Are Steroids Safe in Small Doses?

Readers, viewers, and listeners of American popular media have been increasingly fed stories on steroids and doping in sports since at least the 1972 Olympics, which were clearly tainted by the presence of anabolic steroids in the blood of several participants from at least 7 countries.  The presence of cheating and unfair advantages held by competitors are not in line with the definition of what a modern sport truly is – since the definition itself calls for fairness and equality on the playing field – and reporters as well as spectators often share their opinions on the matter with much emotion: just ask a San Francisco Giants fan how he or she feels about Barry Bonds and the BALCO hearings.  Debates on sports ethics can go on forever between journalists, fans, and sociologists without one side claiming a decisive victory over another, but science may provide empirical data that can help athletes determine whether or not it is safe to use steroids in the first place.  The question, therefore, branches off in a more pragmatic direction.

In order to address this issue with uniformity, a review of a few definitions are in order.  First, though the word “steroid” may have different meanings to many people, for the purpose of this study we will use the definition provided by Princeton University, which basically states that it is “any of 17 fat-soluble organic compounds… many [of which] have important physiological effects… and affect the development and growth of sex organs.”[1] Anabolic steroids, which are one form of steroid, are synthetic forms of testosterone.  Corticosteroids, another variation, are usually used as anti-inflammatory drugs.  Since steroids, namely progestins, simulate potent androgenic hormones and are used by cattle farmers to increase the muscle mass of cows and even by athletes (or on athletes, as in the case of trainers injecting race horses with steroids in Fornatale’s article, If Big Brown Wins, Racing Loses) who hope to improve their performance, it is duly noted that they can cause chronic maladies in animals and people.[2] Though this may be the case, the question persists about whether or not steroids can be safe in small doses.

In an online article published in Physician’s Weekly, a Mayo Clinic study found that small, metered doses of steroids could safely treat a sore throat.[3] ENT Dr. Julie Wei, MD, cautioned that “we’re not suggesting people get in the habit of taking dexamethasone every time they get a sore throat… they can become steroid-dependent and shut down their bodies’ own steroid production.”[4] Now, this caveat brings us to the following question: what exactly is considered a small or large dose of steroids?  Considering how there are at least thirty named anabolic steroids on the market (and these are only the “most popular” according to www.steroid.com), this may vary from one to another.[5]

Deca-durabolin, a progestin also known as “Deca,” is one of the most widely used steroids of the last 25 years.  According to research posted on www.steroid.com, “a single measly 100mg injection of Deca caused a total (100%) reduction of testosterone levels, and it took roughly a month to return those testosterone levels to baseline… impotence and sexual dysfunction [are some of the risks involved.]”[6] The selection ends with recommendations for how to counter the drop in testosterone involving further use of other steroids that raise testosterone levels.  This seems reminiscent of behavior exhibited by drug users who use uppers to counter the effects of downers or vice versa: a cycle that poses serious health hazards including death.  Constantly varying levels of testosterone could also be hazardous to a user’s health and may contribute to severe mood swings and cause depression.[7] It is important, however, to note that research methods implemented by www.steroid.com are not described in any way nor does the reader know when this study was conducted.  Data on the sample is also unavailable and the results are not accompanied by supporting information on the study itself.  Though its validity is questionable, an abundance of anecdotal evidence supports its findings.  An exhaustive investigation could reach beyond simply verifying the web site’s conclusions and yield more enlightening results.

Charles D. Kochakian and Allison A. Welder study the toxicity of steroids in their article “Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids: In Cell Culture.”  They state that even though formal research on the effects of steroids on the human body involving human specimens would be unethical and immoral, the use of cell culture to determine the toxic effects steroids have on the human body “is a promising approach.”[8] Their article supports research conducted by www.steroid.com by finding that, in addition to the harmful effects the latter reported, anabolic steroids cause significant damage to the kidneys and livers of laboratory animals.[9] Doses of testosterone and methandrostenolone even “produced a toxic effect in post-natal rat myocardial cell tissue” and “myocardial lesions” in female rats.[10] Their findings raise some concerns on the dangers of steroid use, but in their conclusions they accept that the doses they used on their subjects were not relative to the amount consumed by humans.

In conclusion, if one agrees with Kachakian and Welder, it would be ethically and morally impossible to perform formal research using the scientific method to determine whether or not steroids are safe in small doses.  Arguably, animal testing does not yield results applicable to human cases, so research conducted by entities like www.steroid.com, which is run by steroid users who share their own experiences, could be the only form of acquiring empirical (though anecdotal) evidence of the dangers – or lack thereof – of steroid use in varying doses.  Dr. Wei spoke about the benefits that small doses of dexamethasone offer patients being treated for a sore throat, but warns of the dangers involved when a doctor’s orders regarding its dosage are violated.  Unstable levels of testosterone could cause emotional problems including depression in humans, and the use of progestins like Deca can lead to such problems as well as sexual dysfunction and impotence.  Lastly, since there is such a wide array of steroids on the market, it is even still more difficult to determine what a “small dose of steroids” truly is.  The synthesis of all cited sources yielded that steroids certainly are dangerous and that athletes who use them run a long gauntlet of possible and significant risks with undetermined probabilities of occurrence.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

Thanks to Professor Craig Lamay at Northwestern University’s Master of Sports Administration program for giving me this assignment.  If you ever get to talk to him, ask him about Brown University, the University of North Carolina, Lacrosse, and what it takes to succeed in life.  He makes great points on all of these subjects!  Also, thank you for reading.


[1] Princeton University. WordNet . Google Search Engine Results. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&defl=en&q=define:steroid&ei=TuZSSoD6A46iML75gesI&sa=X&oi=glossary_definition&ct=title&cts=1246947537800 (accessed 3 July 2009).

[2] Janet Raloff.  “Hormones: Here’s the Beef.”  Science News 161, no. 1 (5 January 2002) 10-12. http://www.jstor.org.turing.library.northwestern.edu/stable/4013043?&Search=yes&term=sports&term=steroids&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dsteroids%2BAND%2Bsports%26gw%3Djtx%26prq%3Dsteroids%2BAND%2Bsports%2BAND%2Bsafe%26Search%3DSearch%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=18&ttl=422&returnArticleService=showArticle (accessed 3 July 2009).

[3] Howard Bell.  “Small Doses of Oral Steroids Soothe Sore Throat Pain.”  Physician’s Weekly XIX, no. 8 (18 February 2002.) 1. http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:qNCMefkOgekJ:www.physiciansweekly.com/article.asp%3Fissueid%3D8%26articleid%3D91+steroids+safe+in+small+doses%3F&cd=10&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us (accessed 5 July 2009).

[4] Bell, Howard.  “Small Doses…” 1.

[5] www.Steroid.com.  “Steroid Profiles.” http://www.steroid.com/Deca.php (accessed 6 July 2009).

[6] www.Steroid.com.  “Steroid Profiles.” http://www.steroid.com/Deca.php (accessed 6 July 2009).

[7] Hannelore Ehrenreich, Angelos Halaris, et al.  “Psychoendocrine Sequelae of Chronic Testosterone Deficiency.”  Journal of Psychiatric Research Volume 33, Issue 5 (10 September 1999) 379-387. http://www.sciencedirect.com.turing.library.northwestern.edu/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T8T-3X4W5GF-3&_user=965532&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000049540&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=965532&md5=1bf3f8a6487e8584cb4aad8ac3f5c033 (accessed 6 July 2009).

[8] Charles D. Kochakian and Welder, Allison A.  “Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids: In Cell Culture.”  In Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology, Animal Volume 29A, no.6 (June 1993) 433. http://www.jstor.org.turing.library.northwestern.edu/stable/4294055?&Search=yes&term=steroids&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dsteroids%26gw%3Djtx%26prq%3Dhuman%2Btestosterone%26Search%3DSearch%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=2&ttl=12193&returnArticleService=showArticle (accessed 6 July 2009).

[9] Kochakian, Charles D. and Welder, Allison A.  “Anabolic-Androgenic…” 433.

[10] Kochakian, Charles D. and Welder, Allison A.  “Anabolic-Androgenic…” 434.

Works Cited

Articles

Bell, Howard.  “Small Doses of Oral Steroids Soothe Sore Throat Pain.”  Physician’s Weekly XIX, no. 8 (18 February 2002.) 1. http://74.125.95.132/search?q=cache:qNCMefkOgekJ:www.physiciansweekly.com/article.asp%3Fissueid%3D8%26articleid%3D91+steroids+safe+in+small+doses%3F&cd=10&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us (accessed 5 July 2009).

Ehrenreich, Hannelore and Angelos Halaris, et al.  “Psychoendocrine Sequelae of Chronic Testosterone Deficiency.”  Journal of Psychiatric Research Volume 33, Issue 5 (10 September 1999) 379-387. http://www.sciencedirect.com.turing.library.northwestern.edu/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T8T-3X4W5GF-3&_user=965532&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000049540&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=965532&md5=1bf3f8a6487e8584cb4aad8ac3f5c033 (accessed 6 July 2009).

Kochakian, Charles D. and Welder, Allison A.  “Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids: In Cell Culture.”  In Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology, Animal Volume 29A, no.6 (June 1993) 433. http://www.jstor.org.turing.library.northwestern.edu/stable/4294055?&Search=yes&term=steroids&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dsteroids%26gw%3Djtx%26prq%3Dhuman%2Btestosterone%26Search%3DSearch%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=2&ttl=12193&returnArticleService=showArticle (accessed 6 July 2009).

Raloff, Janet.  “Hormones: Here’s the Beef.”  Science News 161, no. 1 (5 January 2002) 10-12. http://www.jstor.org.turing.library.northwestern.edu/stable/4013043?&Search=yes&term=sports&term=steroids&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dsteroids%2BAND%2Bsports%26gw%3Djtx%26prq%3Dsteroids%2BAND%2Bsports%2BAND%2Bsafe%26Search%3DSearch%26hp%3D25%26wc%3Don&item=18&ttl=422&returnArticleService=showArticle (accessed 3 July 2009).

Web Sites

Princeton University. WordNet . Google Search Engine Results. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&defl=en&q=define:steroid&ei=TuZSSoD6A46iML75gesI&sa=X&oi=glossary_definition&ct=title&cts=1246947537800 (accessed 3 July 2009).

www.Steroid.com.  “Steroid Profiles.” http://www.steroid.com/Deca.php (accessed 6 July 2009).

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