The price of steroids
Muscle gains with minimal effort may sound great, but the horrifying side effects of taking these powerful drugs can leave your life in tatters. MF explores the murky world of muscle-enhancing chemicals
If someone was to tell you that there’s a group of men who regularly take steroids at your local gym, you’d probably laugh. You might even be tempted to knock some sense into them using those finely sculpted muscles you’ve worked so tirelessly for without chemical assistance.
Prepare yourself for a shock. Steroids are no longer just the preserve of scarily swollen bodybuilders. They can now be found in almost every sporting arena – yes, even everyday gyms like yours, where men who want bulging muscles without the hard work are using them in increasing numbers.
We’re talking about anabolic steroids, synthesised versions of testosterone that occurs naturally in the body (not to be confused with corticosteroids, used to treat conditions such as asthma). ‘When an athlete pumps himself full of steroids he is, in effect, mimicking the changes that take place in a male adolescent at puberty,’ says Jim McVeigh, a reader in substance-abuse epidemiology at Liverpool John Moores University and oneof the UK’s foremost experts in steroid abuse.
‘They get the desirable anabolic effects, which means massive protein synthesis and bigger muscles, fast. But they also get androgenic effects, which means male secondary sexual characteristics. You’re looking at acne, aggression and a deepening of the voice. High blood pressure, depression, aggression, liver disease and even muscle weakness are also side effects of anabolic drug abuse.’
The pumped-up past
‘The first anabolic steroid was manufactured in the 1930s,’ says Professor Bruce Davies of the University of Glamorgan’s Health and Exercise Science Unit. ‘They’ve since been used medically for the stimulation of bone growth, appetite, puberty and muscle growth.’ In the 1950s, Soviet weightlifters brought them into the sporting arena and by the late 1960s, steroid use had expanded into other areas of athletics, prompting the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to institute an outright ban.
But outlawing them had little impact and in 1976, at the Montreal Olympics, the IOC introduced random drug testing. At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, 100m winner Ben Johnson’s positive test for the steroid stanozolol publicised the issue. The received wisdom was that steroids were for losers.
In the UK anabolic steroids are defined as prescription-only items under the Medicines Act. In street terms, they’re class C drugs. It is not illegal to possess them but supplying them can lead to 14 years in jail and a fine. This deterrent, however, has not been enough to stop the increasing popularity of steroids throughout the country.
A 1993 study for the Department of Health looked at 1,300 men in a range of UK gyms and found nine per cent were taking steroids. In the past two years GP surveys show one in three doctors has seen steroid takers, and they account for one-third of all visitors to needle exchanges. A 2006 survey by the charity DrugScope found that steroids form a significant part of the drug market in Blackpool, Liverpool, Birmingham, Middlesbrough, Nottingham, Manchester and Newcastle. DrugScope spokesperson Harry Shapiro explains, ‘The first steroid boom was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a lot of guys in the Midlands and the north were out of work. They had time to kill and were looking to build up their self-esteem by building up their bodies. It then seeped into the bodybuilding community.’
This has changed, Shapiro says. ‘Steroids appeal to teenage boys who aren’t developing as fast as they’d like to, or men in their late 30s or 40s who can’t work out as hard as they used to. They’re being sought as a quick fix to look big in a T-shirt. Men are now coming under the same kind of pressure to look good that women have been under for decades.
‘Ironically, because many young men come to steroids through gym culture, they see steroids almost as an extreme fitness supplement. They’d be outraged if you called them junkies, but the label fits. While steroids aren’t physically addictive, users will develop a psychological dependence on the result,’ Shapiro says.
The science of steroids
Steroids can be taken orally or injected into the muscle. Both methods have their own side effects, says Davies. ‘Any injection carries risks, from blood-borne viruses such as hepatitis B and C and HIV to general bacterial infection from a non-sterile environment. But the injection of steroids into muscle can also cause serious abscesses or infections.’ What’s more, injecting into a muscle is a skill that few locker-room dealers are qualified to teach, says McVeigh. ‘You risk damage to the very muscle tissue you’re trying to bulk up.’
Oral steroids carry very different risks. The body naturally breaks down testosterone very quickly, so oral steroids are chemically treated to give a slow release of the steroid into your system. They achieve this by cycling it through the liver time and again. When you’re a regular steroid user, your liver is doing the equivalent of trying to purge your body after a heavy night of boozing – all the time.
Steroids can also cause a 20 per cent drop in your body’s production of white blood cells, which are critical to fighting infection. When a person stops taking the drugs, such short-term effects often disappear. The long-term effects are of greater concern: they include liver cancer as well as kidney and cardiovascular disease. Regular use can also lead to erection problems, development of breasts, low sperm count and sterility, acne, high blood pressure and increased risk of liver failure.
Large doses of steroids are known to cause ‘hyperexcitability’ – heightened aggression, known in the gym as ‘roid rage’ – and suicidal tendencies. Rather worryingly, this could be evidence of ‘catastrophic loss of brain cells’, according to Professor Barbara Ehrlich from Yale School of Medicine in the US.
To make matters worse, the underground nature of the supply chain means you don’t know what you’re taking. ‘Just because your drug comes in a professional-looking ampoule or blister-packed tablet doesn’t mean it contains the dose it says on the tin,’ Ehrlich says. ‘In lab tests we found some steroids contained zero anabolic steroid while others contained twice the stated dose.’
Despite these risks, websites advocating ‘safe’ ways to use steroids abound. Devotees swear by ‘cycling’ – eight weeks on, eight weeks off – but McVeigh begs to differ. ‘Anyone who’s using steroids and thinks they’re doing it safely because they’ve read up on it is deluding themselves. With any substance you take, there’s no way of knowing how your body’s going to react.’
The rogues’ gallery of athletes who’ve been disgraced after steroid abuse is still growing, despite ever more stringent and sophisticated tests. So when the side effects are man-tits, shrunken bollocks and no hair, why is steroid abuse on the rise? ‘Put bluntly, because they work,’ says Stowe. ‘The results are quick, with an impact on performance in as little as three weeks, which makes them particularly attractive to young sportsmen. They are cheap and easily available.’ What’s more, the drugs are becoming more socially acceptable. ‘People see the bodybuilding forums online or see a guy in the gym and think they must be OK. It’s false confidence. They’re highly potent products designed for the seriously ill. Mucking about with them is a mug’s game.’
The future of steroids
So what does the future hold for steroids? Things are changing – and not for the better. Davies sounds a warning. ‘The more sophisticated prescription drugs such as growth hormones and insulin are now becoming a feature of the bodybuilder’s armoury. These have proved to be very effective in combination, resulting in significant muscle gains. We already have evidence of the DNA from muscular people being injected into less muscular individuals with positive results. These practices will be difficult to detect and offer an unfair advantage to an athlete who’s prepared to cheat.’
McVeigh agrees, and says he’s noticed another worrying trend. ‘We’re seeing steroid abusers taking more drugs to combat the side effects, such as Tamoxifen, the cancer drug, which can be used to prevent breast tissue growth. But if your body is freaking out, the trick is to stop taking the drug that’s causing the side effects in the first place, not to load it with more chemicals. The more crap you take, the more your body will suffer. The good news is most of the side effects of anabolic steroids are reversible.’
But other experts remain pessimistic. Shapiro has the last word. ‘I hope that with more education, we’ll see decreased use. But the male body-beautiful culture shows no signs of losing pace and as long as that stays, a product that promises something for nothing isn’t going to go away – no matter what the risks.’