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Dangers of Steroid Use

"I want to seek your advice on whether using steroids are really bad for the body. Some people say that taking a few shots of it will not affect you."

This message bothered me because even small doses of steroids are not safe. I was also disturbed to hear Dr. George Canlas, sports medicine doctor from St. Luke's Hospital, mention that he has been seeing more cases of steroid abuse among young men.

We don't have Philippine statistics but in the U.S., federal drug authorities estimate that between 5 and 12 percent of teen-age boys have used steroids by the time they graduate from high school. Many risk their health because they are either unaware of the risks or are blinded by the Hulk-like models in the muscle magazines. Steroid abuse is a serious matter because while the drugs can build bigger muscles, they also affect almost every body organ with sometimes-deadly results.

What are anabolic steroids?
Anabolic steroids are synthetic versions of the male sex hormone, testosterone. Anabolic means "to build up the body". They are extremely potent drugs that have a therapeutic use for males with less-than-normal levels of testosterone and women with breast cancer or osteoporosis (brittle bones).

Steroids were used during World War II by the Nazis to increase the aggression and stamina of their soldiers. By the 1950's, the Russians were using steroids to enhance the athletic prowess of their athletes. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted to using steroids at a time when it was legal.

Testing for steroid use was instituted at the 1976 Montreal Olympics because of the unfair advantage and health risks that they posed. It is illegal to use steroids for anything other than medical reasons but there is a thriving underground market. The drugs are brought in from abroad or are bought locally from unscrupulous veterinary drug suppliers (unbelievable, but some people use steroids meant for horses!). They can be taken orally or by injection for one to three months (called a "cycle"). There is a period of rest, and then the cycle starts again. The mixture of injectable and oral steroids is called "stacking".

Athletes like runners and cyclists do not use steroids because they have no effect on aerobic capability. However, since it increases muscle mass, which in turn increases strength, the drug is very tempting to body builders, power lifters, wrestlers, football players, and any other athlete involved in speed and power events.

Steroids only increase athletic performance by 1%, but athletes competing for the gold medal find that reason enough to take the drug. The risks increase with both the dose and the duration of use, but even minor increases in hormone levels can have profound effects. Steroids directly or indirectly affect almost every tissue in the body.

Heart and blood vessels.
Since the heart is a muscle, it also enlarges in response to steroids. The walls of the hearts of steroid users were found to be 20% thicker but with 18% less pumping capability. This increase in mass is not due to an increase in muscle fiber, but a result of swelling due to injury. The amount of damage depends on the quantity and length of time the steroids were used; however, the studies showed that it only took six weeks for the heart to enlarge. When the user goes off the steroids, their heart size decreases but never fully returns to normal size. Repeated "cycles" can progressively build up scar tissue that may cause cardiac failure.

To make matters worse, steroids increase the tendency of platelets (blood cells that cause clotting) to stick together. If this happens in a blood vessel leading to the heart or brain, a fatal heart attack or stroke can occur. It is not too far-fetched to suspect that Arnold Schwarzenegger had a heart-bypass operation last year due to his previous use of steroids.

Cholesterol.
Even when steroids are used for therapeutic reasons, they raise the LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower the HDL (good cholesterol). Imagine what happens when a body builder uses much larger doses for extended periods! This negative cholesterol imbalance can last for several months after the individual stops using the steroids. Years of "cycling" can lead to atherosclerosis, a build-up of cholesterol plaque in blood vessel walls.

Liver.
The liver works double-time to process steroids. Over time, it becomes abnormal and can develop blood cysts, tumors and hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). Oral steroids are harder on the liver than the injectable form. Some people can tolerate large quantities of steroids while others will get liver damage with small doses. Alcohol use while taking steroids will hasten liver damage. Since most steroid users are not under a doctor's care, there is no way of knowing how much damage is done until it is too late.

Reproductive system.
The most ironic thing about taking steroids is that men use it become more "macho" but damage their most valued possession - the "family jewels". The testicles shrink and the sperm count drops. Although these changes are not permanent, they can last for months after stopping and can become permanent after years of steroid abuse.

To add insult to injury, feminine traits also appear - breasts and nipples enlarge. This paradox occurs because too much testosterone causes the male reproductive system to "shut off". Steroids can also hasten the development of prostate cancer. Women body builders who take steroids experience a physical role reversal -- shrinkage of the uterus, irregular menses, excess body hair, and a deep voice.

Hair and skin.
The first indication of steroid abuse appears within one or two months. Big ugly pimples and boils erupt on the face, chest and back. Both men and women start to lose their hair. Every time you see a heavily muscled, pimpled, balding man, be very suspicious.

Effects on adolescents.
Teen-agers who take steroids can end up shorter than they should have been because steroids cause a premature closing of the bone ends.

Psychological effects.
Steroids can cause mood swings, unpredictable behavior, irritability, depression, paranoia, and violent behavior according to the American Medical Association's Psychiatric Committee.

Russian roulette.
The use of anabolic steroids has been likened to playing Russian Roulette. Play the game long enough and the fatal bullet will have your name engraved on it.

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