Since the days of the ancient Greeks, muscularity of the human body has been depicted as a masterpiece, the fascination for its beauty often depicted in numerous paintings and sculptures. In the myths of the ancient civilizations came the gods and humans that possessed incredible size and strengths. Popular Renaissance artists transformed this idealism into powerful artworks like Michelangelo’s David, and Farnese Hercules. Strength and figure was also often related to power and leadership in the ancient society. Historically, some of the religious figures were depicted with drawings and sculptures with noticeable muscle tone. In today’s popular culture, it is observed that many superheroes and protagonists are played by actors of exceptional physique. With this admiration at the base of our hearts, most men and women dream of becoming stronger, and most importantly, fit.
Is it easy for people to achieve a body type of their dreams? Simply put, it is not. Even in the case of those individuals who have devoted their lifetime in the gym, gaining muscle, especially gaining lean muscle without gaining fat, is an extremely difficult and enduring task. If the person’s success in life depends on their physical performance, like professional athletes, the yearning for gaining muscle is more significant, as for them, their lifelong dream is to become the strongest and the fastest in the world.
To these muscle-thirsty individuals, John Bosley Ziegler, also known as the father of anabolic steroids was like Moses opening the Red Sea and leading them out of slavery of limited muscle growth. Ziegler, an US Olympics Team physician attempted to inject testosterone directly into the athletes in efforts to enhance physical performance, but this resulted in many hazardous side effects. This gave him an idea to look for testosterone-like hormonal drugs that would mimic testosterone in the body with less of a negative impact. He landed on what was the very first synthetic anabolic steroid, methandrostenolone, in 1958. Since then, anabolic steroids are widely used by muscle enthusiasts and athletes around the world. It seemed the goal to be like Hercules was closer than ever.
But how does anabolic steroids help muscle growth? What does it do to our body? Once the anabolic steroids are incorporated into the body, its lipid-soluble characteristics enables it to penetrate the cell membrane (which are made of lipids) and influence the nucleus directly. This has two main effects; an increased production of muscle building proteins, and inhibiting stress hormones like cortisol and glucocorticoids which breakdown the muscle; increasing the positive and decreasing the negative. Another positive effect is amplification of basal metabolic rate which leads to a higher consumption of body fat. All of these features enhances lean muscle mass growth, and reduces body-fat content which seems miraculously beneficial. And obviously, because of these unfair advantages, the use of anabolic steroids in most sporting events are prohibited.
Surprisingly, most countries also tightly regulate the use of anabolic steroids for everyday citizens (uses are prohibited without a proper prescription in US and Canada). Why is there such a hefty ban on anabolic steroids? The answer lies in the multiple side effects that could possibly accompany benefits. Some of these side effects include aggression, liver disease, depression, reduction of HDL (good) cholesterol, testicular atrophy (shrinking of testicles since they do not need to produce steroids anymore), breast development (the body tries to counter the excess amount of testosterone by producing more estrogen), enlargement of left ventricle of the heart (the biggest muscle in heart), and multiple other serious effects. Such long-term effects on both physical and mental health seems more than enough to explain the regulations and bans, and why it is strictly limited to medical treatment purposes. Unfortunately, the increasing modern self-image and marketing keeps the young teens to reach out for illegal anabolic steroids.
While many crazes over the anabolic steroids, some have looked into our own bodies and its naturally occurring hormones; the human growth hormone. For those of us who have long exceeded our days as an adolescent teens, reminiscing the days of drastic growth and changes to our bodies brings some sense of what growth hormone is capable of. Specifically for males, the rate of growth in muscle and bone structure is purely incredible. Human growth hormone is the major factor that plays the role in this growth. After scientists and muscle enthusiasts realized this, it was a matter of time before it exploded into the hormonal drugs market.
First discovered by Choh Hao Li in 1981, the human growth hormone (hGH) or somatotropin is now widely used in muscle-building industries as well as anti-aging industries (although not completely proven to work). Similar to anabolic steroids, naturally synthesized hGH has anabolic effects on human body during the adolescent period. Among many features, human growth hormone’s ability to increase the muscle mass through sarcomere hypertrophy (increasing the cell-size of the muscle tissue), enhance protein production, and promote lipolysis (breakdown of fat) seemed revolutionary to the interested bodybuilders. In addition, growth hormones are difficult to detect in doping tests due to its endogenous protein construct (body makes this hormone naturally) which made it appealing to the world of competitive athletes. Although many studies demonstrate that synthetic hGH injected into the body does not have the same effect as one would experience during adolescence with their naturally produced hGH, it has been one of the most popular illegal hormonal drugs in the US.
There are potential side effects of hGH. First of all, if the certain amount of hGH was injected, it may very likely lead to similar results as seen in some individuals who have naturally have hGH in excess. In other words, it could lead increased risk in tumour formation, type-2 diabetes, muscle weakness, etc. Although rare, excess of hGH may also lead to higher risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, as well as swelling in joints. Leaving behind all these physiological reasons, using hGH for cosmetic purposes seems highly immoral as it would increase the pricing of the drug and thus hinder hGH’s availability to the patients who have more rights to the treatment.
It seems very hypocritical that these very drugs people utilize to better their self image (perhaps to look like the legendary bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger) will lead to the faster downfall of their health in the long run. Just like everything else in life, we have to find balance and weigh the pros and cons when considering the use of performance enhancing drugs, especially if it could possibly ruin your life forever.
Mark Seo is majoring in Pharmacology and Therapeutics at McGill University.
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