases or surgeries.
  • Some drugs are used to help treat anemic patients after long illnesses or certain cancer treatments.
  • The effect of anabolic drugs on blood can come with negative impacts when people don’t have underlying conditions.

Can Steroids Increase Red Blood Cells?

Red blood cell 3D image

Yes, anabolic steroids can increase red blood cells, and certain types are regularly prescribed by doctors to treat patients with anemia [1].

However, it’s important to understand that resorting to steroids for red blood cell production is generally done after many other types of treatments and supplements, as there are some significant side effects on the immune system [2].

Doctors also carefully monitor the effects of steroid drugs to ensure hormone fluctuations don’t become excessive.

This could lead to sudden acceleration in red blood cells with negative effects on the liver [3].

How Do They Affect Blood Cells?

Anabolic drugs affect red blood cells by influencing other enzymes and hormones involved in producing fresh cells.

Scientists have analyzed both anabolic and corticosteroids to show that certain types can trigger a significant boost.

With anabolic medicine, scientists believe the effect is tied to the fact they increase the gene expression of a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO) [4]. An increase in EPO production then triggers an increase in hemoglobin release.

However, one of the problems that come with this boosted EPO is that it can include several side effects [5].

  • High blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Dizziness
  • Swelling

And when athletes try to get a higher hemoglobin count for better energy levels, they take serious risks with these health effects as they don’t have a doctor monitoring them.

Corticosteroids have a similar effect, and scientists believe it’s tied to something called erythrophagocytosis [6]. I won’t go into the whole medical details of this, but what this essentially means is that more cells are produced in the marrow, and fewer are removed from the bloodstream.

It’s one of the key treatment options for different types of diseases that cause anemia, but the same benefits don’t necessarily extend to athletes trying to boost oxygen delivery to muscles.

Types Of Blood Disorders Treated With Steroids

Process of taking blood from a patient

I had a doctor confirm some common uses for anabolic steroids when it comes to diseases. Here are a few that he highlighted.

Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia

This is a disease where a patient develops antibodies that attack hemoglobin. The therapeutic use of steroids is the main way to disrupt this unwanted immune system response.

Prednisone is the most common drug prescribed for this problem as it’s available as an oral drug [7].

Immune Thrombocytopenia

Symptoms of this disease are easy and excessive bruising, and one of the available drug treatment options for patients is corticosteroids [8].

Both the dose and cycle time depend on the severity, and doctors monitor patients very carefully for adverse reactions to avoid impacts on organs.

Blood Cancer

Treatments here include several different approaches that doctors often combine to target cancer and symptoms aggressively  [9]. Steroid medication is often involved in suppressing the immune system enough and allowing for other medications to have the full effect.

“Cortisol keeps your immune system from making substances that cause inflammation. Corticosteroid drugs, like prednisone, work in a similar way. They slow or stop the immune system processes that trigger inflammation.” - Dr. Tyler Wheeler, MD, WebMD.com.

FAQs

Do Steroids Increase White Blood Cell Count?

Yes, some steroids also increase white blood cell count. This is predominantly tied to corticosteroids that can improve cell production and reduce the number of cells the body naturally filters out.

How Long Do Steroids Affect Red Blood Cell Count?

Steroids affect red blood cell count for at least the duration of the treatment. In some cases, they can fix underlying issues enough to have a long-lasting impact, but with severe diseases, more regular cycles over the long term are needed for best results.

Avoiding Unnecessary Anabolic Steroid Use

Using anabolic steroids to deal with decreased hemoglobin production should only be an option to consider after careful consultation with a doctor.

Athletes who self-prescribe and administer this type of medication to boost oxygen levels for muscle function take serious risks with their health.

Even during short cycles, the impact on the liver can be irreversible when not carefully monitored by a doctor.

What athletes should do instead is consider legal steroid alternatives based on herbs, minerals, and amino acids.

They are safe for long-term use, and after a few weeks of consistent use, they have proved in my practice to have a positive impact on the performance levels, endurance, and muscle growth of my clients.


References:

  1. https://www.rxlist.com/how_do_anabolic_steroids_work/drug-class.htm
  2. https://dualdiagnosis.org/effects-of-steroid-abuse-on-the-immune-system
  3. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/fulltext/2018/03000/anabolic_steroid_effect_on_the_liver.8.aspx
  4. https://www.rxlist.com/erythropoietin_epo/definition.htm
  5. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/drugs/14573-erythropoietin-stimulating-agents
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK13780
  7. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16777-benign-hematology
  8. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/idiopathic-thrombocytopenic-purpura/symptoms-causes/syc-20352325 
  9. https://www.seattlecca.org/diseases/blood-disorders/treatment

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