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Are Steroids Bad for You? (11 Shocking Side Effects)

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED

Anabolic steroid use is a controversial and sensitive subject.

Possession of or using steroids for performance enhancement is illegal, yet many professional athletes still use them and often claim the only problem is anabolic steroid misuse, not the use in general.

Being a fitness trainer for over a decade, people have frequently asked me: are steroids bad for you?

Given all the confusion on this subject, I studied all peer-reviewed articles I could find, and I teamed up with an endocrinologist to discuss the literature.

My findings only solidified my long-standing stance, so let’s dive in.

Quick Summary

  • Anabolic steroid abuse carries several side effects, like withdrawal symptoms, hormonal imbalance, mood swings, and high blood pressure in both men and women.
  • Safe use of anabolic steroids may increase muscle mass significantly, but it still carries several unpleasant side effects.
  • Users of anabolic steroids are more likely to fall into steroid abuse.

Why Are Steroids Bad for You?

A buff male raising a muscly arm

Steroids are generally considered bad for you because many of them can lead to adverse side effects and be easily misused.

Even when used as doctor-prescribed treatments for medical conditions, steroids can have various long-lasting side effects.

Before we get into how steroid use can negatively affect your health, let’s look at some common misconceptions about what steroids actually are.

We’ll cover what we really mean when referring to steroids, as well as some potential benefits of taking steroid supplements.

What Exactly Are Steroids?

Steroids are natural or synthetic hormones that interact with androgen receptors to increase bone and muscle synthesis.

What we’re talking about here falls under the category of anabolic steroids and is what people refer to when talking about steroids.

However, there are other kinds of steroids, like plant and fungal steroids. This article focuses on anabolic steroids.

The three main types of steroid hormones are:

  • Anabolic Androgenic Steroids
  • Corticosteroids
  • Sex Hormones

Let’s take a better look at each one.

Anabolic Androgenic Steroids

Close up shot of a syringe of steroids

These are synthetic steroid hormones that resemble testosterone, and they’re mainly used to increase muscle mass.

While it's illegal to possess and distribute them, doctors can prescribe anabolic steroids to treat hormonal problems and muscle loss (which we’ll discuss further in the article). However, even in such cases, they can be prone to misuse.

In my experience in the fitness industry, I’ve seen bodybuilders take dosages 10 to 100 times higher than what's prescribed to treat these conditions.

Anabolic steroids may be taken orally, injected into muscles, or applied to the skin as a cream or gel.

Corticosteroids

Not to be confused with anabolic steroids, corticosteroids are either natural hormones produced by the body (e.g., cortisol) or synthetic drugs used to treat overactive immune responses, inflammation, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) [1].

Synthetic ones are man-made versions of what’s produced in your adrenal glands. Doctors usually prescribe them to lessen swelling, itchiness, redness, and allergic reactions [2].

Their anti-doping status depends on how often, how much, and why you take them [3]. There are only special cases where corticosteroids are allowed before athletic competition. Otherwise, they are considered a banned substance because they could give athletes an unfair advantage.

Although we won’t be covering these in the risk section, it’s important to note that corticosteroids are very potent, and misuse can lead to serious side effects.

Sex Hormones

These hormones determine sex and affect reproductive functions. They include androgens (like testosterone), estrogens, and progestogens.

Most anabolic steroids are a derivative of the male sex hormone testosterone.

Uses and Potential Benefits

Close up shot of steroid muscles

When used correctly, the right steroid doses can have medical benefits. Even when taken illegally (without a doctor’s prescription), steroids have muscular and athletic-related benefits.

Let’s delve into each of them.

Medical Intervention

Doctors prescribe steroids to help treat certain medical conditions. Here’s a list of some of those conditions:

  • Delayed puberty: Anabolic steroids can be used to treat young boys experiencing delayed growth and puberty. A 1994 study found treatment using anabolic steroids promoted significant growth acceleration for such patients [4].
  • Muscle-skeletal damage: Anabolic steroids can be highly effective in aiding the orthopedic repair of damaged bone and muscle tissue [5].
  • Muscle-wasting diseases: Conditions like COPD, AIDS, cancer, and kidney and liver diseases can lead to muscle loss. Anabolic steroids may treat such symptoms by preserving muscle mass [6].

Enhanced Muscle Growth and Strength

Anabolic steroids are commonly used in strength sports like powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and bodybuilding to increase strength, muscle mass, and power [7].

Since many federations don’t test for steroids, their use and abuse are common among many athletes.

Related Articles:

Enhanced Athletic Performance

Many athletes struggle with plateaus in their athletic performance and look for ways to overcome barriers and beat the competition. Some resort to taking anabolic steroids to improve their speed and power output.

Studies show that steroid use can increase muscle mass, enhancing a user’s speed and power output [8]. But most athletes seem to take steroids for better recovery and power than for gaining lean muscle mass [9].

Side Effects and Risks

Close up shot of a steroid bottle and syringe

Although medical and athletic use of steroids can be beneficial, their use and abuse can cause various side effects.

Men

  • Breast-tissue development: Consistent steroid use can lead to hormonal imbalances, which can trigger the growth of male breasts [10].
  • Testicular atrophy and reduced sperm count: Drug abuse, especially with steroids, is associated with impaired male reproductive function, testicle shrinkage, and genetic sperm damage [11] [12].
  • Erectile dysfunction: While steroids increase testosterone levels, they can lead to erectile dysfunction once you’re off the cycle [13].
  • Increased risk of prostate cancer: Using steroids can cause cancer which may lead to tumor growth or enlargement of the prostate [14].

Women

  • Body hair growth and scalp hair loss: Women who use steroids may experience excessive growth of body hair and lose hair from their scalp; continued administration can make these effects permanent [15].
  • Facial hair growth: In addition to increased body hair, women who use steroids may also experience growth in facial hair [16].
  • Male sex characteristics: Women who use steroids tend to experience male sex characteristics like a deepened voice, a smaller chest, and increased facial hair [17].
  • High sex drive: Research has shown that while men experience lower libido from steroid use, women experience a heightened sex drive when taking steroids [18].

Both Sexes

  • Aggressive mood swings: Commonly called "roid-rage", steroid-induced aggression can occur in individuals taking large doses of steroids over an extended period [19].
  • Liver disease: Research has shown that using steroids can lead to severe liver toxicity [20].
  • Altered immune system: While many claim that steroids can affect your immune system, this area still needs more research [21]. But it’s best to err on the side of caution.

“There are a lot of side effects of steroids. They are not good for you. It is like Russian roulette. Five people may take them and have no long-term problem. The sixth may end up dead.”

- Dr. Kenneth Mautner, MD, Physiatrist, Emory University

Are There Better Alternatives to Steroids?

Close up shot of an opened up supplement pill

Yes, there are better and safer alternatives to steroids: they’re called legal steroids. While they might be as effective in increasing muscle mass, they’re definitely a much safer option in the long run.

Let’s take a quick look at them.

Natural Testosterone Boosters

Natural testosterone boosters like vitamin D, ashwagandha, zinc, and protein are safe, natural, and effective ways to boost your natural testosterone levels [22].

Their only downside is that they won’t naturally increase your T-levels past your genetic and age capacity. For example, a 30-year-man won’t have his testosterone boosted beyond the average level for his age group.

On the plus side, these supplements don’t carry any negative side effects.

Natural Bulking Stacks

Natural bulking stacks are a safe, natural, and effective way to enhance your gains in the gym.

They contain powerful blends of natural testosterone-boosting ingredients that can help you push genetic muscle-building barriers and achieve your fitness goals safely. And they don’t have the nasty side effects of illegal steroids.

FAQs

Are Steroids Illegal?

Yes, it is illegal to possess, sell, buy, or distribute anabolic steroids without a doctor’s prescription. Under federal law, first-time unlawful possession of anabolic steroids carries a $1,000 fine and one year in prison. The penalties get more severe with consecutive charges of possession.

What’s the Difference Between Anabolic Steroids and Performance-Enhancing Drugs?

There isn’t really a difference between anabolic steroids and performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Anabolic steroids are simply a type of PED.

Other PEDs include stimulants, beta-blockers, diuretics, testosterone, erythropoietin (EPO), human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), and human growth hormone (HGH).

What Are the Most Commonly Used Anabolic Steroids?

Anadrol, Oxandrin, Winstrol, Dianabol, Equipoise, and Deca-Durabolin are the most commonly used anabolic steroids.

When Do Some Athletes Take Anabolic Steroids?

Some athletes take anabolic steroids when they want to build muscle mass and strength and improve their athletic performance. Others take it when there’s a medical reason.

When Do Athletes Start Taking Steroids?

Athletes usually start taking anabolic steroids when they’ve reached a plateau in their athletic performance or muscle growth. Steroids help them get over their physical and genetic barriers.

When Is It Okay for Athletes to Take Steroids?

It’s okay for athletes to take anabolic steroids when doctors prescribe them for treating injuries and fast recovery. However, in most cases, they prescribe corticosteroids, not anabolic steroids.

Our Verdict on Steroids

Our stance on steroids is simple: stay far away from them unless a doctor prescribes them to you for medical reasons.

If you’re looking to bulk up without the common side effects of these illegal drugs, we highly recommend trying out natural legal steroids.

We conducted a survey on more than 600 gym professionals and compiled a list of the 10 best bulking steroids that we thoroughly tested ourselves, as well.

They’re not magic pills that’ll turn you into Arnold Schwarzenegger tomorrow, but they’ll help you slightly push your genetic barriers and build muscle safely and effectively.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7255263/
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/corticosteroid-oral-route-parenteral-route/description/drg-20070491
  3. https://www.usada.org/spirit-of-sport/education/five-things-know-glucocorticoids
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1030008/
  5. https://www.news-medical.net/health/Taking-Anabolic-Steroids-After-a-Sport-Injury.aspx
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2844687/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15248788
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15248788
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5133655/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11715139/
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29120657/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4744441/
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6043738/
  14. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/anabolic-steroid-oral-route-parenteral-route/before-using/drg-20069323
  15. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/steroids-other-appearance-performance-enhancing-drugs-apeds/what-are-side-effects-anabolic-steroid-misuse
  16. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0955395920302164
  17. https://sciencenorway.no/drugs-gender-and-society-workout/women-who-use-anabolic-steroids-encounter-masculinizing-side-effects/1728834
  18. https://www.webmd.com/sexual-conditions/news/20030626/testosterone-increases-libido-in-women
  19. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0018506X01917064
  20. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2006/02/97820/anabolic-steroid-use-increases-heart-attack-risk-and-causes-liver-damage
  21. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45191627_Anabolic_androgenic_steroids_effects_on_the_immune_system_A_review
  22. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/natural-testosterone-booster
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