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How Do Anabolic Steroids Affect Your Brain?

Last Updated: November 3, 2022

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Anabolic steroids are tempting in a way different from many other substances. People who take steroids are not looking for the feeling of a high. When people misuse steroids, they often begin because they want to improve their physical appearance. Unfortunately, anabolic steroid misuse can impact your body in other ways as well. 

What Are Anabolic Steroids?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “anabolic steroids are synthetic, or human-made, variations of the male sex hormone testosterone.” They differ from corticosteroid steroids, prescribed to combat inflammatory health conditions like Crohn’s disease or arthritis. 

Sometimes, anabolic steroids are prescribed to treat specific conditions. For instance, if puberty is delayed or someone has a health condition that reduces muscle mass, they might take steroids. Those who experience anabolic steroid misuse are often bodybuilders or athletes who focus on increasing muscle mass.

However, these drugs have many concerning side effects, particularly in people who use them long-term to change their physical appearance. They can be eaten, injected or applied to the skin in quantities far higher than those prescribed as medication.

A Brief History of Steroids

Germany first developed anabolic steroids in the late 1930s to treat depression. It wasn’t until the 1954 Olympics that anabolic steroids were first publicly misused for athletic performance when Russian weightlifters were caught taking the substance. Its athletic-enhancing qualities entered public consciousness after that incident, and misuse became widespread. 

It also created a marketplace where regulations have struggled to control the flow of illegal steroids. These substances are sometimes smuggled in from countries that do not require a prescription to purchase specific steroids. Several steroids are also illegally diverted from pharmacies, while some are synthesized in unregulated laboratories.

A considerable number of oral and injectable anabolic steroids are available. To best understand these substances, it’s important to know their names. Some available oral steroids include:

  • Anadrol (oxymetholone)
  • Anavar (oxandrolone)
  • Dianabol (methandienone )
  • Winstrol (stanozolol)
  • Restandol (testosterone undecanoate)

Injectable steroids frequently encountered include:

  • Deca-Durabolin (nandrolone decanoate)
  • Durabolin (nandrolone phenpropionate)
  • Depo-Testosterone (testosterone cypionate)
  • Agovirin (testosterone propionate)
  • Retandrol (testosterone phenylpropionate)
  • Equipoise (boldenone undecylenate)

Anabolic Steroid Abuse

Anabolic steroids are most commonly abused to achieve fitness or aesthetic goals. Some weightlifters and athletes misuse steroids to enhance their athletic performance and gain muscle. 

Adolescent boys with poor body image might also misuse steroids. They may not see themselves as appearing “strong” or “big” enough and use steroids to build muscle. 

Despite its association with athletics, anabolic steroid misuse is far from healthy. Those who abuse anabolic steroids will often take them orally or inject them directly into their muscles. These doses can often be much higher than doctors’ prescribed dosages for treating medical conditions. Steroids applied to the skin in the form of a gel, cream or patch are also available. No matter how steroids are taken, their positive effects cannot be maximized without experiencing negative side effects.

Several known practices for taking steroids are perceived to achieve these aims, including:

  • Cycling: Taking steroids for a defined period, ceasing for a similar period and restarting the cycle
  • Stacking: A practice where the user combines two or more different steroids simultaneously or mixes steroid types
  • Pyramiding: A practice involving a steady incremental increase of steroids before reaching a peak level, tapering off and beginning the process again
  • Plateauing: Staggering, overlapping or substituting different steroids to prevent tolerance to one substance

Currently, no scientific evidence supports the theory that these established practices positively impact reducing the harmful consequences and side effects associated with steroid abuse.

Steroid Abuse Signs

Men and women who misuse anabolic steroids might exhibit the following warning signs

  • Severe acne
  • Breast development (in men) 
  • Hair loss
  • Male-patterned hair growth on the face and body (in women) 
  • A deepened voice (for women) 
  • Mood swings
  • Manic behavior 
  • Aggression 
  • Paranoia

Steroid Abuse Among Teens

A 2021 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse entitled Monitoring the Future reported almost 2% of adolescents in 8th–12th grades have admitted to using anabolic steroids. According to the Taylor Hooton Foundation, 62% of adolescent steroid users primarily stated their reason for taking steroids was to improve their look. More than half of the teens questioned said they would take a pill or powder if it improved their athletic prowess, even if the consequences were a shortened life expectancy.

Spotting steroid use signs and abuse in young users is usually done by noticing physical changes that are hard for a novice user to mask. Short-term visible changes in appearance, such as rapid weight gain that can’t be attributed to normal growth and a more bloated appearance, are just a few indicators. When combined with noticeable personality changes and behaviors, these signs could point to a problem with steroid abuse.

How Do Steroids Work? 

Anabolic steroids imitate the properties of testosterone to activate androgen (testosterone) receptors in the body. In response to this activation, the body stimulates rapid muscle growth and repair. This overproduction of testosterone can cause undesirable results in both men and women. Testosterone can emphasize male characteristics in women, including facial hair and a deepened voice. 

Anabolic Steroids Side Effects & Dangers

Anabolic steroid abuse may lead to serious, even permanent, health problems such as:

  • Kidney problems or failure
  • Liver damage
  • High blood pressure and changes in blood cholesterol, which increase the risk of stroke and heart attack, even in young people

Several other effects are age-specific in teens:

  • Stunted growth (when high hormone levels from steroids signal the body to stop bone growth too early)
  • Stunted height (caused when teens use steroids before their growth spurt)

Some physical changes, such as shrinking sex organs in men, can also contribute to mental health side effects such as mood disorders.

Side Effects on the Body 

Anabolic steroid abuse can cause other side effects to the body, such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease: Steroid abuse has been directly associated with several recognized cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) diseases and can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Steroid abuse can notably contribute to the development of cardiovascular diseases, even in young people under 30.
  • Severe Liver Damage: Steroid abuse can cause serious damage to your liver and has been associated with tumors and a rare condition known as “peliosis hepatis,” which causes blood-filled cysts to form in your liver. These tumors and cysts have the potential to rupture, leading to internal bleeding.
  • Skin Complications: Classic symptoms of steroid abuse include oily skin, greasy hair and severe acne. You could experience jaundice or yellowing skin, indicating potential liver damage. Those who abuse steroids may also suffer skin eruptions and infections such as cysts and abscesses.

In addition to impacting your brain, steroids also cause problems in the rest of your body. People who misuse steroids can experience swelling and severe acne. This can influence overall health and self-image.

Side Effects on the Brain and Emotions

While it might seem that an individual’s muscle mass is improving, their brain could be suffering from the impact of steroid misuse. These brain changes can include:

  • Feeling paranoid or having a feeling of mania
  • Getting aggressive or irritable. 
  • Holding false ideas or making bad judgments

These are problematic symptoms for an individual’s friends and family to experience, but they are also a problem for someone who misuses steroids. Anger, paranoia and mania could lead to job loss or family problems. Poor judgments could cause accidents. While it might not seem like steroids are as physically harmful as some drugs, any drug that influences your behavior can lead to serious physical and emotional consequences.

Hormonal Effects of Steroids

Steroid abuse interrupts and disrupts normal hormone production in your body. This disruption to your hormonal system can cause both reversible and some irreversible changes, such as

  • In men:
    • Shrinking testicles
    • Decreased sperm count
    • Baldness
    • Development of breasts
    • Increased risk for prostate cancer
  • In women:
    • Growth of facial hair or excess body hair
    • Male pattern baldness
    • Changes in or stop in the menstrual cycle
    • Enlarged clitoris
    • Deepened voice

Risk of Infection From Steroid Use

There is always the risk that a person injecting steroids may use a nonsterile or contaminated needle. Some steroids produced illegally may have been manufactured under nonsterile conditions, creating a potential danger of infection.

Life-threatening viral infections such as hepatitis B and C and HIV are risks in those circumstances. Those who abuse steroids may also damage their veins, which could lead to ulcers and gangrene.  

FAQs About Steroid Use

Do Steroids Shorten Your Life?

In short, misusing anabolic steroids can shorten your life. Long-term misuse of anabolic steroids can cause severe health issues, including liver disease, cardiovascular disease and organ damage. In addition, people who misuse anabolic steroids are at a higher risk of heart attack or stroke, regardless of age. All of these health conditions can shorten your lifespan. 

Can You Drink Alcohol While Taking Steroids?

You should never drink alcohol while taking steroids. Both alcohol and anabolic steroid misuse can lead to liver damage or failure in men and women. Combining these substances increases your risk of developing liver damage. 

Do Steroids Make You Gain Weight?

Anabolic steroids affect each person differently. Because steroids stimulate muscle production, people who take steroids can quickly gain weight from expedited muscle growth. It is common for people who take steroids to experience fluid retention, resulting in bloating and weight gain. 

How Are Anabolic Steroids Taken?

Anabolic steroids can be taken in several different forms but are most commonly injected into the muscle with a needle. Steroids can also be taken orally as tablets or applied topically as a cream or gel.

The Importance of Getting Treatment for Steroid Use

There are persistent reports of steroid abuse amongst professional athletes and issues affecting young adults who sometimes turn to steroids to change and “improve” their body shape and confidence levels. It is important to understand how the abuse of anabolic steroids differs from other illicit substances. The initial abuse of anabolic steroids is not driven by the immediate euphoria that accompanies most addictive drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana, but by a person’s desire to alter their appearance and performance. These characteristics are especially significant for some adolescents and adults looking to enhance their physical attributes and performance capabilities.

The effects of steroids can provide an initial boost to confidence levels and physical strength, but this can cause some to underestimate and overlook the potentially life-threatening, long-term damage that abusing these substances can cause. The fact that these long-term consequences of steroid abuse are still vastly underreported compared to more high-profile drug addiction issues does not make the health consequences any less damaging.

Seeking Treatment for Steroid Abuse in Ohio

Are you struggling with anabolic steroid misuse? At The Recovery Village Columbus, medical professionals want to help you move away from anabolic steroid addiction to find a stronger, healthier future. Learn more about admission today.


Our Recovery Advocates are ready to answer your questions about addiction treatment and help you start your recovery.