How safe are anabolic steroids?

Taking anabolic steroids is risky. Here’s why.


So, you want to get ripped, and you want to pack on the muscles fast? You’re not alone. Many men are training hard to increase muscle mass and boost performance. But training can swallow up a lot of time and dedication. That’s why around 3 to 4 million Americans use anabolic steroids to boost muscle mass. But the dangers of anabolic steroids far outweigh their benefits. Here’s what you need to know.


What are anabolic steroids?

Anabolic-androgenic steroids are synthetically derived from the male sex hormone testosterone. Steroids are hormones composed of cholesterol. They are produced naturally by the human body and include testosterone, progesterone and estrogen, among others. These hormones are vital for a wide variety of physical functions.

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Anabolic steroids, however, are a bit different. The term “anabolic” refers to processes that use body energy to regulate metabolism. “Androgens” are the steroid hormones that regulate male sex and physiological characteristics.


Traditionally, these steroids have been prescribed to patients to treat hormonal imbalances. Patients suffering from hypogonadism, impotence, breast cancer, delayed puberty and osteoporosis may receive a prescription for anabolic steroids. Athletes and professional bodybuilders quickly discovered that steroids could help improve their performance, which has led to an increase in non-professionals seeking out anabolic steroids and their precursors.


How do anabolic steroids work?

Anabolic steroids signal the muscle cells in the body to produce more protein. This increases muscle mass over time. The body also produces more adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the body’s way to store energy. When we are working our muscles, they require greater amounts of ATP; steroids can help boost ATP stores.


The androgenic effect of steroids leads to greater hair growth, a deeper voice and increased production of sebum in men. These effects may be desirable for men. But women who take anabolic-androgenic steroids may see negative side effects such as acne, hirsutism, receding hairline and lowering of the voice.


The problem with anabolic steroids

Anabolic-androgenic steroids are not available without a prescription in the U.S. But that hasn’t stopped people from getting their hands on the hormones. It’s legal to buy and own steroids for personal use. The Internet has made it easier to shop for medicines that are prescription-only without having a prescription. One survey of 500 anabolic steroid users found that 78% of them were not professional athletes or bodybuilders.


Here’s the problem: anabolic steroids can cause addiction. Approximately a third of people who take them become addicted. Regular use of anabolic steroids has serious health consequences and includes medical conditions such as heart attack, stroke, blood clots, high cholesterol and liver, and kidney problems.


In men, side effects also include:

  • Reduction in sperm count and infertility
  • Reduction in size of testicles
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Balding
  • Higher risk of prostate cancer
  • Development of breasts
  • Acne


The side effects in women include:

  • Growth of body and facial hair as well as hair loss
  • Decreasing breast size
  • Lowering of the voice
  • Irregular menstruation
  • Acne


Studies have also found that androgen abuse has psychological effects in men and women including:

  • Depression
  • Decreased libido
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability and aggression


How to get help

Because anabolic steroid abuse is similar to drug addiction, it can be difficult to persuade people to stop using them. Abusers may also notice withdrawal symptoms such as depression. Seeking help from a doctor or addiction counselor is often the first step to address steroid abuse.


The problem with “natural” steroid precursors

Because anabolic-androgenic steroids require a prescription, nutritional supplements that promise to include steroid precursors have grown in popularity. According to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, substances that are related to testosterone such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), androstenedione and androstenediol are allowed to be sold as supplements in the U.S. However, there is no proof that these actually work. What’s more, there is little research into whether these supplements are safe to take. Manufacturers aren’t required to list the full ingredients on the packaging which makes it even more difficult to determine if a supplement is safe or potentially dangerous for health.


One study in Puerto Ricans, who have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease among U.S. Latinos, found that raised levels of DHEA sulfate were associated with greater cardiovascular disease risk, especially in men. In women, adequate levels of DHEA sulfate appear to be necessary to reduce the risk of stroke. So, the jury’s still out on the risks of DHEA. But the effects likely differ between genders.  


Should you take anabolic steroids?

The answer to this question depends on what you are taking them for. If you have a medical condition that needs to be treated with anabolic steroids, you should listen to the advice of your doctor. If you are only taking anabolic steroids to get ripped, the long-term side effects are probably not worth it.



  1. Mottram, D., & George, A. (2000). Anabolic steroids. Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 14/1: 55-69.
  2. Lamb, D. (1984). Anabolic steroids in athletics: How well do they work and how dangerous are they?. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 12/1: 31-38.
  3. AlShareef S, Marwaha R. Anabolic Steroid Use Disorder. [Updated 2019 Jun 4]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan-. Available from:
  4. Powers M. E. (2002). The Safety and Efficacy of Anabolic Steroid Precursors: What is the Scientific Evidence?. Journal of athletic training, 37(3), 300–305.
  5. Hoffman, J. R., & Ratamess, N. A. (2006). Medical issues associated with anabolic steroid use: are they exaggerated?. Journal of sports science & medicine, 5(2), 182–193.
  6. Jiménez, M. C., Tucker, K. L., Rodriguez, F., Porneala, B. C., Meigs, J. B., & López, L. (2018). Cardiovascular Risk Factors and Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate Among Latinos in the Boston Puerto Rican Health Study. Journal of the Endocrine Society, 3(1), 291–303.
  7. Jiménez, M., Sun, Q., Schürks, M., Chiuve, S., Hu, F., Manson, J., & Rexrode, K. (2013). Low Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate is Associated With Increased Risk of Ischemic Stroke Among Women. Stroke, 44/7: 1784-1789.

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