If you’re a regular lifter, the idea of juicing has probably crossed your mind. After all, you’ve been putting in the work, so why not reap the rewards?
In fact, most steroid users are just regular guys who just want to bulk up, according to findings published in Endocrine Reviews. Specific numbers are hard to come by, though estimates suggest that up to 20 percent of men who do recreational strength training have taken anabolic steroids at some point in their lifting history.
“The number one reason I see people choose to use anabolic steroids is in hopes of more rapid muscle gains from their workout program,” says Vijay Jotwani, M.D., primary care sports medicine physician at Houston Methodist Hospital. And the temptation can be big, especially if you see other guys at the gym taking them with huge results.
But just because steroids are popular doesn’t make them safe. Here are seven side effects of steroids every lifter must know.
Steroids wreck your skin in two ways. First, they cause oil glands to produce more fat and cholesterol, which makes your skin greasier. At the same time, they also prompt your skin to ramp up production of bacteria, explains Hallie Zwibel, D.O., director of the Center for Sports Medicine at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. And that combo can clog your pores and lead to pimples.
While the oil and bacteria production—and the zits that come with it—will go away after you stop juicing, you could be left with lifelong damage. Acne caused by steroids can be severe, which ups the risk for permanent scarring, Dr. Zwibel says.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
The hormones in steroids cause your body to retain sodium and fluids within a matter of days. That puts extra stress on your blood vessels, which can lead to high blood pressure.
In fact, when researchers measured the BP of regular steroid users, their numbers were, on average, 8 to 10 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) higher compared to guys who didn’t take steroids. That might not seem like much, but over time it can take a toll.
Chronically high blood pressure can cause your heart muscles to stiffen, Dr. Jotwani says, which can lead to heart disease or heart failure. And while the effects can be reversed within a few days of stopping steroids, if your heart muscle has already sustained damage, that could lead to a permanent increase in your diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number), because your heart has to work harder to pump blood through your body.
HEIGHTENED HEART ATTACK RISK
In addition to raising your blood pressure, steroids can increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol.
Both of those things cause atherosclerosis (when your arteries become more narrow with plaque), which can lead to a heart attack. This happens because steroids alter the production of hepatic triglyceride lipase, an enzyme in the liver that’s responsible for cholesterol regulation, explains Dr. Zwibel.
Experts can’t say for sure how long you’d need to take steroids for your heart attack risk to increase. But findings published in the journal Circulation show that male weight lifters who regularly used steroids for more than two years had irreversible damage to their arteries.
Steroids don’t just make you irritable and short-tempered. They can send you into a full-on rage and make you do things that normally you’d never dream of. They can also make you more anxious: you might perceive more people as threatening, and you could end up responding violently in an effort to protect yourself, Dartmouth researchers have shown.
The flood of testosterone hijacks your central nervous system and suppresses the production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. As a result, you’re more prone to feeling angry or stressed.
You might be skeptical that male hormones could give you man boobs. But they can—within months or even weeks. That’s because certain enzymes in the body can convert testosterone into estradiol (a form of estrogen), which promote the growth of breast tissue, explains Dr. Zwibel.
Worse, the results will be permanent, even if you quit juicing. Once your breast tissue expands, it’ll never go back to its original size, Dr. Zwibel says.
You might notice some of your hair thinning within weeks or months after starting steroids. “High levels of testosterone are the hormonal factor that induce alopecia, or baldness,” Dr. Jotwani says. And since anabolic steroids send your testosterone levels through the roof, they usually cause hair loss.
In fact, testosterone is so good at causing hair loss that hair-restoring drugs like Propecia actually work by blocking the hormone, adds Dr. Jotwani. And once your hair is gone, it won’t come back—even after your ‘roid run ends.
All that extra testosterone from the steroids can shrink your testicles and zap your sperm count. Too-high levels of the hormone can suppress the production of luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone, which tell the testicles to produce sperm, explains Dr. Jotwani.
Problems with sperm production affect around half of all steroid users, estimates the National Institute of Drug Abuse. It’ll reverse itself eventually once you stop juicing, but it can take months or even years for things down there to get back to normal, Dr. Jotwani says.