How far would you go for your ideal physique? In the quest for superhuman strength, bodybuilders across the nation are pushing themselves to the extreme – from bench-pressing to barbells, curls to callisthenics, dumbbells to deadlifts. Goals include increasing muscle mass, reducing body fat, beating personal bests and winning competitions.
But when does healthy training become a dangerous obsession? In this blog, we cover the causes and health implications of bodybuilding addiction, particularly when anabolic steroid abuse is involved. To find out about anabolic steroid detox, rehab and counselling, please call Addiction Helper in confidence today.
Causes of Anabolic Steroid Abuse and Bodybuilding Addiction
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are class C drugs in the UK. Purchase and possession are legal for personal use, but it’s illegal to sell or supply unless you’re a pharmacist fulfilling a prescription.
The Home Office estimates that 61,000 people used anabolic steroids that were not medically prescribed in 2017-18. That’s almost three times the number of people who used either heroin or crack cocaine last year.
Over the last century, bodybuilders have grown bigger and bulkier. Amongst the most famous male bodybuilders of the 20th Century, Arnold Schwarzenegger defined a new level of extreme physical muscularity from the mid-1960s onwards, later admitting he had used anabolic steroids to maintain his muscle size.
‘Bigorexia’ and Anabolic Steroid Abuse
Muscle dysmorphia, also known as ‘bigorexia’ or ‘reverse anorexia’, is a type of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), where people, believe they are insufficiently muscular. It’s a mental disorder that also has physical consequences, including the potential to fuel bodybuilding addiction and anabolic steroid abuse.
In 2015, the BBC reported that one in 10 men training in UK gyms may be suffering from muscle dysmorphia.
Published in 2016, a scientific review of muscle dysmorphia literature found that survey participants were around 19.5 years old when their symptoms first started. Muscle dysmorphia symptoms they described included:
Spending three or more hours per day thinking about becoming more muscular
- Believing they have little control over bodybuilding activities
- Having exercise and diet regimes that interfere with their lives (including their relationships and career)
- Avoiding activities, people and places because of concerns about muscularity
- Engaging in body monitoring and camouflaging behaviours, such as mirror checking or wearing baggy clothes.
Research consistently shows that people with muscle dysmorphia are more likely to consume illegal substances, suffer from eating disorders and engage in muscle checking rituals.
Anabolic Steroid Abuse and Performance Enhancement in Sport
Some professional bodybuilders, athletes and sportspeople take anabolic steroids, believing they will enhance training capabilities and give them a competitive edge. Desired effects include increasing lean muscle mass and strength, reducing body fat, improving recovery times after exercise, decreasing pain and fuelling aggressiveness.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is the global collaboration that leads the way on doping-free sport, overseeing drug-testing for many sporting federations. WADA’s code prohibits the use of anabolic agents, including anabolic androgenic steroids, both in and out of competition times.
In 2016, The Washington Post reported that two-thirds of all Olympic doping violations come from just three sports: track and field, weightlifting and cycling.
- Famous cases of anabolic steroid abuse in professional sport include:
The BALCO scandal: the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), a San Francisco based lab, supplied banned performance-enhancing drugs to multiple sports stars and athletes between 1988 and 2002. Known as the BALCO scandal, 20 professional competitors were found to be taking THG, a powerful anabolic steroid – including US sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, baseball star Barry Bonds and UK sprinter Dwain Chambers.
- Marion Jones admitted in 2007 to using THG at the height of her career. Jones was stripped of her three gold medals and two bronze medals, which she won at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Speaking to the Washington Post at the time of her admission, she said her former coach, Trevor Graham, had given her THG, saying it was a nutritional supplement.
- Olympic sprinter, Ben Johnson, was stripped of his 100m gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 after he tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol.
Anabolic Steroid Abuse and Cultural Factors
Associations between muscularity, strength and success can be powerful influences shaping body image ideals. Across many cultures and throughout history, physical strength has been connected with heroism, status and power, athletic performance, physical attractiveness and sexual success.
From sports brands that sponsor top athletes, through to marketing campaigns featuring muscular and toned models, there are pressures on both men and women to look fit.
Health Risks of Anabolic Steroid Abuse and Bodybuilding Addiction
Anabolic Steroid Abuse and Physical Illness
There are major physical health risks that come with anabolic steroid abuse. There’s an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, blood clots, stroke, liver and kidney disease.
Anabolic Steroid Abuse and Mental Illness
Anabolic steroids abuse can have psychological side effects including mood disorders, aggression, paranoia and delusions.
People who abuse anabolic steroids may also have a co-existing mental health condition, such as muscle dysmorphia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or an eating disorder.
Anabolic Steroid Abuse and Addiction
Anabolic steroids are addictive. This means you can develop tolerance to them, experience cravings and need more to achieve the same effect.
If you’re on high doses, or you’ve been using for a while, there are likely to be withdrawal symptoms if you stop suddenly – such as depression, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headaches, insomnia and in some cases, suicidal thoughts.
You can also develop psychological dependence, including beliefs around why you need to use anabolic steroids. Psychological cravings can be as powerful as physical cravings in withdrawal.
For all these reasons, please get professional help to detoxify from anabolic steroids, as well as rehab or counselling to help you stay stopped long term. Addiction Helper can advise you on the best recovery programmes in the UK and overseas.
Anabolic Steroid Abuse and Blood-Borne Diseases
Anabolic steroids can be taken via injection, orally or in skin creams. If injecting and sharing needles, there’s a risk of contracting hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV, as well as more rarely the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
Anabolic Steroid Abuse and Fertility
Both men and women who take anabolic steroids regularly are likely to see changes to their sex organs and reproductive system, including impacts on fertility.
For men, the risks including erection problems, shrunken testicles, reduced sperm or no sperm at all. Scientists have defined a connection between bodybuilding, anabolic steroid abuse and male infertility. In a letter published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in April 2019, Dr James Mossman and Professor Allan Pacey said: ‘In evolutionarily blunt terms, no sperm = no babies = low fitness. In other words, many men set themselves an unachievable goal of being both physically and evolutionary fit when using AAS [anabolic-androgenic steroids], and put their masculinity and muscularity in direct conflict.’
Women who take anabolic steroids may suffer a swollen clitoris, unfavourable changes in their breasts and menstrual cycle, as well as increased body hair.
In both sexes, many of these effects are reversible if anabolic steroids are stopped – however, the length of time they take to reverse varies and there is still a risk of permanent changes.
If you’re worried about anabolic steroid abuse, the Addiction Helper team can help you. Access the most effective addiction detox, rehab and counselling programmes today.