Anabolic steroids work primarily by stimulating certain receptors within muscle cells. Anabolic steroids are either injected, taken orally, or taken transdermally. If injected or taken transdermally, they are not processed by the liver, so they go straight to the bloodstream. If they are taken orally, they are first processed by the liver before entering the bloodstream.
Once in the bloodstream, anabolic steroids are taken all over the body, but enter muscle cells specifically in order to find certain receptors. Unlike insulin or IGF-1, steroids actually pass through the cell-membrane, as they’re fat soluble. From here they bind to certain androgen receptors within the muscle cells – specifically in the nucleus.
Through this process they are able to activate something known as “protein synthesis,” through gene transcription. The way that gene transcription works, is that a certain anabolic steroid, let’s say good old testosterone, will tell the nucleus to produce different genes, which lead to muscle growth.
By activating certain genes, testosterone (or any of its synthetic derivatives/similar chemical compounds such as DHEA, androstenedione, or dihydrotestosterone) is able to influence what I mentioned before: protein synthesis. By producing different genes within the muscle cells, steroids increase the rate at which enzymes responsible for metabolizing protein are produced. In other words, protein is created from amino acids AND used to repair broken down muscle cells at a much faster rate. So, logically, if there are a lot more enzymes which metabolize protein, you will recover and gain muscle faster.
By enhancing protein synthesis, steroids also ensure that the muscle cells do not enter into a state of catabolism, or being broken down. This is crucial for high level athletes who are often training intensely with hardly any rest. By preventing muscle waste through gene transcription, steroids ensure that an athlete can train for hours on one day, and be completely recovered by the next.
In addition to enhancing protein synthesis, steroids also decrease cortisol’s ability to bind to its receptor sites. In other words, there are certain receptors within muscles which are designed to fit the cortisol molecule – once bound to these sites, cortisol will also alter gene transcription and cause muscles to break down.
Cortisol is also responsible for stress – a huge detriment to recovering from intense workouts. By blocking cortisol from not only causing psychological stress, but by also blocking it from causing muscles to break down, steroids greatly decrease the time it takes for an athlete to recover.
This blocking of cortisol is also known to cause the euphoric effect which steroid users often report – a surge in testosterone and a drop in cortisol leads to a very stress-free and confident life.
There are, however, some very negative effects. Steroid abuse has clearly been shown to permanently lower your testosterone levels, leading to infertility and testicle shrinkage. They can also increase LDL (bad cholesterol) and decrease HDL (good cholesterol), which increases your risk of heart disease.
In summary, steroids offer a double whammy: not only do they prevent muscles from breaking down and wasting away, but they also drastically increase their ability to recover. However the benefits often come at a price. The greater the benefit, the more damage you do to your body.
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- Nuckols, Greg. “The Science of Steroids • Strengtheory.” Strengtheory. Strengtheory, 08 Oct. 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <http://www.strengtheory.com/the-science-of-steroids/>.
- Auchus, Richard J. “Anabolic Steroid Abuse.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (2006): n. pag. Http://www.utsouthwestern.edu/. UT Southwestern Medical Center. Web. 1 Dec. 2015. <http://www.utsouthwestern.edu/edumedia/edufiles/education_training/programs/stars/auchus-anabolic-steroids.pdf>.