Drug Facts: Steroids

First published 2003. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

Looks Can Be Deceiving
Steroids unquestionably work extremely well—no denying it,” says Dr. Harrison Pope of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. “But they will probably shorten your life expectancy. By how much, we still don’t know.”

On the outside, steroid abusers look big and strong, but on the inside, they’re weak. Their organs take a beating, and their bodies turn on them in all kinds of ways. Here’s some of the tough stuff that anabolic steroid users may encounter.


‘Roid Rage
Steroids can mess with your head. They can even make you violent. Dr. Harrison Pope said, “I have consulted on several cases where previously non-violent individuals committed murders when under the influence of steroids.”

In 2000, Dr. Pope conducted a NIDA-supported study, which showed that, along with violent behavior, high doses of steroids can cause extreme fluctuations in emotions, from euphoria (bliss) to rage. These psychiatric symptoms may be a result of steroids’ effect on the brain. Steroids act on the limbic system, which is involved in mood, memory, and learning. There, the drug disrupts the normal functioning of neurons—hence, the overly aggressive behavior and mood swings.

More Than a Bad Hair Day
Ever had a bad hair day or a pimple and felt that you couldn’t focus on anything else? Imagine if a small flaw (real or imagined) took over your life. That’s what it’s like for an estimated one to two percent of Americans with body dysmorphic disorder, or BDD.

Like anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder that causes people to see themselves as fat even as they starve their bodies into dangerous thinness, BDD involves a distortion in body image. In extreme cases, people with BDD can spend hours glued to a mirror or even become suicidal. As you’ve read, the disorder can also lead to steroid abuse.

roid2.JPGWe talked to Dr. Roberto Olivardia, a psychiatrist who treats patients with BDD and Dr. Pope’s co-author, to find out more.

Q: What is BDD?
A: It’s when you’re very, very bothered by a part of your appearance. Craig focused on his muscularity, but BDD can be a preoccupation with any body part—your hair, skin, nose.

Q: What causes BDD?
A: We live in a culture that praises a perfect appearance. But that’s only part of the picture. There are also deeper psychological roots.

Q: How do I know if I have BDD?
A: Ask yourself: How much of my self-esteem is wrapped up in how I look? Does it prevent me from going to school? Am I still hanging out with friends?

Q: How can I get help for BDD?
A: The best treatment for the disorder is psychotherapy (counseling).

For more information on steroids, check out:

• NIDA’s pages on steroids: www.drugabuse.gov/drugpages/steroids.html

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