College athletes are a rare breed. On top of fulfilling all class expectations, they must also attend daily practices, team meetings, and games.  These extra commitments are time-consuming and leave little room for much of a social life.  Their love for the game, though, is what keeps them motivated and all their sacrifices worth it.  Some college athletes become so invested in their sport that they stop at nothing to reach the top.  Unfortunately, in adopting this ambitious attitude, a few turn to anabolic steroids as a means to improve their performance.

Anabolic steroids, which are also known as anabolic-androgen steroids (AAS), are synthetic derivatives of the hormone testosterone (See Figure 1).  When taken, they induce an anabolic state in which a constructive metabolism functions to build molecules from smaller units.  This anabolic activity allows for gains in strength and fat-free muscle mass. The increase in muscle mass specifically occurs after the formation of new muscle fibers, as well as due to muscle hypertrophy – the process by which muscle cells increase in size. In addition to the anabolic effects, these drugs can also induce androgenic effects, meaning that they promote the development and maintenance of both male accessory sex organs and secondary sex characteristics.

Figure 1: Chemical Structure of Testosterone

According to an article by Dr. Ryan Calfee of the Washington University School of Medicine, in order for an AAS to induce these effects, it must first cross the cell membrane into the cytoplasm, where it can bind to an androgen receptor.  The receptor then transports the AAS into the nucleus, allowing it to bind to DNA and increase mRNA transcription and, further, protein synthesis (see Figure 2).  The enhanced protein synthesis ultimately allows for anabolism and the buildup of muscle tissue.

Figure 2: An anabolic-androgen steroid binds to an androgen receptor located in the cytoplasm and is then carried into the nucleus, where it instructs DNA to transcribe mRNA and, further, undergo translation to enhance the process of protein synthesis and ultimately muscle or bone growth.

AAS also have the capacity to be anticatabolic.  When athletes over-train, their body naturally releases glucocorticoids as a means to breakdown glycogen stored in the muscle for energy.  However, if athletes take AAS, then the androgen receptors become saturated with these steroids, meaning that the binding of the other steroid hormones, such as the glucocorticoids, to these receptors is inhibited.  As a result, catabolism of the muscle is reduced, and the muscle mass is instead preserved, allowing for continuous buildup.

Many individuals believe that AAS allow for quick and effective results.  While this may be the case, at least 30% of steroid users are known to experience mild adverse effects.  An article written by Dr. Frederick Wu of the Department of Medicine at the University of Manchester explains how AAS have been proven to raise blood pressure, cause left ventricular hypertrophy, and increase the bad (LDL) cholesterol and decrease the good (HDL) cholesterol. Furthermore, the enzyme aromatase may convert steroids into estradiol (see Figure 3), which is the primary female sex hormone. Increased levels of estradiol may ultimately cause irreversible breast enlargement in males users, a condition referred to as male gynecomastia.

Figure 3: Chemical Structure of Estradiol

In addition, when AAS bind to androgen receptors, a negative feedback loop results and inhibits the production of luteinizing hormone (LH) (see Figure 4). Without LH present in males to stimulate the testicles to produce testosterone, the testicles diminish in size, which limits the production of sperm and can lead to temporary infertility.  Female users of AAS often experience irreversible virilization, which results in the development of male characteristics, such as a deepening of the voice, increase in body hair, and loss of breast tissue. So, basically AAS can make a male appear more feminine and a female more masculine.  Sounds like fun to me…

 

Figure 4: When AAS bind to androgen receptors in place of testosterone, a negative feedback loop results that tells the anterior pituitary to stop producing LH.  Without LH available, the testes shrink in size.

If you were reading carefully, you should now know what anabolic steroids are, what they do, how they do it, and their potential side effects.  But the real question is why the heck do we care?  Well if you don’t care now, you should because the non-medical use of anabolic steroids (NMAS) is most prevalent amongst adolescents and young adults, like yourself.  Now, I’m not saying that you all are going to start using anabolic steroids tomorrow, but your roommate, classmate, or teammate could already be abusing them.  An article written by Sean McCabe of the University of Michigan discusses the latest study conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), in which 21,000 college athletes in all championship sports and from all divisions were surveyed.  The results indicate that 1.4% of these individuals had used steroids in the past 12 months.  This figure amounts to about 300 athletes – one of which may be sitting in the same room as you now.

So what do you need to do? Well first off, you need to become aware of the issue and educate yourself about AAS.  After reading this post, you pretty much have accomplished that – so congrats, job well done.  Secondly, you need to recognize that NMAS is a problem and work towards addressing it.  This can be as simple as discussing the issue with someone who you suspect may be using steroids or even just bringing it up in conversation with family and friends.  The more that you discuss it, the more that people will begin to recognize its importance and the more likely that they will take their own measures towards finding a solution.

Lastly, we should severely punish those athletes guilty of steroid use in order to deter others from engaging in this risky behavior.  Unfortunately, our society tends to highlight athletes and their record-breaking performances even after discovering that they used steroids throughout their career.  Baseball players, such as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, for instance, are known first for their home run records and second for the steroid use that allowed them to achieve this level of success.  As a society, we need to work to reverse this train of thought.  If we don’t, who knows where college athletics will be in 10 or even 20 years from now. I mean who wants to watch a team of football players with synthetic talent anyways.  What happened to raw talent?  Let’s work on bringing the rawness back to college athletics.  If we don’t, who will? JT can’t do it all – just sayin.

References:

“Anabolic Steroid.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anabolic_steroid&gt;.

Calfee, Ryan, and Paul Fadale. “Popular Ergogenic Drugs and Supplements in Young Athletes.” Pediatrics 117.3 (2006): 577-89. Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. .

McCabe, Sean Esteban, Kirk J. Brower, Brady T. West, Toben F. Nelson, and Henry Wechsler. “Trends in Non-medical Use of Anabolic Steroids by U.S. College Students: Results from Four National Surveys.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence 90.2-3 (2007): 243-51. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. .

Wu, F.C.W. “Endocrine Aspects of Anabolic Steroids.” Clinical Chemistry 43.7 (1997): 1289-292. American Association for Clinical Chemistry, Inc. Web. 17 Oct. 2010. <http://www.clinchem.org&gt;.