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The Steroid Predicament
Terry Todd
August 01, 1983
In spite of evidence that anabolic steroids can undermine one's health, the use of these drugs is widespread among athletes, who will risk their physical well-being for the promise of stronger performance
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August 01, 1983

The Steroid Predicament

In spite of evidence that anabolic steroids can undermine one's health, the use of these drugs is widespread among athletes, who will risk their physical well-being for the promise of stronger performance

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As for the seriousness of the side effects, assessments of that depend to a large extent on your source. Some of the evidence is anecdotal, some is based on research data—although no research is available on subjects taking megadoses. Even so, the stance of such groups as the American College of Sports Medicine and the International Olympic Committee is, as one would imagine, research-based; their literature inveighs against the use of steroids and contains listings of potential deleterious side effects such as liver damage, decrease in testicular size and diminished sperm production. The ACSM adds, "Although these effects appear to be reversible when small doses of steroids are used for short periods of time, the reversibility of the effects of large doses over extended periods of time is unclear."

This statement, issued in 1977, is soon to be rewritten, and one of the men involved in doing research for the rewrite observes that most authorities in the field now feel that an ACSM claim made in 1977, that steroids did little, if anything, to enhance athletic ability, needs to be updated. The revised statement should take note of a flood of unofficial evidence and make some acknowledgment of what thousands of athletes have proved to their own satisfaction, which is that steroids, combined with proper training and nutrition, are able to produce athletic benefits, at least in the short run. What will also probably be changed is the section on risks, which will be expanded.

A sports scientist who has discussed the risks involved in steroid use is Capt. James Wright, Ph.D., a specialist in exercise physiology for the U.S. Army. In his recent book, Anabolic Steroids and Sports, Volume II, he observes, "...continually accumulating clinical and laboratory data indicate that dose and duration of use of oral anabolic and contraceptive steroids are the predominant factors influencing the development of hepatic lesions." He also notes that oral steroids have been increasingly implicated in the development of liver tumors, and continues: "Conceivably, the use of anabolic hormones may lead to atherosclerosis, hypertension, and disorders of blood clotting—the three major causes of heart attacks and strokes. The biochemical and physiological events and reactions which can ultimately lead to these effects have been observed in humans administered the drugs under clinical conditions as well as produced experimentally in various laboratory animals."

Thus it seems clear that athletes who use steroids are playing a risky form of roulette. The critical fact is that small doses taken for short periods is not the way most athletes are taking steroids. Because their effects are temporary, steroids must be in the system to be of benefit; once they are out of the system much of the strength they originally produced is lost. Here lies the problem. Athletes who make gains using steroids and hard training hate the idea of losing some of those gains, no matter how hard they may train, once they go off steroids. An additional difficulty, according to Wright and others, is that athletes tend to take ever larger dosages over longer periods of time. Thus the apparent increasing need of the body for steroids and the growing psychological dependence on steroids join hands to encircle the ambitious athlete.

One former athlete who understands this cycle is Dr. Craig Whitehead, a leading bodybuilder in the mid-1960s, who used steroids while competing. An ophthalmologist who now practices acupuncture in San Francisco, Whitehead for several years directed the drug rehabilitation unit of the Haight-Ashbury clinic. He is still involved in that field, and recently he said, "The dependence on steroids many people develop is classic. It's similar to that developed by people on so-called recreational drugs."

Another person who understands this problem with special poignancy is Larry Pacifico (SI, Aug. 6, 1979). Generally considered to have been powerlifting's premier performer, with a record nine consecutive world titles between 1971 and 1979, Pacifico barely escaped death 20 months ago from advanced atherosclerosis. He was 35 years old.

"One day in the fall of 1981 I was in the recovery room of a hospital following elbow surgery, and I had this terrible squeezing in my chest," he says. "The next morning they catheterized my arteries, and I learned that two arteries were approximately 70 percent blocked and one was almost completely closed—99.9 percent. I was immediately scheduled for a triple bypass, but they decided to try an angioplasty. It worked, but the whole experience has changed my life. I'm convinced my steroid use contributed to my coronary artery disease. I'm certain of it, and so is my doctor. I should have realized it was happening, because every time I went on a cycle of heavy steroid use I'd develop high blood pressure and my pulse rate would increase. Steroids aren't a part of my life now, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss them. And you know what? I may even take them again because I may not be able to keep myself from taking them."

Lest the last part of Pacifico's statement seem an isolated exaggeration, consider the fact that in the late '70s a high-ranking official of the U.S. Powerlifting Federation had a coronary bypass done, the need for which he blames at least in part on his use of steroids, yet he still took steroids for a later competition. Perhaps one of the ways this sort of mind-set can be explained is to examine the powerful effect that steroids—particularly testosterone—have on the central nervous system. Some researchers believe that even the anabolic steroids primarily work their magic not through the muscles themselves but through the central nervous system, by making the athlete feel energetic and aggressive, which leads to heavier and more intense training, which leads to improved performance. Whatever the truth of the preceding may be, there's no question that pure testosterone, particularly when used in large amounts, can have a pronounced effect on behavior.

The effect of hormones on personality is amply demonstrated by animal studies and electroencephalographic research carried out on humans. According to the limited testing done on human subjects, people given extra male hormones react in many of the same ways as people given amphetamines. Along with increased alertness, reduction in feelings of fatigue and mood elevation, however, go frequent and often extreme mood swings, such as those exhibited by some women with premenstrual syndrome. And it must be remembered that such psychophysiological changes have been produced by relatively small amounts of extra hormones.

Even though testosterone has been in use intermittently for almost 50 years, it only began to be taken with much regularity in the U.S. in 1977, when a few strength athletes in the amateur sports associated with the Olympic Games hit upon testosterone because, as a naturally occurring substance, it wasn't on the list of banned drugs, allowing athletes to beat the drug-testing procedures for anabolic steroids first used in 1976 at the Montreal Games. As these athletes experimented with testosterone they found that not only did it help to maintain their strength gains, it also made them feel tough as nails, confident and, as Dr. Ziegler says, "studdy." News spread fast, and soon other athletes in many sports were using testosterone. And it, of course, was using them.

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