Suspicions of steroid use are clouding Major League Baseball at the start of its season, but a bigger problem than the image of the national pastime is the health impact of anabolic steroids on adolescents, a University of Michigan addiction expert says.
Brower cautions that young people may think steroids are safe when they hear of their sports idols taking them. In reality, the risks of steroid use can include serious and irreversible physical effects, as well as mental perils such as severe depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and violent aggression, known as “’roid rage.”
He notes that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people ages 15-24. “This is an age group that is already at high risk,” says Brower, associate professor of psychiatry at UMHS. “When you add steroids, you are increasing the risk of suicide.”
Although the actual rate of adverse psychiatric effects is difficult to measure, he notes that studies have found higher rates of psychiatric effects among weight-training users of steroids than comparable non-users. Brower, who recently testified at a highly publicized congressional hearing about anabolic steroid use, says the drugs can worsen the usual degree of psychological upset during adolescence.
“It can be difficult to detect when adolescents or young athletes are using steroids, so parents and coaches need to know what to look for,” he says. “One of the reasons it can be difficult is because some of the things that you see, such as mood swings and weight gain, are things that you would expect to see in adolescents.”
How can you tell if the mood swings, weight gain and acne are just part of growing up, or if they are related to steroid use?
Brower says to watch for intense dietary regimens that go along with frequent and prolonged periods of weight training.
“People become very focused on how often they need to work out, how much they need to work out, how much they eat, what kinds of foods they need to eat,” he says, “and they may even get irritable when they’re not able to do those things.”
Some warning signs should prompt parents to seek professional help for their kids, such as
- when they become aggressive or violent with friends, family or strangers;
- when they aren’t eating or sleeping;
- when parents discover their children are hanging around with other kids who are doing drugs; or
- when they are talking about suicide.
Some of the physical signs of steroid use include male-pattern baldness in men, the growth of facial hair and deepened voice in women, marked acne, oily skin, and injection marks over large muscle groups such as shoulders, thighs and buttocks. Steroids also cause a shrinking of testicles in men, and the appearance of sex organs in women to become more male-like.
The fact that a national spotlight has been shining on steroid use among well-known baseball players complicates the message, Brower says. Even if young people hear about the harmful effects of using the drugs, they see images of the famous athletes accused of steroid use – athletes who are wealthy and who appear healthy.
“We like our sports heroes because they’re celebrities, they’re famous, they look well, they perform well,” Brower says. “And when that becomes associated with anabolic steroids, it adds to the positive image of steroids.”
Steering young people away from using steroids is especially difficult not just because their sports idols may use them, but also because anabolic steroids are very easy for adolescents to get, Brower says.
Facts about anabolic steroids:
Steroids can lead to depression and can be addictive.
Side effects of steroids can include:
- tears of muscles and tendons;
- liver damage;
- mood swings and
- aggressive behavior;
- shrinkage in the size of testicles;
- loss of the ability to get erections;
- a decreased sperm count;
- an increase in men’s breast size;
- high blood pressure;
- abnormal cholesterol levels;
- male-pattern baldness in men and women; and
- the growth of facial hair in women.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic drugs similar to the male hormone testosterone. They sometimes are prescribed by doctors to treat men who can’t make enough testosterone naturally or to increase weight in people with some problems or disorders, such as AIDS.
Anabolic steroids were developed in the late 1930s primarily to treat hypogonadism, in which the testes do not produce enough testosterone, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.