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Anabolic steroids are not just the steroids in medical use, or steroids that affect metabolism. Not all steroids have an anabolic activity. In fact, some steroids may have a catabolic (muscle and bone wasting) and immune-suppressing activity. Thus, it is essential not to confuse the various steroids. Corticosteroids are essential, life-saving drugs, widely available on prescription, and they share little with anabolic steroids.
One can broadly classify all the steroidal hormones in the human body into two groups:
So, as one can see that even female sex hormones are steroids.
However, in the world of performance-enhancing drugs, the word “Steroid” is used to describe anabolic and androgenic steroids (AASs). These drugs are mostly synthetic analogs of testosterone, used to boost physical performance and build strength and muscles.
Estrogen and progesterone analogs are used to prevent unwanted pregnancies, treat hormone-related issues in women, and as a part of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in post-menopausal women. These hormones do not help build muscles, but they may help women improve their mood.
Mineralocorticoids are primarily for controlling fluid and electrolyte balance. They affect the working of the kidneys. Some synthetic anabolic steroids may cause water retention due to some mineralocorticoids like effect.
Glucocorticoids play an important part in immune regulation, stress management, and glucose metabolism.
Among all the steroids, these are most important for doctors. There are many synthetic corticosteroids used to treat chronic conditions, suppress inflammation, fight stress. These are life-saving drugs that are similar to adrenal steroids. They are more like glucocorticoids, though they have some activity of mineralocorticoids.
Corticosteroids are primarily used to treat severe allergy. To treat inflammatory conditions that fail to respond to other medications. They also have an immunosuppressive effect, immunomodulatory effect and are thus used to treat autoimmune diseases too.
Corticosteroids can have severe side effects like weight loss, reduced immunity, weakened bones, reduced strength, increased risk of hypertension and diabetes, increased risk of infection, to name the few. They are used strictly under medical supervision. Despite so many side effects, they are life-saving drugs for many.
It may seem that they cannot have any use in sports, as they weaken muscles and bones, reduce immunity (most effects are almost opposite of anabolic steroids). However, some sportspeople may still benefit from them. They are used in shorter cycles to overcome inflammation and pain related to training, and thus may help train better. They are more useful in intensive sports, like cycling.
Additionally, some athletes may take them during the competition to increase endurance, improve pain tolerance, and since they also increase glucose levels, they may improve stamina. Thus, again, sports like cycling or marathon runners may benefit from it during the competition.
They have limited if any use for bodybuilding (may help recover faster from injury, and such use is legal). They are in the banned substance list for sports if taken for a non-medical reason.