Useful but dangerous steroids

Steroids are chemicals produced naturally by plants and animals. They play an important role in the body processes of living things. Steroids are also produced synthetically and used to treat diseases such as heart failure, asthma, and arthritis. However, steroid use can also cause many side effects, and these powerful drugs should be used only under a doctor’s supervision.

This computer-generated model shows the structure of progesterone, left a female steroid, and the structure of RU486, right, a synthetic hormone used for birth control.

The structure of steroids

Different glands, organs, and cells in the body make steroids, which play a key role in growth and development. Steroids also influence our metabolism, the process by which our bodies change food into energy and living tissue. Steroids include the sex hormones, some adrenal hormones, bile acids, and cholesterol.

Most steroids have a central “nucleus” of 17 carbon atoms arranged into four rings. However, each steroid has a slightly different arrangement of additional atoms around these central rings, which causes them to have different effects on living things. Also, individual organisms may not react to the same steroid in the same way.

The sex steroids

The sex steroids are produced by the male and female sex glands. Progesterone and estrogens are primarily secreted by the ovaries in the female. Estrogens are essential for female sexual development. Progesterone helps regulate menstruation and maintain pregnancy. Androgens are sex steroids chiefly produced by the testes of the male. Androgens are responsible for maturation of the male sex organs and such secondary sexual characteristics as facial hair, large muscles, and a deep voice. Small amounts of androgens are also secreted by the ovaries. Similarly, the testes produce small amounts of estrogens.

Anabolic steroids, first developed in the 1930’s, are synthetic versions of testosterone, the main androgen. These steroids accelerate the cellular processes that build muscle tissue. (The term anabolic means “tissue building.”)

Doctors initially hoped that improved anabolic steroids would help patients with such conditions as severe burns and serious weight loss. However, these drugs often cause severe side effects, including liver damage, high blood pressure, acne, aggressive behavior, and the appearance of male physical characteristics in females. Use of anabolic steroids declined as efforts to produce steroids that build tissue but lack side effects failed. Today, doctors mainly prescribe anabolic steroids for men who have lost the ability to produce testosterone.

Some athletes use anabolic steroids because the drugs increase muscle strength and body weight. However, such use of these drugs is considered unethical and dangerous, and is banned in most sports competition. In most cases, anyone found to be using steroids is disqualified from competition. Athletes who use steroids usually obtain them illegally, which puts them at great risk both professionally and physically. Anyone who buys an illegal drug has no way of knowing what he or she is really getting. Also, whether taken orally or injected, “black market” anabolic steroids can cause psychological dependence in addition to the other side effects listed above.

The adrenal steroids

The cortex of the adrenal gland produces cortisol, corticosterone, and small amounts of cortisone. These steroids help regulate protein, fat, and carbohydrate metabolism. Aldosterone, another steroid from the adrenal cortex, influences the mineral and water balance of the body.
Adrenal steroids are prescribed for medicinal purposes in the form of corticosteroid drugs, which have a wide variety of uses. They are prescribed as hormone replacement therapy for patients whose adrenal glands have been damaged by Addison’s disease, or following surgical removal of the adrenal glands. They are also used to reduce inflammation and to treat arthritis, allergies, asthma, and other illnesses.

Taken in high doses for long periods, corticosteroids like other drugs can cause side effects, including tissue swelling, high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, and other problems. In addition, the sudden withdrawal of these drugs may lead to serious complications, even death.