Anabolic steroids testosterone muscle recovery libido risks dangers hypertrophy sex

What are anabolic steroids and what do they do?

What anabolic steroids offer – bigger, stronger and more defined muscles, faster recovery and increased sex drive – is well known. But there’s a huge number of mental and physical health dangers – both short term and long term – that can dramatically affect the quality of your life and make the risks far outweigh the rewards, says New Body Plan’s Joe Warner

With promises of dramatic increases in muscular size, strength and definition, anabolic steroids tempt many men. And not just wannabe bodybuilders but ordinary guys who just want to look a bit more jacked in the gym, or for a beach holiday.

Yet most men aren’t fully aware – or knowingly bury their heads in the sand – of the significant health risks these performance- and physique-enhancing drugs provide. In this in-depth guide we explain everything you’ve ever wanted to know about anabolic steroids but were too afraid to ask.

TL;DR Anabolic steroids can supercharge muscle growth and physical performance. Yet, their usage comes with significant health risks, including testicular shrinkage, gynecomastia (more commonly known as “man boobs“, and acne. There are far better, healthier and more sustainable ways to optimise testosterone levels naturally through sensible lifestyle interventions – lifting weights, eating for muscle gain and fat loss, and improving sleep quality and quantity – to build the body you want instead of relying on anabolic steroids.

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What are anabolic steroids?

Anabolic steroids, in their most basic sense, are synthetic derivatives of testosterone, the primary male sex hormone. These substances, also known as anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), simulate the effects of testosterone, promoting anabolic processes, or tissue building, predominantly lean muscle mass, and androgenic processes, which involve the development and maintenance of male characteristics.

While anabolic steroids have legitimate medical uses – such as treating certain types of anaemia, some forms of breast cancer, severe burns, and some types of serious growth problems in children and adolescents – they have also garnered a dubious reputation as performance-enhancing drugs. They’re often taken by athletes and bodybuilders to boost muscle mass, performance, and endurance, and reduce recovery time between workouts.

This popularity comes at a price. A study in the European Journal of Endocrinology emphasises that: “chronic anabolic steroid use can lead to potentially severe and sometimes irreversible cardiovascular, neurological, psychiatric, endocrine, renal, and hepatic adverse effects.” In essence, while AAS can be valuable in certain medical scenarios, their misuse has significant health implications.

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Are anabolic steroids legal in the UK?

In the United Kingdom, anabolic steroids are classified as Class C controlled substances under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It’s legal to possess anabolic steroids for personal use, but it’s illegal to supply them. This means you can be prosecuted for possession with intent to supply if you have large quantities of these substances without a prescription. Even giving them away to friends can result in up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

What do anabolic steroids do?

Anabolic steroids primarily stimulate muscle tissue to grow and ”bulk up” in response to weight training by mimicking the effect of naturally produced testosterone on the body. These substances bind to androgen receptors in muscle cells, resulting in increased protein synthesis and reduced protein degradation. The result? A net gain in muscle mass and muscle strength.

But anabolic steroids don’t stop there. They also influence the body’s metabolic systems, playing a role in glucose regulation, fat distribution, and the maintenance of bone density. Additionally, they can decrease muscle damage and inflammation, reducing recovery time and allowing for more intense, frequent training sessions.

Nonetheless, the benefits come with strings attached. A study in the Journal of Sports Science says: “Anabolic steroids might appear to be a ‘quick fix’ to enhanced muscularity, but the potential physical, psychological, and addictive effects of these drugs may far outweigh the benefits.”

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How do anabolic steroids make my muscles grow?

When it comes to muscle growth, anabolic steroids operate on a simple principle: they enhance protein synthesis and decrease protein degradation in muscle cells. Essentially, they stimulate the body to build more muscle protein, which leads to increased muscle size and strength.

Anabolic steroids achieve this effect by interacting with muscle cells’ androgen receptors. Upon binding to these receptors, they stimulate an increase in the production rate of proteins, while also slowing the process of protein breakdown. This balance is tipped significantly in favour of protein synthesis, which facilitates muscle growth.

Moreover, anabolic steroids enhance the body’s ability to retain nitrogen within the muscle. As the building block of protein, a positive nitrogen balance assists the body in entering an anabolic, or muscle-building, state.

However, the Journal of Physiology adds an important caveat: “Chronic steroid use alters the normal hormonal milieu and may lead to a disruption in normal growth and development.”

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Will anabolic steroids increase my sex drive?

Anabolic steroids, being synthetic forms of the male hormone testosterone, can indeed increase your sex drive and libido, particularly in the initial stages of use. The logic behind this is simple: testosterone plays a key role in sexual desire and performance, so an increase in its levels can stimulate a heightened libido.

However, while the above may sound tempting, it’s crucial to understand the intricate complexity of the human hormonal system and the possible implications of its artificial manipulation.

A study from the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism states that anabolic steroids trick the body into thinking it has more testosterone than it needs. The body, in response, shuts down its own production of testosterone in an attempt to restore balance. This condition, known as hypogonadism, can lead to a dramatic reduction in natural testosterone production, which can in turn lead to a decrease in sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and even infertility.

Furthermore, the relationship between anabolic steroids and libido is not linear and may vary considerably among individuals. Some men on anabolic steroids report decreases in their libido as the body tries to adjust and counterbalance the hormone influx. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced when steroid use is discontinued abruptly. The body might take time to restart its own testosterone production, during which a man can experience a period of low libido, among other symptoms.

It’s also worth mentioning the mental health effects that anabolic steroids can have. Mood swings, depression, and anxiety can all impact your interest in sex and overall sexual performance. So, while anabolic steroids might initially boost your sex drive, the long-term effects can be far less desirable and, in some cases, seriously damaging.

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What are the health risks of anabolic steroids?

Despite their ability to enhance muscle growth and performance, anabolic steroids can inflict a heavy toll on the body. From a cardiovascular perspective, they’re linked to an increased risk of heart disease and hypertension. They’re also associated with liver damage, including the development of cancer and liver failure.

From a mental health perspective, anabolic steroids can trigger mood disorders, including aggression, mania, anxiety, depression, and psychosis. Long-term use can lead to addiction, characterised by cravings, difficulty in stopping steroid use, and withdrawal symptoms.

Men may experience testicular atrophy, reduced sperm count, impotence, baldness, gynecomastia (breast development), and an increased risk of prostate cancer. Women may experience menstrual irregularities, reduced breast size, masculinisation, and an enlarged clitoris.

A review in the International Journal of Sports Medicine underlines these risks: “The adverse effects of AAS extend far beyond the reproductive system, affecting the cardiovascular system, mental health, the liver, and the musculoskeletal system.”

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Will anabolic steroids make my testicles shrink?

Yes, anabolic steroid use can lead to testicular shrinkage. The body constantly strives to maintain a hormonal balance. When external testosterone or its derivatives enter the body, the endocrine system reacts by reducing natural testosterone production. The testicles, responsible for the majority of the body’s testosterone production, subsequently shrink due to lowered activity – a phenomenon known as testicular atrophy.

An article in the British Journal of Pharmacology explains: “Exogenous AAS administration suppresses the hypothalamic‐pituitary‐gonadal axis leading to decreased endogenous testosterone production, testicular atrophy, and spermatogenesis suppression.”

Do anabolic steroids cause “man boobs”?

Anabolic steroids usage can lead to the development of male breast tissue, a condition known as gynecomastia. This occurs because some anabolic steroids can be converted into estradiol, a form of estrogen, by the enzyme aromatase. Increased levels of estrogen can stimulate the growth of breast tissue.

The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism explains: “Gynecomastia is a common adverse effect associated with anabolic steroid use. The increase in peripheral aromatisation of anabolic steroids to oestrogen is thought to be the key pathophysiological factor leading to gynecomastia.”

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How are anabolic steroids taken?

They can be administered into the body through a variety of ways, each method coming with its unique implications and considerations.

Orally ingested as tablets or capsules, this is the simplest form of administration. These steroids pass through the liver, creating a potential for liver toxicity over time. They also tend to clear the system quickly, hence are often required to be taken multiple times a day to maintain stable blood levels.

Injectable steroids, on the other hand, are typically injected directly into muscle tissue. This allows the steroids to bypass the digestive system and liver, reducing the potential for toxicity. Depending on the type of steroid, injections can be as frequent as every other day or as spaced out as every two weeks. The down side is that injections can cause pain and infection at the injection site if not done correctly.

A less common form of administration is transdermally, through skin creams or patches. These are applied directly to the skin, allowing the steroid to be absorbed into the bloodstream. However, these are not typically as potent or effective as oral or injectable forms, and the steady release may not provide the same ‘spike’ in blood steroid levels that some users seek for performance enhancement.

Lastly, there are also nasal sprays and inhaled versions, typically used for non-anabolic corticosteroids which are more for inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, but can sometimes be seen in the anabolic sphere.

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What is anabolic steroid cycling?

Anabolic steroid cycling is a practice often adopted by bodybuilders and athletes using these substances. It involves periods of steroid use (on-cycle) followed by periods of rest or non-use (off-cycle). The goal of cycling is twofold: to maximize the benefits of steroids while reducing the likelihood of side effects, and to prevent the body’s natural hormone production from shutting down completely.

However, the effectiveness and safety of this approach are heavily debated, and a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine argues: “the practice of ‘cycling’ steroid doses – using for some weeks/months and then abstaining to allow the body to ‘recover’ – has no scientific basis.”

What happens when you stop taking anabolic steroids?

Once they stop using users may experience a range of withdrawal symptoms linked to addiction. These symptoms can manifest as mood swings, fatigue, restlessness, loss of appetite, insomnia, reduced sex drive, and even depression. Over time, natural hormone production can resume, and the body can recover, but this process can be slow and often requires medical assistance.

A study in Addiction highlights that: “steroid withdrawal syndrome commonly includes symptoms such as: cravings for steroids, loss of appetite, tiredness, restlessness, insomnia, mood swings, and decreased libido.”

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What are the most popular anabolic steroids used by bodybuilders?

The world of bodybuilding has seen various anabolic steroids rise to prominence, depending on the desired effect, perceived safety, and accessibility. Some of the most popular ones include:


Considered the OG of all anabolic steroids, it’s used in most cycles for its ability to increase muscle mass, strength, and recovery speed.

Dianabol (Methandrostenolone)

Known for its rapid and pronounced effects on muscle gain and strength, it’s often used at the beginning of a cycle.

Deca-Durabolin (Nandrolone Decanoate)

Popular for its ability to increase muscle size and strength, with additional benefits of enhancing joint health.


Noted for its high anabolic and androgenic effects, it’s often used by bodybuilders seeking to lose fat while maintaining muscle.

Anavar (Oxandrolone)

Typically used in cutting cycles, it helps retain muscle while promoting fat loss and is often favoured by beginners due to its reputation of having fewer side effects.

However, all these steroids come with significant potential side effects, especially when used without medical supervision. As a review in Sports Medicine explains: “Illicit use of AAS might be associated with a range of adverse effects, both acute and chronic, which may cause death.”

How much do anabolic steroids cost?

The cost of anabolic steroids varies widely based on several factors such as the type of steroid, dosage, geographical region, and whether they’re obtained legally through a prescription or illegally. As a ballpark estimate, illicit anabolic steroids can cost anywhere from $80 to $200 for a month’s supply. But these prices can fluctuate dramatically based on the factors mentioned above. Furthermore, when purchased from the black market, the quality, safety, and efficacy of these substances are questionable at best.

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Should I take anabolic steroids?

The decision to take anabolic steroids is highly personal and should be grounded in a thorough understanding of the potential benefits and risks. While anabolic steroids can enhance muscle growth and athletic performance, they also come with significant health risks and legal implications. Before making this decision, consider your goals, the potential health impacts, and the ethical implications.

If you’re considering using anabolic steroids, seek advice from a healthcare professional. This decision isn’t just about athletic performance: it’s about long-term health, and as The British Medical Journal explains: “The non-medical use of anabolic steroids raises significant ethical, legal, and health concerns.” It’s crucial to ensure that any decision is based on comprehensive, balanced information and professional guidance.

5 ways to build muscle without taking anabolic steroids

Follow these proven lifestyle habits to increase your testosterone level the fast, easy and natural way to build more muscle and burn even stubborn body fat without resorting to anabolic steroids!

  1. Eat protein, fat and carbs: Your diet plays a pivotal role in testosterone and other hormone levels. Eating more protein can aid in fat loss, which is associated with higher testosterone levels.
  2. Exercise and lift weights: Resistance and high-intensity interval training are the most effective forms of exercise to boost testosterone.
  3. Minimise stress and cortisol levels: Long-term stress elevates cortisol, a hormone that often acts inversely with testosterone: when cortisol goes up, testosterone goes down.
  4. Get high-quality sleep: The amount of quality sleep you get is just as important for testosterone levels as diet and exercise.
  5. Take vitamin D supplements: A 12-month study found that supplementing with vitamin D3 boosted testosterone levels by around 25%.

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