Sports and Steroids: Let's "Clear" the Air

Warren SicilianoCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2008

Listening to sports radio and TV is something we all as sports fans love to do. Of course we like some shows better than others. One thing they all have in common is that they cause confusion about steroids and exactly what they do to help an athlete. From a degreed health care professional, we will try to lessen the confusion about different types of steroids and their effects on the body and how they may help an athlete perform at a high level, well beyond their normal peak age.

We've all heard how steroids help an athlete heal faster, make them stronger and last longer when performing in their respective sport from listening to the sports talk hosts and athletes on TV and radio. While these comments are true - different steroids do different things in our bodies - yes in OUR bodies - we all have them and produce them naturally whether athletes or not. Athletes just increase the amounts in their bodies by injecting these chemicals into their bodies and therefore might get more benefits than normal.  

Let's call this lesson: Steroids 101. Steroids are like apples, there are many types and they all have different effects on our body. First and foremost, the word "Steroid" describes a certain chemical structure that is common for many, many different compounds. So there are dozens of chemicals (drugs, etc) that are Steroids. All of our bodies make steroids naturally, we also all make Human Growth Hormone (HGH) which technically isn't a steroid but we hear them all talked about together.

One type of steroid that our bodies make is Cortisol, made in the Adrenal glands that sit on top of our Kidneys. You may have heard about or taken prescription drugs that are related to Cortisol. Some of the names are Prednisone, Methylprednisolone and Dexamethasone as well as others. These are classified as Corticosteroids (sounds similar to Cortisol doesn't it!). Many of you know that when you are sick with certain diseases, the doctor will prescribe you Prednisone to help you get over certain illnesses such as Bronchitis, Asthma, A broken arm, etc. When you have such illnesses, your body naturally produces more Cortisol to help you heal faster, so when the doctor give you that shot in the butt or give you a prescription of the pills, it is to add more chemicals that do that same thing as your own Cortisol. In other words, it helps you heal faster from whatever illness you have. These type of Steroids are strong reducers of swelling or inflammation so your body can basically "clean up" the damaged tissues that occur with different illnesses. 

Another type of Steroid, are the "sex" hormones like Testosterone in men or Estrogen in women. These steroids really don't have much of an effect on reducing inflammation. They are responsible for making us who we are: Testosterone makes a man, a man. This hormone is produced in the Testicles (so that's why women don't make it). It is responsible for why men have more muscle, a deeper voice, thicker bones, etc than women. Estrogen is made in the woman's Ovaries (that's why men don't make it) and is responsible mainly for making a woman ready to bear children and has no real effect on muscle mass although it does help increase bone density, etc.

The effect Testosterone has on thickening bone and adding muscle is termed anabolism, hence it is in the class of Anabolic Steroids, which we have all probably heard discussed. This type of steroid does help the body take building blocks called Amino Acids and make muscle fibers to add to existing muscle or can aid in replacing damaged muscle. So, in a way, these can help speed recovery from muscle damage by adding new muscle but that really isn't the main function of Testosterone. It's main function is to keep adding muscle on top of muscle and helps the body add muscle mass. Just look at the cover of some of the bodybuilding magazines and you will see the effects of steroid. All of those layers of muscle are not gained by just working out, the working out just helps sculpt the muscle into shapes like bulging biceps, 6-pack abs, etc. This extra muscle also adds additional strength. It's just a matter of fact that more muscles equal more strength. Again these anabolic steroids are mainly the help the body build muscle mass and less on repairing muscle damage although they will help.

HGH or Human Growth Hormone is technically not a steroid because it's chemical structure does not have the necessary components to be in the Steroid class. HGH is a polypeptide (or protein) that has an effect on the bodies release of other chemicals that makes us literally grow. Before we (men and women) hit puberty, our bones grow longer because the ends of the bones are "soft" and not set. So HGH is produced and released more as we are children and is a primary chemical responsible for our growth - i.e. why we get taller, etc. HGH is released from a small place in our Pituitary Gland in the Brain Stem, and it's release sets off a whole chain of processes that allow us to grow taller, our skin thickens, muscles grow, blood vessels grow all to meet the demand of us getting bigger. Then at Puberty, the ends of the bone "set" so they will not grow longer and the level of HGH drops very low to almost nothing to stop the growing process. Some people have Pituitary tumors which pump out more HGH than normal (those without Pituitary tumors) so this is where you see very tall children but in these case of people with these tumors, they keep producing HGH in high levels even after puberty and even though the bones don't grow longer, they keep getting thicker and thicker. These people share certain physical characteristics such as protruding jaws and foreheads, they are barrel chested and have very thick and large bone and muscle structure. People such as Andre the Giant, Lurch (from Addams Family), Greg Oden (Portland Trail Blazers), The Big Show from wrestling are all examples of what are called Pituitary Giants who probably had tumors that kept making and releasing HGH. In smaller doses given by injection, you can see how athletes can improve performance with HGH because of it's effect on increasing bone density and not necessarily making alot more muscle mass but making stronger muscle fibers that are dense and solid.

In conclusion, hopefully the reader can see that Steroids is just a general term and it really depends on what kind of Steroid is used to get a certain effect. Most steroids can improve an athletes performance by either adding more muscle and therefore can make them stronger (Anabolic Steroids) or by helping speed the healing process ( Corticosteroids). And then there is HGH which is not a steroid but still can keep an athletes muscle and bone in more pristine condition and can also aid on healing the tissue.