Anabolic Steroids are derivatives of the male hormone testosterone and, as such, they exert their effects on many testosterone sensitive tissues within the body. This includes reproductive tissues, muscle, bone, hair follicles, liver, kidneys, white and red blood cells and brain. These effects fall under two classifications:
ANABOLIC – Promoting muscle growth
ANDROGENIC – Promoting the development of masculine characteristics
Of primary interest to the athlete of course is the anabolic effect. Testosterone is the primary hormone involved in muscle growth. Put simply, testosterone enters the inside of the muscle cell where it binds with an androgen receptor. It then continues its journey until it reaches the nucleus of the cell. On arrival at this destination the ‘dynamic duo’ turn on or off specific segments within the DNA in order to trigger muscle growth.
In addition to triggering muscle growth, anabolic steroids also prevent muscle breakdown (catabolism) by inhibiting the action of cortisol and other glucocorticoids, which are known for their catabolic effect.
In order to exert maximum effects in the body anabolic steroids need to be chemically altered. When testosterone itself is taken orally it is swiftly broken down and eliminated by enzymes present in the intestines and the liver. In the case of steroids, a process known as 17a-alkylation has structurally altered most oral products, this protects the steroid from being destroyed by these enzymes. This 17a-alkylation, whilst good on paper, does unfortunately result in most oral drugs being harsh on the liver. It also causes negative changes in HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). The advice here would be to ensure that, whilst taking oral steroids, it is wise to include some form of liver protection e.g. milk thistle, dandelion, NAC, Gluthionine.
Oral anabolics are often preferred by drug-tested athletes due to their short clearing time (i.e. the amount of time they are detectable in the system).
In the case of injectable steroids, these are naturally produced androgens (testosterone, nortestosterone, boldenone) bound to a fatty acid by an ester bond at the 17-carbon. This serves, not to protect the substance against enzymes (like the 17a-alkylation) but to increase the amount of time the steroid remains in an oil globule, following injection, before it enters the circulation.
On entering the bloodstream, the fatty acid is split off by enzymes called esterazes. In the case of a long fatty acid this results in a slow release of the steroid over a course of days or weeks.
THE ESTROGEN FACTOR
Many of you will already be familiar with a process known as ‘aromatization’. This is a process by which testosterone is converted into estrogen. Most bodybuilders try to avoid estrogen conversion by taking anti-estrogen drugs such as Arimadex. Arimadex exerts its effect by neutralizing the aromatase enzyme. When you take aromatase out of the equation testosterone can no longer be converted to estrogen. This assists in the reduction of estrogen dependent fat deposition, water retention and gynecomastia (the growth of breast tissue in males)
However, before you go crazy with aromatase inhibitors and anti-estrogens (e.g. Nolvadex) do remember that too little estrogen can slow muscle growth, suppress HDL (good) cholesterol and kill sex drive. Therefore, the key to using these substances is to take them in moderation so that you blunt estrogens effects without removing it completely from your system.
The undisputed fact of the matter is that anabolic steroids are immensely popular with not only professional and recreational athletes, but also those individuals just wishing to improve their performance and overall quality of life. Knowing how they work, how to safely use them and how to protect your health during and after use is vital not only to your success but also to your overall health.