May 5, 2014
Steroids: supersizing the man in the mirror
Image-conscious young men are increasingly turning to steroids to attain the ‘perfect’ body. Do they know what they’re doing to their health?
“I started using steroids when I was 19 years old,” says Dave Crosland, who is 6ft 2in and weighs 25st 7lb. “I wanted to push my limits and see what was achievable.”
Now aged 42, Crosland says he spent long stretches of his twenties and thirties “clean”, before returning to anabolic steroid use over the past four years. He says he wanted to have one final go at taking part in bodybuilding competitions: “I’d competed as a natural and gone as far as I could. I wanted to compete with the big boys.”
Crosland is one of the UK’s increasing legion of gym-goers who use steroids to help supersize their muscles. Medical guidance body NICE believes that 59,000 people took steroids last year (compared with 27,000 heroin users), while social care charity CRI has seen a massive 645 per cent rise in the number of steroid users between 2010 and 2013.
Those numbers only tell part of the story. As the number of steroid users has increased, the average age of those users has fallen. Jim McVeigh, the acting director at the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, says that when he started working in needle exchanges in the early 90s, many of the steroid users matched Crosland’s profile: aspiring bodybuilders who had years of training under their belts and a healthy knowledge base about steroid use. “Now, the vast majority of people would appear to be males in their late teens and early twenties who are just doing it for informal cosmetic reasons. They’re not doing it with specific targets or with competition in mind, it’s just to improve their appearance.”
Recreational steroid use is on the rise.
The underground labs that fuel steroid use Think of the word steroid and a barrage of negative connotations spring to mind: Ben Johnson’s Pyrrhic victory at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Lance Armstrong’s unrelenting ascent up France’s highest peaks, even Raoul Moat’s murderous final days on the run in Newcastle. We tend to consider steroids as an unknown evil, the refuge of cheats and madmen. It’s easy to forget that GPs prescribe them to patients on a regular basis. Anabolic steroids are an artificial substance, made in laboratories, that behave like natural hormones in the body. Usually, they fulfil the role of testosterone at a muscular level by helping to repair minor damage in muscle fibres. The steroids work much faster than natural testosterone, offering help to people with late onset puberty or muscle loss from cancer. In terms of non-medical use, steroids are classified as a Class C drug, which means you can possess them as long as they are for personal use (supply or intent to supply is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison): “No one’s committing a criminal act by injecting themselves with anabolic steroids,” says McVeigh. That isn’t to say there aren’t dangers involved. While the pharmacological substances aren’t a threat “to the majority of the population, to anyone with an underlying sensitivity they can be dangerous”, explains McVeigh. Just as with all other drugs, individuals can react badly to steroids. Crosland says one of his friends “suffered two heart attacks and has permanently screwed up his testosterone cycle from a starter’s course. It can happen, you just have to be careful.” Another worry is what’s in the substance. Steroids can be bought legally abroad or online, but Crosland says users often turn to the illicit market. “Generally, most people will buy it from a supplier – a dealer, as such. A lot of it is done by word of mouth and post. The steroids are from underground laboratories (UGLs). Some UGLs are slick operations run professionally, hygienic, with high standards. But some of them are 17-year-old spotty nerds in their kitchen sink. The thing is, you don’t know.” By buying steroids from a UGL, users relinquish all certainty they have in the substance they’re using. “Nobody knows the exact drug, the strength, or whether they’re being adulterated,” says McVeigh. “On top of that, they’re being injected straight into the body, so any contamination or adulteration is going directly into the system. It’s not like you’re going to have your liver or your bowels sort it out. And then you have to add in the potential for contaminating injecting equipment and the possibility of exposure to HIV.”