Chemical brothers

It’s not lost on us that all this talk of naturally high testosterone leaves something of an elephant in the room. A suspiciously jacked looking elephant at that. Don’t worry troops, we see it. We know full well what we’re up against.

The main reason this site pushes natural testosterone so enthusiastically is that we know the dangers and, sure, temptations of unnatural T, aka steroids.

Steroid abuse may feel like a forgotten problem of the 80s and 90s. Like re-tuning your TV aerial, making sure your shell suit doesn’t accidentally catch fire or sitting through a new Police Academy movie.

Yet just because we’re through the golden – or bronzed – age, when everyone and their impressively buff gran was using, doesn’t mean the issue has gone.

Recent research suggests synthetic T use is back on the rise. Not just among high profile athletes either. Certain gym goers too, especially young men.

Here we’ll look at why steroids are creeping back into fashion.

Is it down to testosterone’s new status as a hormone with great health benefits, so more must be better? Or has it something to do with an age of Instagram and Tinder, where image is as important as ever?

Rippling backstory

Though first created in Germany as early as the 1930s, steroids didn’t creep into sport until the 50s, finally being banned from competition in 1975. The closest these drugs ever got to being mainstream though, was the 1980s.

For years steroids were widely available without serious regulation. Right at a time when stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan were the height of popularity. Quite honestly, before the risks were known, it felt like a revolution in physical fitness.

Use steroids and train for strength, you quickly became strong. Train for a better physique you rapidly added mass. Work on stamina, your body could carry on longer.

It seemed the perfect all-round workout aid.

There were side effects of course, few drugs are without them. However acne on the face and back, sporadic hair growth in creative new places and testicle shrinkage seemed a small (no pun intended) price to pay. Especially for such big gains.

By the 1990s though, reports linking steroids to various life threating conditions were mounting up. So eventually the use of anabolic steroids without prescription was made illegal in the U.S and U.K.

Since then, non-medical steroids exist in the shadows of the fitness scene; one of science’s biggest chemical outcasts.

What do steroids do?

Anabolic-androgenic steroids are man-made copies of our own biological hormone.

Testosterone is central to muscle building and bone density, so if boosted artificially results are faster and bigger. T also stops the release of the stress hormone, cortisol, which breaks down muscle during exercise. Less of that means, less stopping, less recovery time and quicker results.

Anabolic steroids are used by doctors to treat conditions such as anaemia, stunted growth, and delayed puberty. Crucially though in no more than a physiologic dose. So no more than the body is able to produce normally.

Nobody’s arguing that plenty of T isn’t a great thing. Problems start when bad science piles on pushing male hormone past safe limits.

Given that one of our male hormone’s jobs is improving performance, it’s not surprising some athletes are tempted to risk breaking through that threshold. After all, the nature of elite level sport adds constant pressure to be faster, stronger, better.

There are three main ways steroids are taken. Cycling involves using for a period then giving the body time to recover. Stacking is injecting one type of steroid then switching to another. While pyramiding requires multiple steroids in the body at once.

In a sporting context, use might be temporary. Once users achieve a goal they can stop. But what about those with no obvious end point?. Guys not in the spotlight, with no testing to dodge, for whom steroid use is an ongoing part of the fitness routine?

Where drug tests typically find athletes around 30 times the norm for T, which is hazardous enough, Dr Harrison Pope, Professor of Harvard Medical School reports men taking five or six thousand mg of artificial hormone a week, 100 hundred times what’s usual.

What exactly is the problem?

T plays a number of subtle roles in the body. Hormones even help determine the behavior of our genes. If we radically alter a finely tuned natural balance, it opens us up to all sorts of problems.

Steroid abuse is difficult to explore as fully as less taboo topics, mainly due to users not wanting to go public. As a result work is often done with small groups or on individual case studies. This gives hardcore fans room to question worrying findings. But in reality, enough evidence exists to make anyone think twice.

Take the study from Harvard Medical School in 2017 when 140 weightlifters underwent cardiovascular tests. 86 were on steroids, 54 never had and 28 stopped using them prior to the trial.

The team report 7 in 10 of the steroid users had hearts with less than 52% pumping capacity.

Co-author Dr Aaron Baggish also notes:

“Compared to non-users, anabolic steroid users displayed both higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as well as a higher prevalence of levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol in their blood.”

It’s not just our hearts steroid use can strain either. A 2009 study of 10 heavy, long-time steroid using bodybuilders found 9 of the 10 subjects had kidney scarring caused by overwork. Condition which improved after stopping steroids.

In 2005 two steroid-using case studies with liver damage and a literature review led Spanish researchers to conclude:

“Sportsmen taking AAS should be considered as a group at risk of developing hepatic sex hormone related tumours.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the WHO, lists anabolic steroids in Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans.

Just this year, in 2019, a study from the ANZAC Research Institute in Sydney, Australia reinforces how bad steroids are for fertility. 91 men – 41 current users, 31 past users and 21 non-users – had sperm count checks.

Those using steroids had much lower sperm output and smaller testicles.

This was not only bad news for fertility. It also hurt important tools needed for natural testosterone, such as luteinizing and follicle-stimulating hormone levels, which were much lower too.

There was some good news. Stopping steroids allows the body to slowly recover and rebalance itself within 9 to 14 months.

All the rage

One of the drawbacks steroid use is most famous for is so-called Roid Rage. It’s a term first coined in the 80s, referring to an overflow of testosterone causing episodes of uncontrollable anger and violence.

Some claim this is a baseless scare tactic. Like Reefer Madness in the 50s, warning us all of those famously energetic stoners. Natural T levels alone aren’t thought to cause drastic personality and behavioral changes. Repeatedly swamping ourselves with huge amounts of extra T though, may be a different story.

For example a 2005 issue of the medical journal CNS Drugs states:

“Significant psychiatric symptoms including aggression and violence, mania, and less frequently psychosis and suicide have been associated with steroid abuse.”

In 2006 a work by Yale School of Medicine found steroid abuse speeds up apoptosis (dying cells) in the brain.

Apoptosis is part of our natural process for weeding out cells we no longer need. Chemically stepping on the gas though isn’t good, as study author Barbara Ehrlich points out:

“When it happens too frequently, you lose too many cells and it causes problems. Our results suggest that the responses to elevated testosterone can be compared with pathophysiological conditions.”

Why the popularity?

You don’t have to dig very deep into the stats to see why steroids are still a draw for some. Particularly young men.

A recent poll claims 44% of guys aged 18-25 think steroids are critical to enhancing one’s athletic performance and the only way to make it in sports, including bodybuilding.

Performance isn’t the only motivation however. A 2014 study reports 18% of teenage boys, taken from an American national sample, worry about their physique. Of that 18% half focus on increasing muscle mass, while only a third wish to be slimmer.

Not to sound like yer ol’ Da or anything, but the popularity of social media may also make a difference. It spawned a subculture of guys proudly using steroids purely for the look. One which is unachievable naturally. Not for competition – but according to movement founder Aziz Shavershian, or Zyzz – for confidence and fun.

Zyzz died of a heart attack in 2011 at 22, while on holiday in Thailand, but his trend continues. In fact it’s stronger than ever thanks to the reach of social media.

Cycle off into the sunset

There are always going to be those who claim attitudes towards steroids are an overreaction. If not a conspiracy. But you’d have to be pretty blind to ignore 70 years’ worth of evidence that use carries serious risks.

The desire to look, feel and perform at your absolute peak is understandable. Doing it with steroids though is like sticking everything on a credit card. It’s quick, the rewards are huge, but the price we’ll eventually pay is potentially massive.

It’s not even as if steroids are that much of a shortcut. You don’t just take them and expand like a life jacket. Hard yards in the gym are still a must. But as we’ve read mixing physical strain with an overload of T is asking for trouble. That’s why we’re so keen on natural T. We can have our cake and not have to inject it too.

Sensibly high natural T will bring us better physiques, improved strength and stamina, a stronger libido and greater confidence. All without the risks to health.

You can still be in the zone without it being the danger zone.

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