The quest for performance enhancing drugs has been there since many centuries with many old civilisations each having their own version of substances they considered improved stamina, built or both. Anabolic Androgenic Steroids (AAS) are any synthetic or naturally occurring chemicals that introduce and/or modify the molecular structure of testosterone and enhancing the body’s muscle building. Unfortunately due to this characteristic, these drugs are being used, and in most cases abused, by users, mostly in the field of sports and media, especially with athletes and weight lifting professionals.
The most common reason one hears for the use of anabolic steroids is to quickly put on mass and muscle and to improve strength and physical looks. However, research abounds on the detrimental effects of steroid use in the long run, including masculinities in women and gynocomastia in men and even reduced life expectancy in both genders.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) defines doping as the “use of endogenous or exogenous substances in abnormal amounts intended to increase the performance of athletes in competition”. The rule was passed in 1964 and athletes were tested starting 1968. Anabolic steroids are very much part of this list along with other substances like narcotics, peptide hormones and other stimulants and are therefore prohibited for use by sportsmen.
The first case of doping and abuse of steroids was reported in 1950 with Russian athletes and the first documented fatality as a result of doping was during the 1960 Olympics. The IOC banned doping in 1964 and adopted testing from 1967. However, reports of medicines being used to work around the tests were found in 1970 and a more stringent test was initiated in 1976 Olympics. 1988 saw Ben Johnson become the first Olympic gold medal winner in track and field to be stripped of his medal after testing positive for AAS, followed by Marion Jones, being stripped of 5 gold medals. The most recent case is that of Lance Armstrong, who in 2013, was stripped of all seven Tour de France titles won from 1999, given a lifetime ban by the International Cycling Union and later being tripped of Olympic bronze medal from the 2000 Sydney Games.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), requires all sportsmen to adhere to a revised code against use of prohibited substances and has five standards – testing, laboratories, exceptions for medical use, list of prohibited substances and confidentiality of information. Anyone thus found using AAS is said to have violated the code.
The biochemistry of steroids
Steroids are essentially lipids and are produced by various organs in the human body from cholesterol. The three essential types of steroids in the body are – androgens or male hormones, oestrogen or female hormones and cortisone, a hormone produced by both sexes to control critical bodily functions, including cardiovascular and skeletal muscles. The two main types of synthetic steroids include corticosteroids, variants of cortisone, used for treatment of conditions like asthma and AAS, variants of testosterone with very little true medical use.
The most common method of administering steroids is orally or through intramuscular injections, though commercially, skin attachments and sprays are also available. It depends on the synthesis of the drug and the manner in which the testosterone molecule has been modified. When used, testosterone molecules enter the cell and attach themselves to a testosterone receptor and move to penetrate the nucleus where they bind to specific portions of the DNA to release RNam. They then detach themselves and become inactive. Since the upper half of the human body has significantly more number of such receptors for the steroid to attach to, there is better muscle accumulation in the torso due to the drug.
Three is also a practice of ‘stacking’, using multiple variants simultaneously based on their different effects and ‘cycling’, wherein the process is put through a cycle of a few weeks.