We have all heard stories about the consumption of anabolic by “obsessed” loads and the gym. Its consumption is not general, but it is widespread enough to deserve our attention and that we dedicate this article to it. We have asked one of the greatest specialists in sports medicine and doping, Franchek Drobnic, who directs the research group of the Sant Cugat del Vallés High Performance Centre, collaborates with the medical services of FC Barcelona and is a member of the therapeutic use exemption committee of the Spanish Anti-Doping Agency (AEPSAD), about the risks of consuming anabolic agents.
What are anabolic agents?
First of all, it is important to clarify the relationship between anabolic agents (or androgenic anabolic steroids) and testosterone, a hormone that our body naturally synthesises from cholesterol. Women also synthesize this hormone, although in a much lower amount than men.
The passage of testosterone through some tissues produces well-known androgenic effects. Thus, testosterone is responsible for the facial and body hair of men, androgenic baldness or prostate growth. But it also produces anabolic effects, among which is the increase in muscle mass, stimulating protein synthesis.
From testosterone are synthesized anabolic, chemical compounds that serve primarily to accelerate the growth of tissues. That is to say, and for what we are interested here: they serve to gain muscular mass and to facilitate the storage of energy. Anabolic agents are, therefore, drugs derived from testosterone that have anabolic (repair and muscle building) and androgenic effects, so that they “masculinize” the person who takes them.
Doctor Franchek Drobnic explains that its medicinal use is scarce. There are people who may need small doses, usually applied by creams. However, the expert points out that “the therapeutic margin is not very wide, the side effects appear with some ease in long-term treatments, and there are particular idiosyncrasies.
However, its use for sports activity is another thing. “Anabolic agents are used to facilitate tissue recovery more quickly. This is transferred to sport, making it easier to recover from one work session to another”, explains the expert. The explanation is simple: “If you recover the fibre better and endure the sessions better, less fibres have to be recomposed the next day”. The best known use is in sports such as bodybuilding, because it improves muscle mass.
But if the use is continuous and in doses oriented work, it can also serve to improve specific aspects of performance, such as jumping power, speed or endurance qualities, illustrates Dr. Drobnic. “A better adaptation to workloads is facilitated, but it must be borne in mind that if the muscle does not work, the anabolic is useless.
What are the side effects of taking anabolic steroids?
The anti-doping expert emphasizes that the purposes in their sporting use are unethical. “The first risk a sportsman has is that he will test positive. They are going to sanction him and possibly also sanction those around him and encourage him”, he warns. But in addition to the legal consequences, the consumption of anabolic has physical and even psychological effects:
There are a number of aesthetic changes, such as a greater hirsutism (excessive hair development), disposition of more male fat, or the change of tone of voice. In males the tendency to alopecia is accentuated.
There are alterations in the levels of lipids in the blood (with an increase in cholesterol).
There is an alteration in the sensitivity of the capillaries to contract to cold or dilate to heat.
According to the doctor, “everything facilitates that there may be areas in which the transit of red blood cells is limited, so that in the muscle a zone of ischemia is created”, where the arterial blood supply is diminished.
“The heart also suffers a certain hypertrophy, because there is a growth of muscle mass.
“There are effects at the cardiological level, it also seems that the number of red blood cells increases and some people may have dehydration problems”, our expert completes.
There are risks of liver damage, because the anabolic is metabolized in all tissues, but especially in the liver. “The liver has a margin of work, and overcoming alterations occur. It has been described ease to have hepatic carcinoma, alterations of bile ducts”.
Anabolic and aggressive, an undemonstrated relationship
However, Dr. Drobnic is skeptical of the long-held belief that anabolic consumption increases aggressiveness. This belief may have its origin in a study signed by Eklöf and other authors, in the already distant year of 2003 and entitled The anti-doping telephone line, a means to capture the abuse of doping agents in Swedish society and a new service function in clinical pharmacology (you can consult it here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13680032 ).
This study, based on 4,339 surveys carried out by the Swedish Health Institute, described the prevalence of psychiatric, urogenital and other side effects in people who had used doping products. The vast majority were linked to gyms and had consumed anabolic agents. Of the 4,339 respondents, 19.2 per cent reported episodes of aggression, while 19 per cent reported depression. 15.1% said they were “worried” and 9.5% said they had “personality changes”.
However, the official U.S. website www.drugabuse.gov states that “the extent to which steroid abuse contributes to violence and behavioral disorders is not known. “Scientists have tried to prove the association between anabolic steroids and aggression by administering high doses of steroids or placebos for days or weeks to human volunteers and asking them to report their behavioral symptoms. To date, four of these studies have been performed. In three of them, high doses of steroids produced more feelings of irritability and aggression than placebo, although the effects appeared to be highly variable in different volunteers. In one study, the drugs didn’t have that effect,” says the U.S. federal government.
In this review study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2646607/ ) on the long-term psychiatric and medical consequences of anabolic abuse, dated 2008, the authors warn of “irreversible cardiovascular toxicity,” atheroscloritical effects, and cardiomyopathies. They also point out that anabolic abuse appears to be associated with “a wide range of long-term psychiatric effects, including dependency syndromes, mood swings, and development into other forms of substance abuse. However, the prevalence and severity of these effects remains largely unknown.
The risks of the black market for anabolic agents
Be that as it may, Drobnic completes his warning by alluding to an accessory risk, but not a minor one. As the use of anabolic agents requires a medical prescription, some people buy copies on the black market with origins in countries like China, without the traceability of pharmacy anabolic agents, which are sold from estraperlo in gyms or other places. “They do not have a security, they are made in factories that make products of low quality, may contain contaminants, and also increase the possibility of liver diseases,” warns the expert. The damages caused by anabolic agents are not “reversible” because they produce an alteration of the tissue.
Drobnic points out that although the use of anabolic agents in competition seems to be in retreat and is “almost nil” due to the ease with which they can be identified, there is still a problem in gyms. This traffic is usually destined to anabolic seized in the raids that occur from time to time, and it is urgent to eradicate. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Only if there is a therapeutic orientation,” he concludes.