Anabolic Steroids: From The Beginning Years
At present time, there are several anabolic steroid derivatives that are available to us. We can enjoy a varied range of benefits with the help of these compounds. It is not just muscle mass gain or bone development that anabolic steroids help achieve. They are in fact used by medical practitioners to bring out critical beneficial changes in patients suffering from debilitating deficiencies and/ or injuries. Anabolic steroids may be prescribed by physicians to treat anemia, osteoporosis and to control breast cancer in women. In addition, these compounds are recommended for patients suffering from severe weight loss as a result of a serious illness.
There are several reasons behind the popularity of anabolic steroids among athletes. They enhance cellular tissue development, enhance speed and endurance and speed up recovery. This, in turn, allows athletes to train harder and longer.
There is no doubt that research into anabolic steroid and the resultant discoveries has transformed the way we live today. However, misinformation and a lack of proper understanding about these highly valuable compounds has led to the general feeling that anabolic steroids are harmful and dangerous.
To truly appreciate the benefits of these compounds it is important to see why research in this direction first began and how, despite immense challenges, scientists forged ahead to discover the true potential of these compounds. In the process we will follow their endeavors to learn more about the role of hormones and their many efforts to create substitutes for them.
The What, Where and How of Androgens
Today, many people assume that steroids and testosterone are synonymous. However, when one revisits the history of steroids, it becomes evident that researchers and scientists went through many difficulties to understand the key role played by testosterone and other androgenic hormones. In fact, it is more accurate to say that in the beginning, scientists working in the field of steroid research were floundering in the dark as regards the role played by various androgenic hormones in the human body. At this stage, the role of testosterone was not clearly known.
To understand how the anabolic steroid research story unfolded it becomes necessary to learn more about androgens.
The Production of Androgens in the Human Body
Androgens are sex steroid hormones that are chemically related. A steroid is a four ringed carbon atom core molecule. When enzymes act on the cholesterol core, pregnenolone, testosterone and other androgens are produced in the body. In vertebrates (including humans), androgens are created in the testes, ovaries and adrenal glands. However, the adrenal glands produce only a small amount of the total testosterone in our bodies.
Since testosterone is the hormone that is most relevant to this study of anabolic steroids, let’s take a more detailed look at how it is produced. It is in the reproductive organs that 95% of testosterone is created in this way:
Step 1: Hypothalamus (in the brain) detects the need for more testosterone
Testosterone and dihydrotestosterone are the primary androgens produced in this way. Androstenedione, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and 11-ketotestosterone are weaker androgens also produced in the human body in small amounts.
The Function of Androgens
Androgens work by docking with cell receptors. These receptors can be found in the liquid cytoplasm of the cells or on the cell’s membrane. Based on where the cell receptor is located, the binding with the receptor results in different outcomes.
Let’s take a detailed look at Testosterone: After Testosterone production, the hormone is sent into the bloodstream where it attaches itself to albumin and SHBG. A small percentage remains free and this keeps circulating in the blood stream. This free testosterone is the purest from of the hormone. It enters various cells and stimulates receptors to produce the benefits we often see such as enhanced virility or muscle growth. When the hypothalamus detects enough Testosterone in the bloodstream, signals are sent to the pituitary gland to cease producing this hormone.
The predominant impact of androgen production is witnessed on the male sexual development and traits as well as female sexual behavior. However, in adults, hormones are found to influence muscle mass and bone development significantly. Deficient androgen production has various consequences. The most relevant of these with respect to this study is reduced bone mass, increased body fat, lethargy/ fatigue, reduced muscle mass and depleted strength.
The Beginnings of Anabolic Steroid Research
It was back in the 1930’s that scientists created a synthetic form of the male hormone testosterone for the very first time in human history. Their objective was to treat men who suffered from the inability to produce adequate amounts of this hormone to support normal body functions including proper growth, sexual functioning and age proportionate development. However, study into the development of artificial forms of androgens was common even in the 1800’s. Several animal studies made their way into the public eye at this time and these laid the basis for later studies and research in this field as well as for developments related to endocrinology. Experimental androgen injections were successfully developed by the end of the century.
The synthesis of the testosterone structure in the 1930’s brought the attention of the medical community to this field of research and development. At this point of time, the researchers and scientists were solely focusing their energies on the use of testosterone in a therapeutic manner. In fact, this hormone and its synthetic versions were widely popularized as the ‘elixir of youth’ by many researchers the world over.
Synthetic testosterone was later also used during the World War II . During this time, the hormone was given to soldiers who suffered from malnourishment and it helped them gain body weight and perform better in the battlefield. However, the use of artificial/ synthetic formulations to enhance body weight, strength and performance was not a new concept even at this early age.
It was at this point in time that scientists also discovered another interesting fact- that the estrogenic, androgenic and anabolic activity of these hormones could be modified by tweaking their molecular structures . This discovery took researchers down a new path. Now they wanted to create a synthetic hormone that would only give the user the beneficial effects of hormone ingestion while insulating him/ her from the other side effects. In effect, they wanted to develop a ‘pure’ anabolic steroid that would encompass immense strength yet have negligible estrogenic and androgenic properties. The ingestion of this kind of ‘pure’ steroid would help the user gain the desirable outcomes of heightened energy and stamina and lean muscle gain. By the time the 1950’s rolled by, scientists had developed more than 1000 synthetic/ artificial hormones. Sadly, none of them were ‘pure’ steroids that could offer solely anabolic benefits and not display androgenic or estrogenic properties.
However, it would be wrong to think that humans have used performance enhancers only in the Modern Age. There is historic evidence of the ancients having used them to enhance their performance in various events. During the very first Olympic games, athletes ingested animal testicles over extended periods right before they had to participate in an event. Thus, we know that even during the ancient times (776 to 393 BC) use of external performance enhancers was not only known but actually implemented. The word ‘dope’ may, in fact, be traced back to the viscous opium juice of ‘doop’ as the Dutch called it. ‘Doop’ was ingested by the ancient Greek athletes to improve their showing at Olympic events.
Anabolic Steroid Use Becomes Popular
By the late 1930’s, research into steroids had become very commonplace. In fact by the end of this decade, humans were being given testosterone propionate injections. In the 1940’s, use of anabolic steroids was quite a common occurrence in the Soviet Union. This contributed immensely to the success that the people of this country enjoyed in international sporting events.
It was in 1952 that the Soviet use of steroids first came to light. The wrestling team of this country was in the spotlight for enhancing their performance with these compounds. In 1953, 19-nortestosterone, the first anabolic steroid was synthesized. This derivative had almost 3 to 5 times the muscle building ability of testosterone. Dr. John Ziegler, U.S. Coach, learned about the steroid use from a Soviet coach during the weight lifting championships held in Vienna in 1954 and he was inspired to carry out his own experiments.
The United States soon followed suit with Dr. John Ziegler’s development of methandrostenolone. This U.S. Olympic team physician is credited with the creation of the product more commonly known as Dbol or Dianabol. First marketed by Ciba, Dbol was approved for human use by the FDA in 1958. This heralded much research into methods of synthesizing anabolic steroids and its derivatives.
Steroids Equated to Placebos
With the successful use of Dianabol or Methandrostenolone, several countries began to experiment with steroids and steroid derivatives. In 1972, a study was conducted wherein it was accepted that steroids injections were no different from placebos. At this point in time, an unfortunate development was taking place simultaneously. Athletes had begun to misuse steroids to enhance their performance in important events. Equating steroids to placebos was considered a strategic move to deter sportsmen from excessive use of these compounds. However, in the U.S. Dianobol use had already become a regular thing for athletes, especially since they had to compete against the seemingly invincible Soviet sportsmen at international events. The Soviets had built up a formidable reputation as sportsmen par excellence and to beat them in any event was considered a huge accomplishment for athletes in any field.
Steroid use in Other Countries fuelled its Prevalence in the U.S.
Steroid use was quite common in Germany even during the war. Nazi soldiers were given steroid injections to improve their aggression and resilience in the front lines. In the later years German sportsmen came to be the public face of the country, handpicked for their talents and nurtured by coaches and doctors who worked round- the clock to enhance their performance. The importance given to sports was such that sportsmen of caliber enjoyed special privileges that their fellow countrymen were denied. In the 1976 Summer Olympics that took place in Montreal, the world was in for a massive surprise as the East Germans walked away with an astounding 40 gold medals. In the words of a member of the U.S. Women’s swim team that competed in this event, the Germans were like ‘machines’.
It was decades later that the secret behind this spectacular success became known. The East German Sports Federation had, with the help of the Stasi, used Performance Enhancing Drugs or PEDs to ensure that their athletes gained international recognition by winning the Olympic events. This systematic plan had been initiated in 1974 as a means to guarantee international glory through the achievement of gold medals at the prestigious sporting event. Oral- Turinabol, a testosterone derivative was used extensively to improve muscle mass and cut down recovery time. This allowed the German athletes to train harder and longer than other world athletes.
When this state sponsored steroid use was finally revealed to the world it caused wide spread uproar and perhaps this was the beginning of the witch hunt that has led to the general condemnation of steroids ever since. However, it is important to note here that many of the athletes were given these compounds without their permission or knowledge and the amounts used were excessive . In effect, the steroids were misused on a massive scale during this phase in Germany and this had its own adverse consequences much as the misuse of any other pharmaceutical product or medical product would have done.
One of the positives of the East German use of steroids is the extensive research into these compounds was carried out at this time. Advancements were being made in isolating and altering the hormones and esterification of testosterone. Various new anabolic steroid forms were being developed each with its own range of benefits.
Understanding the Steroid Research Timeline
The knowledge that testicles have a key role to play in the development of masculine characteristics was no secret even in the late 16th century. In Italy, young boys would undergo castration to achieve a high pitched soprano for the opera. In the beginning of the 19th century, Dr. Berthold did his groundbreaking research on steroids. However, it was during the later years in this century that isolation of androgens as well as extraction from testicles met with success. The very first hormone injections were developed at this time, sparking of a much larger foray into the world of anabolic steroids and research about their impact on the human body.
Even before the discovery and isolation of Testosterone, Adolf Butenandt had isolated Androstenone from urine samples. This happened in 1931. At this point in time, researchers and scientists were aware that another primary androgen existed within the testes but this hormone was yet to be identified. In 1935, this hormone, testosterone was finally discovered. In the same year, scientists Hanisch and Butenandt also found a way to synthesize testosterone using cholesterol. With this breakthrough, the doors were opened for the widespread use of testosterone to achieve various outcomes and in various applications. It was for their immense contribution during this stage of anabolic steroid research that Butenandt and Ruzicka were awarded the Nobel Prize.
It was another two years before synthetic forms of testosterone made an appearance. An oral form of the compound was used in human trails at this point. Until this time, it may be correct to say that the use of anabolic steroid was not directly connected with sporting excellence by modern day scientists. Although there was awareness that these compounds were extensively used by the ancients for this exact purpose, the researchers of the early 20th century did not have this as their sole focal point. However this changed when the Soviets carried home a disproportionately large number of gold medals during the 1950s Olympic Games.
After this international event, the link between anabolic steroids and athletic excellence was established firmly and beyond doubt. This ability of these compounds to function as effective Performance Enhancers perhaps overshadowed all their other benefits from this time on. The effects of anabolic steroids were so magnificent and almost miraculous that many athletes chose to disregard the dangers associated with misuse and overuse. This alarming trend led to the call for control over the use of anabolic steroids and set the stage for negative perceptions about these highly beneficial and valuable hormonal derivatives.
Regulation of Steroids and their Use by Sporting Bodies
Even as early as in 1928, the call for regulating the use of performance enhancing drugs was heard loud and clear. In this year the IAAF banned doping and became the first ever International Sport Federation to take action in this respect . Several other sporting bodies followed this lead but the lack of effective testing methods and the failure to establish systematic tests doomed these to failure. Athletes continued to use these drugs, sometimes falling prey to overdose as well and this led to further doubts about the compounds, heightened the distrust of them and lent more voice to the public outcry against steroids. In 1960, Knud Enemark Jensen, a Danish cyclist died during the Olympic Games held in Rome. Autopsy results showed that the sportsman had traces of amphetamine in his body.
The issue of drug use by athletes to enhance performance and remain competitive was peaking at this time. Interestingly, while athletes were keener than ever before to amp up their sporting prowess, medics were still trying to calm the waters by insisting that anabolic steroids had no significant benefits to offer. The contrast only served to heighten the prevailing confusion and fear about these compounds and perhaps promoted officials and the public alike to take their reactions to the extremes.
In 1965, six years after the death of Jensen, the UCI and FIFA introduced tests to determine if their athletes were using performance enhancers before sporting events. The International Olympic Committee followed suit in 1966 bringing in its own set of regulations against PED use. A Medical Commission was set up and a list of prohibited substances was drawn up. By 1968 drug testing was introduced at the Winter Olympics in Grenoble and in the Mexico Olympic Games.
Even as drug testing was implemented by many other sporting bodies, anabolic steroid use was on the rise. In 1969, the team medic of the Los Angeles Dodgers said that ‘excessive and secretive’ drug use by athletes could become a huge scandal that could erode the confidence of the public in sports. His words proved to be accurate soon after. Revelations of drug use combined with poor information about drugs and the criminalization of performance- enhancing- products resulted in growing alarm and concern about any substance that was hinted at being a stamina booster or sporting supplement.
By the 1970s, most IFs were supporting a testing system for drug use especially for strength events but effective testing methods to identify anabolic steroids use were still not available. This had changed by 1974 and a couple of years later, in 1976, the IOC officially added anabolic steroids to its prohibited substances list and banned it from the sporting event.
The fallout of this move was that many athletes were disqualified at international sporting events, fanning the negative publicity that these compounds were receiving worldwide. Many other sports also banned the use of steroids. A decade after the IOC banned steroids from sporting events, off season testing and random testing were also introduced.
Athletes Look for Ways to Beat the Rules
The sporting authorities were coming down hard on athletes for using PEDs and steroids and the voice of the public was growing louder and louder for complete elimination of these drugs. On the other end of the spectrum, athletes continued to be under pressure to win prizes for their country. This combination of high expectations with highly limiting regulations pushed the sportsmen to look for new ways to ingest these PEDs in complete secrecy. The bid to circumvent rules and to ingest steroids and other PEDs without testing positive for them led to a new wave of research and innovation.
Researchers were now keen to find steroids that would be virtually impossible to trace. There were several solutions that made appearances during this stage. Some athletes used steroids that resulted in metabolites that disappeared from the body within a short time. By taking the compound sufficiently before the testing was scheduled the athlete could enjoy the benefits of the steroid without testing positive for it.
Another common method was to find and steroids that were new to the market. Since the test would be directed at known steroids and the officials had not developed tests to reveal all manner of performance enhancers this was a very effective solution indeed. This led to the development of several ‘custom made’ steroids that would not be detected by any tests that were designed to spot the well known ones popularly in use at the time.
Doubts about state sponsored doping that were doing the rounds at this time came to be justified when it was discovered that East Germans were actually making use of such ‘specially designed’ steroids to take home the gold at international sporting events like the Olympics.
The Controlled Substances Act
A watershed moment in the history of steroid use and the regulations against these compounds came about during the 1988 Olympic Games held in Seoul. This was the event where Ben Johnson achieved his epic win in the 100 meter marathon with a record breaking time of 9.79 seconds. Johnson’s win over his closest rival Carl Lewis was a memorable incident indeed for sports lovers all over the world. However, the landmark achievement quickly turned into a shocking debacle after Johnson tested positive for Stanozol or Stanazolol an anabolic steroid, when his urine samples were scanned. Ben Johnson’s unbelievable marathon time was deleted from the annals of sports history and his gold medal was taken away from him as a result of his confirmed use of steroids. The attention of the entire world came to rest on the athlete and his subsequent fall from grace as a result of steroid use and the negativefeelings against these compounds increased manifold.
A U.S. Congressional hearing was held and anabolic steroids were brought under the Controlled Substances Act. With this Act, athletes could no longer buy anabolic steroids unless they had a prescription for them. However, at this point, possession or use was not yet deemed a criminal act.
This decision was opposed fervently by several well known bodies including the American Medical Association (AMA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Officials from these bodies argued that there was no cause for placing steroids under such control. The fact was that the compounds were not the problem. It was the misuse of these compounds by athletes that gave rise to the issues.
In 1990, steroids were classified as Schedule III substances under the Anabolic Steroids Control Act. Now, trafficking in steroids was no longer just a misdemeanor but a felony. It became illegal to buy, use or possess anabolic steroids without a valid prescription. Steroids were grouped together with ketamines, opiates and barbiturates under this Act.
The Tour de France Scandal and the Rise of Black Market Steroid
1998 was the time for another scandal involving steroid abuse. At the Tour de France, the Festina team’s director Bruno Russell confessed that his team was using PDs. These included EPO (erythropoietin), a compound that enhances the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity. A stash of EPO was found in the vehicle of a person associated with the team. International incidents like these prompted the establishment of an independent international agency, the World Anti Doping Agency or WADA in 1999.
The emergence of Prohormones, the brainchild of organic chemist Patrick Arnold, in the early 2000’s added fuel to the fire. These precursors to steroids do not display hormonal activity. However, the liver converts ingested prohormones into active anabolic steroids. Prohormones Androstenedione and 1-Androstenediol allowed users to side step the testing procedures as well as the prevailing regulationary requirements and they were incredibly popular products in the period immediately following their launch.
When baseball star Mark McGwire was accused of using this prohormone the spotlight was once more on anabolic steroid use. After Congressional hearings, the Anabolic Steroid Act of 1990 came into its brand new avatar with prohormones now joining the list of banned substances. Previously sold at sports supplement stores, prohormes could no longer be bought, used or possessed legally. Some dramatic clamp downs (such as Operation Raw Deal) added to the immense pressure being brought to bear on the use of anabolic steroids across the United States.
As a result of the many restrictions imposed on these, a flourishing black market trade in steroids came into being at this time. Designer steroids commonly changed hands under the radar only to be banned when their existence came to be known to the authorities.
The Steroid Witch hunt
Apart from highlighting the need for an objective third party to view doping claims, these international incidents continued to present steroids as the bane of the sporting industry. The constant publicity about how athletes from various parts of the world were misusing these drugs to unfairly gain recognition in the sporting arena undermined the beneficial effects of steroids. In effect, the world public was effectively blinded to the fact that the compounds themselves were not the root of the problem. They were merely the tools that were misused by over ambitious sportsmen.
The stigma attached to steroids has grown unchecked and the sensation caused by the revelation that some big names in sporting are steroid users has served to cast a permanent shadow on these drugs. Meanwhile stringent controls over steroid use, distribution and possession have had a serious side effect on further R&D that is all but ignored. The impact on research into these compounds has been severely limited in modern times. It is critical to understand that without sustained research mankind is closing itself off to the many undiscovered benefits that can be derived from these compounds. Also important is to keep in mind that anabolic steroids were first researched for their many uses in medicine. Physicians continue to use steroids for medical purposes, often restoring the quality of life of seriously ill patients. This facet of steroid use has been buried under tons of negative publicity and reports of harm arising from misuse of these drugs.
This is not the case with all countries. A case in point is the Canadian regulation of steroids. In this country steroid possession and use is not deemed illegal. In fact, before 1996, these compounds could be distributed and used freely.
Even in the United States, there have been experts who have advocated against the clamp down on all things steroids. They have made some excellent points in favor of these compounds. Even today, there are many who realize that such regulations prevent the society from understanding the true value of anabolic steroids. These compounds have much to offer to mankind and delegating them to the shadows is detrimental to all. In fact, the legal limitations and the fuelling of anti- steroid sentiment among the general public may only serve to encourage wrong use of these compounds. This is what should be avoided at all costs and it can be done only by ensuring that accuracy and transparency is maintained when information is disseminated about anabolic steroids.
There is no doubt that regulating use of performance enhancers in sports is a necessity. It is equally true that warning the public against abuse or overuse of these products is justified just as it is correct to caution against the misuse of any other drug or medical product. However, it is equally important to ensure that a balanced picture of all the facts about steroids needs to be given to the public at large. Only then can they judge how these compounds are beneficial for mankind and how misuse or abuse of these compounds can lead to complications. In place of this, today, a skewed picture about anabolic steroids, presenting them as dangerous products, has been widely publicized which has resulted in lack of proper understanding about them as well as lack of initiative for further research into these compounds.
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