Once primarily a bodybuilder’s drug, anabolic steroids—synthetic derivatives of the hormone testosterone—have become as central to mainstream sports as hotdogs and nachos. “You didn’t see this kind of drug use 20 years ago,” says New York University physician Gary Wadler, author of Drugs and the Athlete. Rather than popping pills or shooting up, Wadler adds, most players now use steroid creams, which are harder to detect because the athlete's hormone levels can be precisely controlled. “They’ve gotten very sophisticated at subverting the tests,” Wadler says.
So what do steroids actually do to a body? While they do increase muscle mass and aggressiveness, they also have some strangely emasculating effects on men:
Steroids increase testosterone, making players more aggressive and more competitive, whence “’roid rage.” But steroid withdrawal, which is marked by a precipitous drop in testosterone levels, can lead to severe depression. In one much-publicized case, Texas high schooler Taylor Hooton committed suicide in 2003 after he stopped taking steroids, leading to the so-called Taylor’s law on testing in Texas schools.
Because testosterone converts to estrogen in the body, men wind up with high-pitched voices. Women, on the other hand, develop a man’s voice.
This is the good news. Anabolic literally means “to build up.” “They make you stronger, increase lean body mass, and reduce recovery time so athletes can work out more frequently,” Wadler says. Beefcake!
Because of the excess estrogen, Wadler explains, men develop “bitch tits.” Conversely, female breasts atrophy under the anabolic influence, and women can develop facial hair and male-pattern baldness.
Steroids can raise blood pressure, enlarge the heart, cause the formation arterial plaque, raise total cholesterol, and lower HDL, the good kind of cholesterol. Long-term, this means a significantly greater risk of heart attack and stroke.
Steroids can form blood-filled cavities and several types of benign and malignant tumors in the liver. But then again, who needs a liver when you’re totally ripped.
Sensing the excess testosterone, the pituitary gland and hypothalamus stop producing two key hormones—follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone—that govern testicular and ovarian function. The result, says Wadler, is men with attenuated sperm counts and “peanut-size testicles.” Women, on the other hand, find themselves with enlarged clitorises and truncated menstrual cycles.
The organ that benefits most of all. Better performance means lucrative signing bonuses and multiyear contracts. And who among us wouldn’t trade a few million sperm for a few million dollars in endorsements.