This question has been coming up more and more in some of my counseling sessions, especially it seems from parents. In short, yes they can be addictive, but that does not mean all steroid use leads to addiction.
Let’s first discuss steroids a little bit. Anabolic steroids include the male sex hormones testosterone and dihydrotestosterone as well as other agents that chemically behave like these hormones. These steroids stimulate growth in bone and muscles as well as increase the production of red blood cells.
Steroid use is not all about lifting weights and hitting a baseball further. Medically, anabolic steroids are used to treat:
- Delayed puberty in males
- Breast cancer in females
- Weight loss in HIV patients
Anabolic steroids can be administered by injection, taken orally, or used externally (creams and rubs). In the United States, they are classified as Schedule III Controlled Substances. The only way to legally purchase them is with a prescription from a physician.
For those looking to use them for performance enhancement, they are often purchased illegally without a prescription. Some are smuggled into the country from countries that do not require a prescription for their purchase. There are also numerous sources from which you can purchase anabolic steroids online and receive them by mail.
There are also steroidal dietary supplements which can be converted to testosterone or other androgenic compounds in the body. Until 2004, androstenedione and tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) were available over-the-counter in food and health stores. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is another steroidal dietary supplement. It is still available legally, but is banned in most athletic competitions.
If anabolic steroids can promote bone and muscle growth and have a host of medical benefits, why are they regulated by the government? Well, along with the benefits of steroidal use, there are also potential side effects, especially through irresponsible use. Side effects include:
- Acne and oily skin and hair
- Hair loss
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Stunted growth in teens
- Increased aggression (so-called “Roid Rage”)
- Shrinking of testicals
- Gynecomastia (abnormal development of mammary glands in men)
- Low sperm count
- Excessive facial hair
- Deeper voice in females
There is also the risk of infection that comes with anything administered with needles.
Prolonged use of steroids can manifest into addictive behaviors. Users can become psychologically addicted, feeling that they can achieve the same level of performance without the steroids in their system. Symptoms of drug-seeking behavior can present themselves.
Physical dependence can also present itself through withdrawal symptoms that include mood swings, fatigue, restlessness, insomnia, and reduced sex drive. Severe withdrawal after pro-longed use can even lead to depression.
Typically, what I have seen in the few cases of steroid addiction I have assisted with is that it is largely a psychological addiction. Users fall in love with the increased confidence and performance that the steroid use provided. They become blinded by it and dependent on it, convinced that they cannot reach the same level of accomplishment without them. Unlike most other drug addictions, such as heroin where they user is going after that feeling of euphoria they get when heroin is introduced to their body (which later will lead to physical dependence), steroids do not provide that kind of altered state to the user. It is more of what they can or feel they can accomplish while using that leads them down the path of addiction.
Will the use of anabolic steroids lead to addiction? In nearly all cases, the answer is simply no. There is no evidence that it will. However, just like your morning cup of coffee or any other substance you introduce into your body, misuse and abuse can lead to addictive behavior.