Anabolic steroids (more formally known as anabolic-androgenic steroids) are a group of medications intended to treat health conditions such as delayed-onset puberty, a lack of naturally occurring steroid hormones and unusual shrinkage of muscle tissue. However, some people abuse these medications by taking them in excessive amounts or taking them for reasons not sanctioned by a doctor. In a study published in June 2014 in the International Journal of Drug Policy, a team of British researchers explored the reported connection between anabolic steroid abuse and consumption of the powerful opioid drug heroin. These researchers concluded that heroin users sometimes have unique reasons for their anabolic steroid intake.
The terms anabolic and androgenic are used to describe steroids’ ability to do two things: increase muscle mass in users and enhance the presence of other typically male physical characteristics. Anabolic-androgenic steroids differ in kind from the corticosteroid medications sometimes used to reduce serious cases of body inflammation. Unlike traditionally abused substances, anabolic steroids do not directly increase the levels of euphoria produced inside the brain’s pleasure center. However, over prolonged periods of time, use of these medications can indirectly trigger some of the same chemical mechanisms as alcohol and addictive drugs. In turn, activation of these mechanisms can lead to substantial adverse changes in behavior and general emotional disposition. In addition, despite their lack of a direct euphoric drug effect, anabolic steroids are potentially addictive. In fact, habitual abusers of these medications can develop addiction symptoms that include continued intake after clearly negative consequences, devotion of serious time and resources to substance acquisition and intake, and the onset of withdrawal when intake stops or substantially decreases.
Compared to the amount of information available on most abused substances, the amount of information available on anabolic steroid abuse is spotty at best. This is true, in part, because many of the large-scale public and private endeavors used to track substance intake in the U.S. do not include anabolic steroids on their substance indexes. Still, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that roughly 1 percent to 6 percent of U.S. athletes may abuse an anabolic steroid. The latest information from a nationwide survey of teenagers called Monitoring the Future indicates that approximately 2 percent of high school seniors qualify as anabolic steroid abusers.
Steroids and Drug Use
Researchers and public health specialists know that people who abuse anabolic steroids also sometimes abuse drugs. In some cases, anabolic steroid use may start after a pattern of drug use/abuse has been established. However, drug use may also begin in the aftermath of anabolic steroid use. For example, research compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that some heroin users initially used only anabolic steroids; these individuals apparently turned to heroin for reasons that include relief of some of the negative side effects associated with steroid use. Similarly, some opioid users/abusers started out as anabolic steroid users. Again, the motivation for a transition into opioid consumption is sometimes a desire to cope with the negative effects of anabolic steroid consumption.
Link to Heroin Use
Some individuals start out using heroin and move on to anabolic steroids. In the study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers from two British organizations used interview information gathered from 240 people to uncover some of the motivations that underscore this trend. Some of these individuals were heroin users, while others were not. Previous research efforts have explored the potential significance of the shared brain effects of heroin use and anabolic steroid use. The current research team chose to focus on the sociological and cultural reasons for the initiation of anabolic steroid intake.
The researchers uncovered several potentially overlapping reasons heroin users sometimes start using anabolic steroids. Core motivations include a desire to offset the drop in body weight that commonly occurs with repeated heroin use and a desire to demonstrate adequate recovery from the complications of heroin use. In some cases, this desire is apparently directed at the self; in other cases, its main targets are family members, friends, doctors, addiction specialists or other concerned parties. The researchers also concluded that heroin users sometimes start using anabolic steroids because they want to put on muscle mass and increase their physical formidability. Among other potential reasons, this motivation has links to concerns for personal safety while selling drugs to other people.