Shedding light on anabolic steroids

I speak regularly in my articles about powerlifters and bodybuilders. These athletes pull off incredible feats of the human body, be they aesthetic or strength-based. But it is important to remember that many of these athletes (not all, but the top 10% in most cases) do use artificial substances to enhance their performance. As an aspiring strength athlete myself, I have decided to do something of a deep dive into the class of steroid that these athletes utilize to maximize their physical capabilities: anabolic steroids. I hope to shed some light on what separates these athletes from those who train with only their natural hormone production to allow for recovery and growth.  

Anabolic steroids are what most peopole think of when they think of steroids. In a sentence, anabolic steroids increase the body’s testosterone in an effort to build and maintain more muscle mass, as well as gain strength. Compounds that fall under this umbrella include testosterone itself, trenbolone, nandrolone, boldenone and oxymetholone.  

The key factor to anabolic steroids is their molecular structure. These compounds are either naturally occurring or chemically engineered, but all have in common a structural similarity to testosterone on the molecular level. Take for example trenbolone, the anabolic steroid that has been singled out for meme use across social media in recent years. A quick comparison between the molecular structures of trenbolone and testosterone reveals that the only differences in structure are a pair of double bonds that are single bonds in testosterone, as well as one the presence of one additional methyl group in the testosterone molecule. Without going into too much chemistry mumbo-jumbo (I do realize my intended audience have no desire to read about organic chemistry in the sports section, much to my chagrin), this essentially means the body is able to very easily convert trenbolone into testosterone through a series of enzymatic reactions, thus artificially increasing the amount of testosterone in the body.  

Why exactly is this important, you may ask? Testosterone is the leading hormone in terms of athletic performance in both men and women. Testosterone is the main hormonal component of the endocrine response that causes muscle growth in response to muscular trauma, as well as in strength as high testosterone is directly correlated to higher short-term force generation by the body. Furthermore, endurance athletes may also look to take some form of testosterone-based supplement, even if not an anabolic steroid, as endurance training is strongly correlated to lower testosterone levels.  

The major drawback to these types of compounds surrounds the subsequent increase in estrogen levels, at least if other compounds are not used to mitigate the extra estrogen production. The human body has a natural homeostatic ratio of testosterone to estrogen in order to mitigate natural side effects of each hormone. Estrogen is the driving force behind subcutaneous fat storage, which historically for human beings has been key to surviving harsh winters before the advent of modern society. Estrogen is also a derivative product of testosterone. Conversion is a simple process that takes place via aromatase enzymes. Thus, adding extra testosterone via anabolic steroids will result in an increase in estrogen levels as the excess is converted into estrogen via this pathway. This results in conditions like gynecomastia, especially in men who already have naturally higher testosterone levels. This is where aromatase inhibitors come into play. These compounds do not stop the natural production of estrogen by ovaries in women, but will inhibit the conversion of other hormones like testosterone into estrogen by inhibiting aromatase enzymes, as the name suggests.  

However, the body has its homeostatic balance of testosterone and estrogen for a reason. There can be severe consequences to upsetting this balance that may manifest physically or psychologically. In the past few years, several top bodybuilders have passed away from heart issues that stem from steroid usage. There are a few reasons as to why heart disease increases while using anabolic steroids. First, there is evidence to support that steroid usage promotes bad cholesterol increases via effects on liver enzymes, which then lead to blood clotting. The other significant defect that has been recorded is an enlarged heart, specifically in the region of the left ventricle. This enlargement prevents the diastolic phase of the cardiac rhythm from happening effectively, which is a fancy way of saying that the left ventricle struggles to fill with blood during the relaxed phase in order to pump it through the body. Thus, circulatory issues occur.  

The final point I will touch on here is the so-called “roid rage” that results from taking these compounds. It is very real, and caused by the over-prominence of testosterone in the human body. This is especially common in men given their bodies’ natural preferential production of testosterone over estrogen. Testosterone has been linked historically with aggressive behavior. Therefore, the path from increased testosterone to increased aggression is an easy one to understand. 

This article is by no means meant to encourage or discourage steroid use; that choice should be made on an individual basis after consultation with a doctor. I simply find this topic very interesting, and I hope that all of those reading this have as well.