The dark side of steroids

Let’s get one thing straight: steroids produced by the body and those made in a lab are two different beasts.

Men's Health

Sonia Chartier

15 March 2017

Using steroids is sometimes a necessity for men, but not always. And using them can have serious and often surprising repercussions…

First off, you should know that your body produces steroids, oftentimes hormones, to help your organs work properly. Without them, you could have growth and reproductive issues. Then there are those manufactured in a lab: corticosteroids and anabolic steroids.


They work pretty much like the cortisol your adrenal glands produce. They stop or slow the inflammation process initiated by your immune system. They’re typically used to treat conditions such as arthritis, eczema or asthma—you’ve probably seen people using an inhaler or “puffer.” These steroids work, but they can have a number of side-effects, including acne, weight gain, nausea and mood swings. It’s best if you can use them only for a short time, because if used longer, they can cause osteoporosis, muscle weakness and cataracts, and in children, they can stunt growth.

Anabolic steroids

Anabolic steroids, which are basically artificial testosterone, are more commonly used by men. They’re usually prescribed for low testosterone, such as in cases of delayed puberty in boys. Anabolic steroids are also prescribed to prevent loss of muscle mass in people suffering from diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

This type of steroid is also used to boost physical performance or to increase the size of biceps and abs. The latter use is not only illegal, but dangerous too: the doses men take to achieve these goals can be up to 100 times higher than the doses prescribed for therapeutic purposes. By definition, anabolic substances increase the conversion of nutrients into living tissues such as muscles. Anabolic steroids can be used to:

  • Increase muscle mass and strength
  • Decrease body fat
  • Improve performance
  • Cut recovery time

Anabolic steroids are officially banned from sports competitions and professional sports. Despite that, we often hear about athletes caught using them by the anti-doping agency. In local gyms and among bodybuilders, anabolic steroids are still popular despite the health risks. And there are more than just a few of them:

  • Lower sperm count
  • Shrinking of the testicles
  • Infertility
  • Increased mammary gland size (the opposite in women)
  • Potential to reduce bone growth in young people who haven’t reached their full adult height
  • Oily skin, acne, male pattern baldness
  • Irritability, anger, aggressiveness, obsession, delusions and habituation

Over the longer term, there’s also:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure), heart attacks and strokes
  • Higher bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL)
  • Liver disease and even cancer, especially when the steroids are taken in pill form

Fortunately, there are ways to improve physical performance and build muscle mass without taking health risks.

First, adopt an appropriate diet.  To increase your muscle mass and lose flab, you need to work your muscles. Compared with body fat, muscles require a lot of energy, so you need to consume a lot of calories. But where those calories come from is important if your goal is to boost muscle mass.

Start with protein. For sports that rely on strength, you need 1.6 to 1.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day to increase muscle mass. For example, a man weighing 84 kg (185 lb) requires 1.6 x 84 = 134 g of protein per day. To avoid saturated fat, it’s best to choose lean protein, such as that found in chicken, fish, pulses (aka legumes) and tofu. It’s also better to spread out your protein intake throughout the day to not just meals but snacks too. A high-protein snack after training is especially important in helping rebuild micro-tears caused by sports and weight training.

Carbohydrates are used to boost energy and are especially helpful before your workout. While people often equate carbohydrates with sugar, they are also found in fibre, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

Dairy products contain protein too, but it’s important to choose low-fat ones. Skim milk, Greek-style yogurt and cottage cheese are usually good choices.

Some supplements can provide you with nutrients that are hard to get from your food, but which enhance performance and muscular development. For example,

  • B vitamins can have a positive effect on:
    • physical capabilities
    • the body’s ability to metabolize carbohydrates, fat and protein
    • tissue growth and formation
  • L-carnitine helps the body produce energy, promotes cognitive health and helps boost athletic performance and endurance.
  • Lecithin facilitates nutrient uptake and has been shown to increase the body’s resistance to stress and decrease recovery time.
  • Mannan promotes energy levels and performance.
  • Beta-glucan boosts mental and physical energy levels.
  • Glutathione is an antioxidant and is essential to tissue development and repair.

In short, there are plenty of ways to increase muscle mass and strength without having to suffer the consequences of steroids. After all, you’re not trying to turn yourself into a hulk with massive muscles, breasts, tiny testicles, a pimply face and a nasty temper to boot!