NIDA InfoFacts: Steroids (Anabolic-Androgenic)
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are manufactured substances related to male sex hormones (e.g., testosterone). “Anabolic” refers to muscle-building and “androgenic” refers to increased male sexual characteristics. “Steroids” refers to the class of drugs. These drugs can be legally prescribed to treat conditions resulting from steroid hormone deficiency, such as delayed puberty, but also body wasting in patients with AIDS and other diseases that result in loss of lean muscle mass.
How are AAS Abused?
Some people, both athletes and non-athletes, abuse AAS in an attempt to enhance performance and/or improve physical appearance. AAS are taken orally or injected, typically in cycles of weeks or months interrupted by shorter resting periods (this is referred to as “cycling”). In addition, users often combine several different types of steroids, a practice referred to as “stacking.”
How Do AAS Affect the Brain?
The immediate effects of AAS in the brain are mediated by their binding to androgen and estrogen receptors, which can then shuttle into the cell nucleus to influence patterns of gene expression. Because of this, the acute effects of AAS in the brain are substantially different from those of other drugs of abuse. The most important difference is that AAS are not euphorigenic, meaning that they do not trigger rapid increases in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which are responsible for the “high” that often drives substance abuse behaviors. However, long-term use of AAS can eventually have an impact on some of the same brain pathways and chemicals—such as dopamine, serotonin, and opioid systems—that are affected by drugs of abuse. Considering the combined effect of their complex direct and indirect actions, it is not surprising that AAS can affect mood and behavior in significant ways.
AAS and mental health
Taken together, the preclinical, clinical, and anecdotal reports suggest that steroids may contribute to psychiatric dysfunction. Research shows that abuse of anabolic steroids may lead to aggression and other adverse effects.1 For example, many users report feeling good about themselves while on anabolic steroids, but extreme mood swings can also occur, including manic-like symptoms that could lead to violence.2 Researchers have also observed that users may suffer from paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability, delusions, and impaired judgment stemming from feelings of invincibility.
Animal studies have shown that AAS are reinforcing; that is, animals will self-administer AAS when given the opportunity, just as they do with other addictive drugs.3 This property is more difficult to demonstrate in humans, but the potential for AAS abusers to become addicted is consistent with their continued abuse despite physical problems and negative effects on social relations.4 Also, steroid abusers typically spend large amounts of time and money obtaining the drugs, which is another indication of addiction. Individuals who abuse steroids can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking AAS, such as mood swings, fatigue, restlessness, loss of appetite, insomnia, reduced sex drive, and steroid cravings, all of which may contribute to the need for continued abuse. One of the most dangerous withdrawal symptoms is depression, because, when persistent, it can sometimes lead to suicide attempts.
Research also indicates that some users might turn to other drugs to alleviate some of the negative effects of AAS. For example, a study of 227 men admitted in 1999 to a private treatment center for dependence on heroin or other opioids found that 9.3 percent had abused AAS before trying any other illicit drug. Of these, 86 percent first used opioids to counteract insomnia and irritability resulting from the steroids.5
Reprinted with the permission of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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