Originally used as a performance enhancing drug by athletes and body builders, in recent years there has been an increase in young men taking steroids as a short cut to the body beautiful. Predominantly used by males, it is estimated that in the UK close to 200,000 adults have used anabolic steroids, and that the number of young men taking steroids has doubled over the last 10 years .
Steroids are synthetically produced and have similar effects to the male sex hormones, including testosterone. Testosterone is responsible for the development of a whole range of masculine characteristics, such as the deepening of the voice and the growth of body hair. Testosterone also has anabolic effects on the body – i.e. it causes a general growth in body tissue and muscle mass. Steroids are often termed anabolic-androgenic steroids because of their combination of virilising and muscle-building effects. Steroids can be prescribed for medical conditions, including cancer, muscle wasting and anaemia.
However given the muscle building properties of steroids they are also increasingly being mis-used recreationally by adults who want to bulk up their bodies. Today’s masculine ideal of having big muscles can encourage men who feel inadequate with their bodies that steroids are the answer to getting bigger, leaner and more muscular. A review of research shows a clear relationship between the growing use of steroids and the increasing emphasis from society and the media on body image despite concrete research data.
While it is illegal to sell anabolic steroids in the UK, it is not illegal to buy them and it is fairly easy to buy them online or order them from abroad. Steroids normally come as pills or a liquid that is injected into a muscle. They are often taken in “cycles” (weeks on, followed by weeks off, then on again) and by stacking (taking several types of steroid together to boost their effect).
While use of anabolic steroids can produce increases in lean muscle mass, strength, and ability to train longer and harder they are also associated with a range of unpleasant physiological side effects including: acne, liver tumours, jaundice, gynecomastia (development of breast tissue), hair loss (which doesn’t grow back), shrinking of testicle, trouble sleeping and high blood pressure.
Users may also suffer from mood changes including paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability, delusions, aggression (also known as “roid rage”) and impaired judgment stemming from feelings of invincibility.
While steroid users can make significant gains in muscle mass, it does so at the risk of developing some of these unpleasant side-effects. Steroid use is also associated with bigorexia or muscle dysmorphia in which a person is deeply unhappy with how muscular they are and can become obsessed with working out and weight training.
What’s more the effects of steroids are short term, so once a user stops taking them the effects are reversed. Further research is required on a larger scale to confirm causation and association between body image dissatisfaction and steroid use.