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What Are Anabolic Steroids And How Do They Work?

Proper steroid use

Steroids are appropriately used in replacement therapy for those who do not produce enough testosterone naturally, and the treatment of certain cancers and anemias, malnutrition, "wasting" diseases like tuberculosis, and burn victims. Steroids should not be used to treat sprained muscles and ligaments.

Types of steroids

There are different types of steroids. The steroid that your mother or grandmother takes for arthritis is not the same as the steroids athletes take. Unlike anabolic steroids, these steroids probably contain cortisone or a cortisone derivative like prednisone, which decrease inflammation and are used for many conditions like arthritis. They have none of the muscle building or masculinizing effects of anabolic steroids. However, cortisone and its derivatives are not without there own serious side effects.

Growth hormones are not steroids

Growth hormone is naturally produced by the human pituitary gland, and is available synthetically from several companies. It is not a steroid. In children it is responsible for the growth of all tissues, organs, glands, bone, muscle, etc. In adults it is still secreted but in a much smaller amount. It is closely tied to the function of insulin, the hormone that pulls sugar from the blood. Athletes like former NFL star Lyle Alzado, who died from taking steroids and growth hormone, take growth hormone with the hope of increasing muscle size and strength. There are no scientific studies showing that human growth hormone has any performance enhancing effects at all. All evidence is anecdotal.

The only medical use of growth hormone is in replacement therapy in growth hormone-difficient children. There are no substances that one can take to elevate growth hormone "naturally" although many claims are made. Side effects may include changes seen in the disease Acromegaly (like Andre the Giant, and "Jaws" from the James Bond movies). This is a disease where the pituitary gland secretes too much growth hormone. The fingers, toes, facial bones, and skull become enlarged and the skin becomes coarse. One's lifespan is shortened and the heart and kidney increase in size.

There is no test available to detect usage in athletes, although one is being developed and may be ready in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Human growth hormone is a very dangerous drug and it is thankfully difficult to procure. There is a big black market out there but almost all of the supposed growth hormone is not the real thing.

Creatine is not a steroid

Creatine or creatine monohydrate is a protein made from amino acids. Our body produces about a gram of creatine each day, and another gram is ingested each day in meat and fish. Creatine has been taken as a supplement in the U.S. since 1992; the Russians and other Eastern Bloc countries have used it for more than 20 years.

Athletes take creatine with the hope of getting stronger. Studies have shown positive results with minimal side effects. The American College of Sports Medicine hosted a roundtable discussion by several top scientists interested in creatine. They reported in their abstract that "there is no definitive evidence that creatine supplementation causes gastrointestinal, renal, and/or muscle cramping complications."

Preventing steroid use

Preventing steroid use is difficult. Obviously, offering alternatives is one very effective way. Interdiction by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) has helped. Education is important. But steroid use will continue until there is a change in societal values. Paradoxically, we reward athletes who perform at extraordinary levels yet we condemn those same athletes for using steroids and other drugs to reach these levels. There will not be progress until the quickest way to the top is no longer seen as the best, until winning is no longer seen as the only thing.