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Steroid use: what are the real health and social impacts?

You might associate illegal steroid use with disgraced Olympic athletes, but the reality is your younger brother is just as likely to be on the juice as they are. However, while the use of illegal steroids regularly hits the sporting headlines, the impact these drugs have on ordinary young men is often overlooked.

Health and Social Development Lecturer Dr Matthew Dunn from Deakin University Dr has conducted research into the use of steroids and other performance and image-enhancing drugs among young men Dr Dunn’s research shows an alarming gap when it comes to medical care and expert advice. Peer-to-peer education on social media (‘bro science’) is helping to reduce harm, but it still asks the questions: what are the health and social consequences of illegal steroid use? And can bro science continue to bridge the gap? Dr Dunn gives us some insights.

Side effects of steroids

It’s almost expected that someone who uses steroids will experience at least one negative side effect. According to Dr Dunn, many of these are nuisance effects – increased acne, more body and facial hair, perhaps a loss of sex drive. But there are many more serious effects, such as your body ceasing to produce testosterone when it detects steroids in your system (steroids are a synthetic form of it). Black market steroids can also present additional unknown risks.

‘When a person stops taking steroids, it can take some time before the body produces testosterone again and that can negatively impact both physical and mental health. One participant I spoke with as part of a research study, mentioned that he has used steroids for so long (at least two decades) that his steroid use was now really testosterone replacement therapy,’ Dr Dunn says.

Bro science: real-life research

There is an undeniable stigma around steroids, and it is often a topic that can only be discussed in whispers; people who use them have resorted to getting health information from each other because they’ve become the on-the-ground experts. ‘Some medical professionals will refuse to discuss these substances with the people using them; in the absence of medical input, they turn to each other,’ Dr Dunn explains.

‘This is actually a good thing; we know that there is a lot of sharing of good, practical information which can be used to reduce the harm related to use. That being said, doctors are trained in how the body works, and can provide valuable insight, particularly when someone is experiencing harm.’

'When a person stops taking steroids, it can take some time before the body produces testosterone again and that can negatively impact both physical and mental health.'

Dr Matthew Dunn,
School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University

Getting smart about steroid use

Dr Dunn would like to see the medical profession step in and provide the medical advice that steroid users need. ‘It would be great if, for someone contemplating steroid use, they could get their health checked before and during their use so that at the first sign that there may be a problem, appropriate action can be taken.’

‘Not all people who think about using steroids will use them, and not everyone who uses them wants to use them for a long time,’ Dr Dunn adds. If GPs are turning young men away, they’ll continue to look to each other for advice.

Steroids beyond the sporting field

Steroids aren’t just about guys wanting the full Schwarzenegger, despite society’s obsession with staying young and the pressure on men to have a six-pack you could grate cheese on. They’re also used for physical, sporting and occupational reasons.

‘Having bigger muscles can mean more strength, and more strength can mean improved performance on the sporting field or in the gym. If you’re bigger and stronger, this may mean you’re a better security guard, a better bouncer, a better athlete, a better tradie.’

According to Dr Dunn, we need to remember that young men are interested in taking steps to ensure good health. ‘Steroid use doesn’t have to be problematic and doesn’t have to result in harm, but we need to shift how we view this practice, and that may take some time.’

With all that talk about being fit and strong, try a strength-training workout.

If you believe in the benefits of exercise, check out what it’s really like to be a clinical exercise physiologist.

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Dr Matthew Dunn
Dr Matthew Dunn

Senior Lecturer, School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University

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