What Are Steroids?

You might have a friend who has to take them for asthma. You might know someone else who denies taking them but has gotten crazy ripped really fast and angers easily. Famous athletes are denying or being caught with them in their blood stream seemingly every day—just yesterday, MLB slugger Ryan Braun successfully appealed a positive test for them.

But what are they, exactly? Let's talk steroids.

Steroids are synthetic hormones designed to treat medical ailments…

Steroids were developed as medical treatments and they come in two varieties. Anabolic steroids are the kind you hear about the most. They behave like male sex hormones, and doctors prescribe them for treating problems like late puberty as well as significant muscle loss in patients with cancer and AIDS. But they're often used illicitly by athletes who are addicted to winning.

Corticosteroids are less controversial. They don't build muscle. They treat things like allergic reactions and autoimmune diseases. Cortisone is one common example, which doctors use to treat the pain and swelling that comes with skin conditions like bad insect bites and poison oak. Prednisone is another corticosteroid, which treats autoimmune diseases including lupus and arthritis.

Both types can be taken orally, injected muscularly, or rubbed on the skin.

…and some work by speeding up muscle growth...

There are lots of different types of anabolic steroids, but most of them beefify similarly. When we work out, we create tiny micro-tears in muscle fibers. When the muscle regrows and heals, it grows back a little bit larger, and repeating that process over time is how we get hard and massive (that's the idea anyway). The male sex hormone testosterone facilitates that muscle growth. Anabolic steroids do the same thing but better and faster. They also speed the muscle-healing process by blocking the stress hormone cortisol, which breaks down muscle tissue. That can mean less down time for athletes who go into overtime.

…but are often abused and used illegally…

Because anabolic steroids are so good at growing muscle, athletes sometimes use them to enhance their performance or improve their physical appearance—even though it's almost always verboten. From baseball players to boxers to body builders, steroids have scandalized the world of amateur and professional sports for decades.

Abusers might take up to 100 times more drug than you'd find in a medical dose. That spells danger. So to try to take a shit ton of drugs with fewer side effects, some folks use a cocktail of steroid types—like oral plus injectable—which is called stacking. Pyramiding, i.e. administering doses in 6 to 12 week cycles, is another method for trying to make steroids work better but decrease the incredibly nasty side effects (see below). There's no scientific evidence, however, that stacking or pyramiding works.

… which can lead to exceedingly unpleasant and dangerous side effects ...

The potential side-effects of anabolic steroid abuse include: liver tumors, jaundice, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, kidney tumors, fluid retention, severe acne, testicle shrinkage, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, breast development, and prostate cancer. Women experience increased facial hair, male-pattern baldness, changes or cessation in menstrual cycle, and deepening of the voice. Adolescents could halt their growth because the drugs can cause early skeletal maturation and acceleration of puberty.

And that's not all! Steroids can cause emotional problems, including dramatic mood swings that have been known to lead to violence, i.e. "roid rage," depression, paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability, delusions, and impaired judgment.

And then there's the possibility of needle-born diseases including HIV and hepatitis B and C.

In it to win it!

… but some folks decide the risks are worth it because the drugs make you harder, faster, stronger…

Despite the nasty side effects and the increasingly strict rules against using steroids in sports, the list of athletes who have been caught or strongly suspected of doing using steroids anyway is long. Barry Bonds is one the most famous cases—he was convicted in 2011 of obstruction of justice for lying about this steroid use.

…until they get suspended or stripped of their medals.

See: Ben Johnson, Michelle Smith, Marion Jones, Fernando Vargas, Mary Decker, Floyd Landis, shall I go on?

Update: Gross link to before and after photos has been removed.

Image: Shutterstock/andrewshka