Anabolic steroids: the story
The term anabolic steroids covers a wide range of drugs, but all of them are similar to the hormone testosterone and are used to increase the size and strength of muscles.
What are they?
There are many different types of anabolic steroids, all of which mimic the effects of the hormone testosterone to varying degrees. Anabolic steroids are sometimes used by body builders and gym -goers, as they believe the drugs add muscle bulk, increase strength and allow them to train harder and for longer. In medicine, they're used to treat severe weight loss and, rarely, anaemia and breast cancer. Medical use is limited, though, as anabolic steroids have the potential to cause liver damage and produce adult male characteristics in women and children.
Where do they come from?
Scientists first discovered they could isolate testosterone and create a synthetic version in 1935. A year later they'd worked out how to prevent the body breaking down the hormone before it could make a difference. By 1937 doctors were using steroids to treat men suffering from a condition known as hypogonadism, where the testicles do not naturally produce enough testosterone for normal growth, or for the changes that happen at puberty.
"Many of the products sold as steroids are fakes or have been adulterated in some way."
It's thought non-medical use started in the 1940s, possibly amongst bodybuilders in Russia or in the United States. Although it's hard to track any kind of illegal drug use, it seems steroids were reasonably common in UK bodybuilding and weightlifting circles by the 1960s, and had spread out to the general gym-going population by the 1980s. The only wide-scale study of non-medical steroid use was carried out in 1992 in England, Wales and Scotland, and found that 6% of male gym-goers used steroids, and 1.4% of women.
What's the science behind them?
Steroids can be taken orally, injected or, much less frequently, applied to a specific area using creams and patches. Once they have been absorbed by the body, the blood stream carries the steroids to the muscles, where they attach to receptor sites in the muscle tissue. The receptors in a particular muscle's cell pass the steroid hormones to the cell nucleus, where the steroids interact with the cell's DNA. This makes the cells create more protein, which can then increase muscle size and strength.
How do they reach us?
Illicit steroids are usually made in laboratories that often don't meet the standards necessary for making safe medicines. Sometimes they are stolen from medical suppliers. As with any illegally sourced drug, counterfeits are a problem. Many of the products sold as steroids are fakes or have been adulterated in some way, meaning you have no way of knowing what is actually in them. They could be a different strength from the stated one and could contain other harmful drugs, bacteria and contaminants.
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