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National Institute on Drug Abuse - NIDA NOTES
Volume 15, Number 3 (August, 2000)

About Anabolic Steroid Abuse

NIDA has issued an updated research report that summarizes the latest scientific information on anabolic steroids. The eight-page Research Report, Anabolic Steroid Abuse, is part of a nationwide education initiative launched by NIDA and several national organizations to counter a significant rise in anabolic steroid abuse among adolescents. Highlights from the report are:

What are anabolic steroids?

Anabolic steroids are synthetic substances related to the male sex hormones, called androgens. They have a number of physiological effects, most notably an anabolic effect that promotes the growth of skeletal muscle and androgenic effects that foster the development of male sexual characteristics. Although the proper term for these compounds is anabolic-androgenic steroids, they commonly are called anabolic steroids.

Anabolic steroids are legally available only by prescription in the United States. Doctors use these drugs to treat delayed puberty, impotence, and body wasting in patients with AIDS and other diseases. Abused steroids most often are obtained from clandestine laboratories, smuggled, or illegally diverted.

What is the scope of steroid abuse?

Steroid abuse is higher among males than females but is growing most rapidly among young women. An estimated 2.7 percent of 8th- and 10th- graders and 2.9 percent of 12th-graders have taken anabolic steroids at least once in their lives, according to the 1999 Monitoring the Future study, a NIDA-funded survey of drug abuse among adolescents. These figures represent increases since 1991 of approximately 50 percent among 8th- and 10th-graders and 38 percent among 12th-graders.

Why do people abuse anabolic steroids?

Abuse of anabolic steroids is motivated in most cases by a desire to build muscles, reduce body fat, and improve sports performance. Abuse is estimated to be very high among competitive bodybuilders and may also be widespread among other athletes. Some men who abuse steroids perceive their own bodies to be small and weak, even if they are large and muscular. Some women who abuse these drugs think they look obese or flabby, even though they are actually lean and muscular. Other individuals abuse steroids because they are trying to become bigger and stronger to protect themselves from recurrence of physical or sexual assaults.

Doses taken by abusers can be up to 100 times greater than doses used for treating medical conditions.

How are anabolic steroids used?

Anabolic steroids are taken orally as tablets or capsules, by injection into muscles, or as gels or creams that are rubbed into the skin. Doses taken by abusers can be up to 100 times greater than doses used for treating medical conditions.

Anabolic steroids often are taken in combination in a practice called "stacking," in which the abuser mixes oral and/or injectable types of anabolic steroids. Steroid abusers often also "pyramid" stacked compounds in cycles of 6 to 12 weeks, meaning that they gradually increase doses then slowly decrease them to zero. The belief that these practices produce bigger muscles and allow the body to adjust to and recuperate from high doses of steroids has not been substantiated scientifically.

What are the potential health consequences of steroid abuse?

Health consequences associated with anabolic steroid abuse include:

  • Hormonal system disruptions. Reduced sperm production, shrinking of the testicles, impotence, and irreversible breast enlargement in boys and men. Decreased body fat and breast size, deepening of the voice, growth of excessive body hair, loss of scalp hair, and clitoral enlargement in girls and women.
  • Musculoskeletal system effects. Premature and permanent termination of growth among adolescents of both sexes.
  • Cardiovascular diseases. Heart attacks and strokes.
  • Liver diseases. Potentially fatal cysts and cancer.
  • Skin diseases. Acne and cysts.
  • Infections. In injecting steroid abusers, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, and infective endocarditis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the inner lining of the heart.
  • Behavioral effects. Increased aggressive behavior, particularly when high doses are taken. Depression, mood swings, fatigue, restlessness, loss of appetite, and reduced sex drive when steroid abuse is stopped.


NIDA NOTES - Volume 15, Number 3

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