How long do the side effects of steroids last?
All of those side effects are reversible within four weeks of cessation, though women tend to stay masculinized after using steroids. And every athlete who has considered juicing (taking steroids) knows that. Athletes generally go on a steroid-taking cycle for six to eight weeks, and then they come off for about two months before going back on. And when they’re off, side effects revert back to normal.
The athletes who run into major health issues are body builders or wrestlers who get paid based on their external appearance. They can develop what’s known as muscle dysmorphia, which is basically reverse anorexia. Like a person who considers himself or herself fat all the time, body builders and wrestlers look in the mirror and see themselves as being small. Those are the athletes who never come off the cycle.
Are there other health risks from taking steroids?
Steroids could be lethal to someone with an underlying mental or cardiovascular disease. Anabolic steroids are like any other medication. If you have hypertension and your doctor prescribes you a certain medication, such as an ACE inhibitor, there may be contraindications for using that particular medication if you have, say, kidney disease. If an athlete is suffering from a mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder – which many steroid-taking high school athletes who commit suicide allegedly suffer from – anabolic steroids are the wrong performance-enhancing drug to use. But when given in a clinical setting, steroids are relatively safe.
How are steroids used in a clinical setting?
By themselves, steroids are a very effective clinical tool for treating muscle-wasting diseases such as cancer, AIDS, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders. Sports scientists around the world study changes in athletes’ testosterone and cortisol levels. Cortisol is a catabolic steroid produced by the adrenal glands above the kidneys and it breaks down lean tissue in the absence of carbohydrates needed for energy. It’s also released in times of stress. Through high-intensity training over the course of a baseball season, testosterone levels go down and cortisol levels go up. The athlete becomes testosterone-depleted, or hypogonadal, and fatigue sets in. That phenomenon is known as “overtraining syndrome.”
One way to treat this is to restore testosterone levels using an exogenous (external) source. We do that with men over 50 who have a normal decline in testosterone, though not with the super-pharmacological doses that many athletes use. There’s a lot of talk amongst team physicians about whether it should be permissible to use exogenous testosterone to bring an athlete back up to normal levels. But the issue is not being approached right now, because of the witch hunt that’s going on. There’s such a kneejerk reaction in the sports media about steroids and these things get sensationalized. There’s such a lack of understanding about what steroids do. I think we need to look at this more scientifically.
Rodriguez has won two MVPs since he stopped juicing. Can athletes keep the gains in muscle mass without continuing steroids?
The muscles begin to come down, though there’s still a significantly greater difference in size and strength even eight weeks after you’ve taken the drugs. Again, it all depends on how much you’ve taken and how hard you train. But can you keep gains three years later? No.
So the big question people may be asking is if Alex is taking something else. His homerun numbers have declined, but they’re still pretty damn good. The benefit of the doubt for him, however, has now gone out the window. For example, maybe his [lucrative] contract could allow him to buy a designer steroid that’s undetectable. What the people who are involved in [professional sports drug] testing realize is that most athletes in that community are a few years ahead of the drug testing laboratories. Now is Alex on the cutting edge? It’s possible.
What was your own experience with taking steroids?
I started using anabolic steroids my senior year of college in 1982 at St. Johns (in Queens, N.Y.) which is a small school for football – not like their acclaimed basketball program. I wanted the opportunity to play professional football, and I thought I needed to do something to compete with the athletes coming out of Division I (the top collegiate athletic tier). For me, it was important to be as big as possible. It was my dream. And I was very fortunate to be the first athlete from St. Johns to sign a professional contract with a National Football League (NFL) team, the New York Jets. I did not make it past training camp though, and then I was traded to the New Jersey Generals, then the Tampa Bay Bandits (both part of the now-defunct United States Football League). Then in 1984 I signed on with the Philadelphia Eagles.
I used steroids for those three years, from 1982 to 1984. At the time, steroids were not illegal. I had a prescription for them and bought them at a pharmacy, just like any other medication. Most of the guys in the training camps would use, and so we’d discuss whose room we would inject in that night. At that time in the NFL, it was one of those things you had to do to play in the League, I felt.
Team physicians were not involved, as far as I know, but they monitored our health. I had constant exams to make sure my liver enzymes were functioning properly and my heart was doing well, and that all the blood lipids were fine. I did it in what you could say was the right way. I wasn’t abusing steroids or going to two different physicians to get two different prescriptions to double up on dosages. I was doing it professionally.
Did you experience any side effects?
I had the side effects that you would normally see – the acne, the hypertension – but nothing that was too terrible that I couldn’t deal with. My last season, I took a powerful androgen and it was the first time that I really saw significant changes in my personality. And I felt at that point in my third training camp that those types of changes were not worth it to me, and I stopped using. But the experience did spark a lifelong interest in why steroids are effective and also to take a look at alternatives.
What do you think about alternative strength-promoting supplements?
When I played, they didn’t have the type of supplements that exist today, like creatine (an organic acid that helps supply muscles with energy) and beta-alanine (an amino acid that helps regulate pH in muscles) and some kinds of protein. If they did, I’m sure I would have used those instead of anabolic steroids. But I don’t regret at all what I did, because I did it with care. I knew exactly what I was putting into my body. I knew exactly why I was doing it and I knew the price I was willing to pay for that. I would do it again. There are no long-term effects – I have three healthy, beautiful children. I didn’t grow a third leg or become impotent or any of that BS you see on TV. But there are those athletes who have problems, because they never stop using and they have underlying health issues like mental illness or heart problems. That’s why education becomes so important.
What do you think about the debate over performance-enhancement drugs in sports?
We have to keep in mind that these professional athletes are individuals who are at their physiological edge, or limit. These people understand their bodies so well. They know they need something more. So that’s the importance of trying to get them to understand what they can and cannot do. Unfortunately, for many years, Major League Baseball ignored that and didn’t have the appropriate people in the locker room to help provide that sort of education. So the athlete is left alone, and as a result they go to the gym rat and get the wrong information.