Hormones are substances produced by glands (or organs) that travel to various sites in the body to affect bodily functions. Different types of steroid hormones, a class of hormones chemically similar to each other, have different functions. For example, the adrenal glands produce an anti-inflammatory steroid similar to cortisone. Cortisone may be prescribed to treat asthma, rashes, and various kinds of swelling or inflammation.

Another kind of steroid is called an anabolic steroid. The term anabolic means building up of a bodily substance. Anabolic steroids are related to the major male hormone testosterone, which is produced in the testes in men and in the adrenal glands in both men and women. These chemicals are recognized for their effects on building up muscle.

Synthetic (laboratory-made) anabolic steroids have some accepted uses as prescribed medications, but they are best used in specific situations calling for that type of hormone therapy and for a limited period of time. For example, anabolic steroids can help in rebuilding tissues that have become weakened because of serious injury or illness. They also can be used to treat certain types of anemia and breast cancer.

Anabolic steroids also are helpful in treating men who have a low level of testosterone and those with a rare genetic problem that causes episodes of swelling, called angio-edema.

While anabolic steroids serve a clearly defined role in healing, these powerful drugs are creating serious health risks, especially for our nation's youth. The abuse of steroids, in fact, is evolving into a major health problem in the United States.

Steroids attract many young people and adults, who take these drugs to enhance athletic performance and improve their body image. Even though they may take steroids with good intentions, they may not understand that the drugs are potentially harmful and can cause a hormone imbalance leading to considerable health problems, including permanent undesirable sexual changes for both men and women. Anabolic steroids should never be taken except by prescription when under a doctor's care.

Steroid use among professional and Olympic athletes is believed to be widespread. Some athletes use steroids to build muscle mass and to speed recovery time from training and injuries. Others use them to improve their physical appearance. Athletes may continue using anabolic steroids because of a feeling of confidence and even euphoria (extreme feeling of well-being) that may result.

However, a number of unhealthy and damaging effects may result from the use of anabolic steroids that can lead to both emotional and physical problems. Studies have shown that abuse of steroids can increase aggressive behavior, cause mood swings, and impair judgment. More recently, studies have reported an association between steroid use and later abuse of other harmful drugs. Other reported effects include male-pattern baldness, acne, and blood-filled liver cysts that can rupture, causing death. Using steroids can increase the risk of heart disease, stimulate the growth of certain cancers, and worsen other medical problems.

Steroids taken orally (by mouth) have been linked to liver disease. Steroids taken by injection (by needle) can increase the risk of infectious diseases such as hepatitis or AIDS. In one study, 25 percent of steroid users shared needles.

Equally troubling, anabolic steroids can retard growth. Young, developing bodies are particularly sensitive to steroids and some of the side effects may be permanent. In addition to stunting growth in adolescents whose bones should still be growing, steroids can trigger the growth of breasts in males. This can happen because the chemical structure of certain anabolic steroids is converted to the female hormone estrogen by a chemical reaction in the body.

On the other hand, females may develop a deeper voice, an enlarged clitoris, and facial hair growth. Women and girls also may experience the loss of scalp hair. These are potentially permanent side effects. Although long-term studies are scarce, experts believe that some harmful effects may not appear until many years after the abuse of these drugs.

High-profile athletes who use steroids often become role models to children and teens because of the athletes' physical appearance and success in sports. The use of performance-enhancing substances among adult sports figures then influences the behavior of some teens, who begin to use steroids themselves. Although sports can build skills in cooperation and competition, and sports performance can enhance self-esteem, use of anabolic steroids harms young athletes' bodies as well as their minds.

In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 3.9 percent of high school students in the United State reported using anabolic steroids without a prescription. Among high school males, 5.1 percent admitted using illegal anabolic steroids; among females, the rate was 2.7 percent.

Although males are more likely to have used illegal steroids without a prescription than females, girls are also at risk. For young women, body image is a powerful persuader, often based on inappropriate entertainment and media models. These drugs can help to decrease body fat, which is their appeal. But their side effects are serious and unattractive: facial hair, acne, male-pattern baldness, masculine appearance, and deeper voice, among others.

Easy access to performance-enhancing drugs, combined with the pressures of popular culture, presents a complex and serious problem. Because not enough research is done in this area, we still do not know how great the problem is throughout society and what the effects of steroid abuse ultimately will be.

© 2009 The Hormone Foundation

Hormone Abuse