Steroids are drugs commonly used in weightlifting competitions and sports to achieve that desired chiseled body. Anabolic steroids are not the drugs that come to mind when you think addiction, but this phenomenon is more common than you’d imagine. Steroids are synthetic, or human-made, variations of the male sex hormone testosterone. The proper term for the compound is anabolic-androgenic steroids. Anabolic refers to muscle building, and androgenic refers to increased male sex characteristics.

Steroids share a long history dating back to the 1930s before the term steroid was coined.

During this span, a team of scientists created a synthetic form of testosterone to help treat those unable to produce enough of the hormone for natural growth, development, and sexual functioning.

Later on, during World War II, researchers showed that the artificial form of testosterone could help malnourished soldiers gain weight and improve their performance on the battlefields. Once the war concluded, athletes sought the drugs to enhance performance in their respected profession.

Throughout several years, the drugs used by athletes in high school until the Olympics. It wasn’t until 1990 when Congress enacted the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990. The act placed certain anabolic steroids on Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Steroids up until that point had been unscheduled and explicitly controlled by the states. Today, illicit sales of steroids are still prevalent, and adolescent use of the drugs is on the rise. The same studies also show that a large number of adults actively use steroids.

There are also several famous cases of steroid use by athletes after these laws were enacted. Lance Armstrong is an example and created controversy when he was found to be “doping” during many of his titles. He vehemently denied the allegations, but tests proved otherwise. He was stripped of all of his results and prizes from Aug. 1, 1998, and stripped of all Tour de France titles. It was a widely known case and an example of how detrimental steroids can be to an athlete’s career. There are legitimate cases where they are used, but have varying side effects that can be dangerous.

How do Steroids Work?

Steroids work by altering the body’s natural hormone balance through the creation of excess testosterone. When someone begins lifting weights, it’s more than likely that the weights are going to be heavier than what their body is equipped for. As a result of lifting weights, the lifting creates microscopic tears in the body’s muscle fibers. Naturally, the body works to repair the tears, and it also tries to make the fibers stronger by using bigger cells.

The process of tearing, repairing, and strengthening muscle fibers is how lifting weights allows those who engage in exercise to grow larger muscles.

Testosterone is the hormone responsible for muscle growth, and anabolic steroids increase the levels of testosterone in the body to speed up the cell growth process. Steroids do this by entering the body’s muscle tissue through the bloodstream and bind to androgen receptors.

Androgens are hormones that control the development of male sexual characteristics as well as regulating functions such as sex drive and hair growth in both men and women alike. For this reason, these functions can be significantly impacted by steroid use. Steroids bind to androgen receptors and stimulate them into overproducing chemicals in the body. This process leads to building muscle faster as well as blocking hormones responsible for breaking down tissue. The result? Faster recovery time.

How Does Steroid Addiction Occur?

The primary difference between steroids and other commonly abused substances is that steroids do not similarly work in our brains as do other addictive substances. Steroids do not increase the levels of brain chemicals like dopamine that gives its user the sensation of being high. They also do not depress our central nervous systems (CNS) like alcohol or other depressant type drugs.

With those differences in mind, many people will become psychologically addicted rather than physically addicted. What this means is that people won’t need steroids because they’ll get sick, but they need them because they want to avoid feeling weak or fat. In one way, though, steroid addiction is similar to addictive drugs in that the regular use and abuse come with an increased tolerance where the user needs more of the substance to feel the same effects.

It is possible, however, to become physically addicted to steroids as their bodies adapt to regular use. As tolerance builds to the substance, the likelihood of growing dependent increases exponentially over that time.

What are the Signs of Steroid Addiction?

Most addictions come with signs to indicate someone is using the drug, and others can be abused until the point of no return without exhibiting symptoms. Fortunately, steroid abuse comes with many warning signs that can help you determine if someone is using. Some of the most common symptoms and long-term effects of steroid addiction include:

  • Extremely rapid muscle gain
  • Serious acne breakouts on previously clear skin
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Increasingly aggressive behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Frequent migraines
  • Insomnia
  • If steroids are being injected, there may be track marks
  • Feeling like one cannot function without them
  • Missing money or valuables to pay for steroids
  • Increased tolerance for steroids
  • Attempting to hide or lie about steroid use
  • Multiple empty pill bottles, steroid creams, or used syringes
  • Being unable to quit using steroids

There are gender-specific signs as well since the drug affects men and women differently. In men, these include:

  • Breast growth
  • Hair loss
  • Shrinking testicles

In women:

  • Irregular menstrual cycle
  • Deepened voice
  • Sudden and significant growth of facial and body hair

If you or anyone you know is experiencing these signs, it is essential to treat the situation with the importance it deserves. You must seek out professional addiction services immediately to combat any long-term damage that may arise from use.

What is Involved in Steroid Addiction Treatment?

It can be challenging to stop using steroids due to the presence of co-occurring disorders and mental health issues that individuals can suffer from including a distorted body image. These disorders can fuel someone’s psychological dependence on steroids.

In the event of this scenario, both issues will need to be treated in what is called dual diagnosis treatment. It is a particular form of addiction treatment that will address both addiction and mental disorders that are present at the time treatment being sought out.

The first step in treatment will be to attend medical detoxification, which is a process responsible for removing all foreign substances from the body mitigating any more damage that will occur. Withdrawals to steroids are mild, but it is something that should not be done alone. There are intense psychological symptoms as a result of abstaining from steroids such as severe depression and suicidal behavior.

Doctors, in some cases, will prescribe synthetic hormones as a means to balance testosterone levels and get the body’s naturally produced hormones back in check. Due to its generally mild withdrawals, the process can be done on an outpatient basis.

The next step in the continuum of care is a recovery program. This should be done so that the individual can undergo dual diagnosis treatment, and if necessary, attend behavioral therapy sessions to delve deep into the root of their addiction. Therapies are geared at living a healthier life and managing emotions outside of a treatment buffer.

Steroid Abuse Statistics

  • A 2013 survey of male student-athletes between the ages of 18 and 25 reported that about 1 in 5 believe the only way to make it to the professional level is through the use of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs.
  • In a 2009 survey of retired NFL players, nearly 1 in 10 admitted to using anabolic steroids while playing in the league.
  • An estimated 20% of all U.S. high schools drug test their student-athletes.
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