What Steroids Do to Your Body: A HealthCentral Explainer


On October 22, 2012, cyclist Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles amid doping allegations, despite no positive tests.

Numerous baseball players already have been left out of the Hall of Fame for admitting to—or even suspicion of—steroid use.

This controversy, though, is nothing new. Olympic 100-meter champion Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal in 1988 after a positive test for steroids.  Before that, East German women's swimmers dominated the sport from the late 1960s until the late 1980s, when a group of 20 coaches confirmed steroid use during the time period.

The controversy extends beyond sports performance, however. In 1994 World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon faced federal prosecution for his role in steroid distribution throughout professional wrestling in the 1980s.   In 2007 Sports Illustrated released a list of individuals linked to a busted steroid ring, which included a number of wrestlers, baseball players, actor Tyler Perry and musicians 50 Cent and Mary J. Blige.

What do steroids actually do?

Steroid use is largely misunderstood by the public.  Anabolic steroids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are "synthetic substances similar to the male sex hormone testosterone," which helps build muscle.

And many people do associate them with body-builder physiques and towering home runs, or with the overtly masculine East German women's swimming team.  Steroids make you bigger and stronger, right?

Not necessarily.  What about Lance Armstrong?  Professional cyclists don’t need big, bulky muscles. What they do need is to have their bodies able to recover quickly.

In the documentary 9.79 about Ben Johnson's stripped Olympic title, one coach said that Johnson was working out for several hours a day, lifting weights at his "max" twice a day. A person not aided by steroids could only "max" roughly once every two or three days.  Put simply, steroids aid in speedy recovery after exertion by promoting red blood cell production, which allows the blood to carry more oxygen to a person’s muscles.  Recovery time shrinks dramatically– an athlete who may tire after an hour of working out may be able to lift weights for three or four times that duration without tiring.

So not all steroid users "bulk up" using drugs.  A cyclist does not need a body-builder physique, but instead wants extreme endurance when riding up the hills of France.  A relief pitcher in baseball may not need to have forearms the size of tree trunks; instead, he wants to be able to throw hard and with accuracy for a number of pitches each day, every day, without the need for recovery time.

What are the side effects?

Unfortunately, anabolic steroid use also has a severe downside.  Effects can include liver damage, jaundice, fluid retention, high blood pressure and increases in LDL cholesterol.  Men also have to be aware of sexual side effects, including shrinking of the testicles, baldness, breast development and infertility as the body struggles to cope with its wildly changing hormone levels.  Women likewise can experience nasty side effects, such as facial hair growth, menstrual changes, baldness and deepened voice.  Another telltale sign of steroid use, especially among athletes, is severe acne, even for those well past their teen years.  And, according to court testimony, baseball superstar Barry Bonds saw his hat and shoe sizes grow significantly during his 30s.

Steroids are illegal without a prescription, and possession and distribution are both federal offenses.  No question that the potential downside of using them can far outweigh any potential benefits.