There’s lots of talk about why steroids are bad for you, and plenty of scandals regarding athletes getting caught using these enhancements, but how exactly do they work? And are steroids really that bad for you?

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In this video from BBC Earth Lab, the host explains everything you need to know about anabolic steroids. From a chemical level, steroids are any organic molecule with 17 carbon atoms arranged into four rings. Other elements are then attached to that figure and these help determine what kind of steroid it is. There are many different types of naturally occurring steroids that have various impacts on our bodies. For example, cholesterol and the male hormone testosterone are both different types of steroids.

But synthetic steroids are different. Typically prescribed to treat things like asthma and irritable bowel syndrome, anabolic steroids are basically molecules that have similar structure and function to testosterone. The male sex hormones are chemical messengers that attach to cellular receptors to make certain things happen in certain locations in our body. For example, testosterone is what causes masculine features and characteristics. Guys can attribute their beards, muscles and bone growth to testosterone which creates them by making proteins. Men usually produce more than women, which is why they are typically more masculine than females. There is a limit to how much testosterone your body can naturally produce, which means there’s also a limit to how muscular you can get naturally.

Synthetic anabolic steroids can be used medically to stimulate male puberty or treat diseases which cause people to lose weight, like cancer or AIDS. But they’ve been adopted illegally by people looking to get ripped. These users will routinely inject themselves or swallow tablets containing 10 to 100 times the medical dose to get stronger.

How does this work? When working out, like strength training, our skeletal muscles, which are made of muscle fibers, actually break. In order for the muscle to work properly, they need to be fixed, and extra proteins are needed to reinforce the fibers and make them thicker. The muscle then increases in size, which is a process known as muscle hypertrophy. However there is a cap on this because natural levels of testosterone limit how big the muscles can get. But anabolic steroids allow more reinforcing protein to be created in the body, allowing the muscles to bulk up. However, you need to perform the right exercise and eat a lot of protein. Scientists determined this by conducting studies on rats, even building a rat squatting machine.

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Sadly, steroids don’t just impact the area you’re trying to work, like your biceps, for example. Pumping too many steroids into your body has a lot of adverse effects like acne, high blood pressure, baldness, erectile dysfunction and even shrunken testicles. This happens because your body doesn’t function as normal and can’t just isolate the muscle you want to change. Steroids even affect the brain and can cause excessive aggression, commonly known as roid rage. However some try to avoid this by maintaining control of their practice. One way to do this is by cycling, which entails taking breaks from steroid use. Another known as stacking combines several different anabolic steroids, while pyramiding increases dosage over time. However, none have been scientifically proven to eliminate the negative effects. To learn more about steroids, check out the BBC’s video.

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