Steroids are often used to gain muscle. However, they can be seriously detrimental to your health. For instance, steroid misuse can cause erectile dysfunction. Here’s what you need to know and what you can do about it.
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Steroids are a class of organic compounds¹ that can be characterized by their molecular structure, which contains four rings of carbon atoms. Steroids are largely diverse, with many hormones, alkaloids, vitamins, and drugs in this class of organic compounds.
The term steroids, normally make you think of two things. One is the medication you may use if you have an inflammatory disease such as eczema or asthma. The other is something you may use to help build muscle at the gym.
Corticosteroids, which are used to treat inflammatory disorders, are steroids that mimic cortisol, a steroid hormone manufactured by our adrenal gland.
Cortisol, and therefore corticosteroids,² have a big impact on our body and are involved in many of its regular functions, with the most well-known being our stress response and inflammatory response.
However, there are also other steroids, known as anabolic steroids. You may have heard them referred to as ‘roids’, and they are used to build muscle in the gym.
These anabolic steroids mimic the function of testosterone,³ the male sex hormone produced in the testes that is responsible for male sexual development and growth.
Although both are referred to as steroids due to their chemical basis, they are not the same, with completely different modes of action and uses.
Steroids can have many uses. These uses can depend on the type of steroid, which acts to replace or bolster our natural hormones.
Shown here is a list of uses for corticosteroids:⁴
Hives and Eczema
Inflammatory bowel disease
Although hundreds of types of anabolic steroid drugs exist, only a few are used clinically. On the other hand, many types of anabolic steroids are misused to build muscle at the gym.
One of these clinically used drugs is testosterone, an anabolic steroid used to treat various health problems that cause a lack of testosterone, known as male hypogonadism.⁵
When the body is inflamed as a result of an infection or injury, the immune response sends out white blood cells and chemicals to defend against harmful foreign bodies, such as bacteria or viruses.
Unfortunately, sometimes this process can go wrong, and the body’s immune system does not function as it should, resulting in uncontrolled inflammation. This inflammation can cause symptoms such as redness, swelling, pain, and heat. If serious inflammation is uncontrolled or untreated, it can damage tissues and organs.
Corticosteroids decrease inflammation by reducing the activity of the immune system. The steroids hamper the production of chemicals that cause inflammation, thereby reducing tissue damage as much as possible. Additionally, corticosteroids also help by altering how white blood cells work, reducing the body's inflammatory response.
In contrast, anabolic steroids⁶ stimulate muscle growth by mimicking the effects of testosterone, the natural male sex hormone produced in the testes.
Anabolic steroids primarily mimic testosterone to bind to intracellular steroid receptors.
Therefore, taking anabolic steroids works to build muscle. However, these steroids can be detected many weeks⁷ after a single dose, and can result in serious and unwanted side effects.
Erectile dysfunction is a condition that results in the inability to sustain an erection long enough for sexual intercourse. Erectile dysfunction is a common disorder, affecting roughly 30 million men in the US. It is one of the most commonly reported sexual problems among men.
Erectile dysfunction can be caused by many factors, including age, vascular problems, and other disorders such as Peyronie’s disease. However, another cause of erectile dysfunction is the misuse of anabolic steroids.
Unlike corticosteroids, anabolic steroids (synthetic testosterone) have been known to cause multiple side effects that impact male reproductive health. This, alongside their possible addictive and withdrawal properties, has resulted in the drugs being labeled as a class C drug or schedule III, only available via prescription.
Unfortunately, one of the side effects of anabolic steroid use is erectile dysfunction, especially after discontinuation. Studies show that long-term use⁸ of steroids is also associated with reproductive health issues.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic testosterone, and if you are taking these steroids regularly and at high doses for a long enough period, they can have a significant impact on your sexual performance.
Not only will your sperm count decrease and your testicles shrink, but erectile dysfunction is also a very real possibility.⁹
Anabolic steroids can cause erectile dysfunction because of aromatase action,¹⁰ and they also produce high levels of estrogen. Although physiologic levels of estrogen are necessary for male sexual function, the high doses and the testosterone/estrogen imbalance cause sexual dysfunction, including erectile dysfunction.
Once you have stopped using steroids, the body still does not produce its testosterone for an extended period of time, resulting in low concentrations of the male sex hormone, and therefore, problems such as erectile dysfunction can occur.
Erectile dysfunction is not the only side effect of long-term anabolic steroid use, with some side effects being so harmful that they can result in permanent damage to the body and even death.
Anabolic steroids do not just affect the male reproductive processes. They are also known to be harmful to cardiovascular health and psychiatric health. Listed below are some of the long-term side effects¹¹ of anabolic steroids:
High blood pressure
Decreased sperm count
Additionally, other side effects such as tendon rupture and liver issues¹¹ can occur, along with infection risk of HIV, Hepatitis B, and C due to unsafe needle practices and/or contaminated products.
It is important to understand that testosterone is a hormone not only needed to build & sustain muscle mass but also used in many other normal functions in the human body, including behavioral functions.
Therefore, when anabolic testosterone is taken, it does not just affect specific parts of your body but can have a serious impact on your emotional, mental and physical health.
This is the main reason why anabolic steroids are limited legally, and should only ever be used if prescribed by a doctor for specific medical conditions, not just to build muscle quickly at the gym.
The first and the best thing you can do to manage erectile dysfunction because of steroid use is to change your lifestyle and stop taking anabolic steroids.
Unfortunately, it may take anywhere from three months to a year¹² to recover normal testosterone levels in your body. Therefore, it may take this long to return to previous levels of sexual performance. In rare cases, testosterone production may take an extremely long time to return to normal.
If erectile dysfunction persists after ceasing steroid use, there are a range of treatments that you can undergo in an attempt to restore normal sexual function. One of these is to take PDE5 inhibitors such as viagra to increase blood flow to the penis, which will help you sustain an erection long enough for sexual intercourse.
Additionally, other non-permanent¹³ treatments such as the use of pumps and constriction rings can also be used to sustain an erection.
It is always important to talk to your doctor about the best treatments for you. Treatments may vary depending on the severity of your situation and any of the other side effects from anabolic steroids that you may have.
Unfortunately for those taking anabolic steroids, it may take up to three months to a year (or more) to completely restore your body's natural testosterone levels.
However, during this time, when your testosterone levels are still low, many other treatments can be used to sustain an erection long enough for sexual intercourse.
Your doctor may decide to utilize hCG¹⁴ to help your testes recover and to help with the body's testosterone production.
Treatments with PDE5 inhibitors such as viagra take only half an hour to an hour to work to create an erection. Additionally, pumps and constriction rings can also be used as a non-permanent erectile dysfunction treatment that works almost instantaneously.
Changing lifestyle habits, such as eating healthy, doing regular exercise, resting, and de-stressing can also be a great way to improve erectile dysfunction and therefore improve your sex life.
The benefits of anabolic steroids do not outweigh the risks of steroid abuse. Using anabolic steroids can result in serious consequences to not only your sex life but your mental and physical health.
Long-term use of steroids not only causes a decrease in your sperm count and reduces the size of your testes but can also result in erectile dysfunction. ED is even more prevalent in those who have used steroids for a long time.
If you are suffering from ED from steroid abuse, discuss your options with your doctor. They can help treat erectile dysfunction, as well as any other symptoms caused by long-term anabolic steroid abuse.
Steroids | Drug Bank Online
Cortisol | Cleveland Clinic
Testosterone hormone | Britannica
Corticosteroids | NHS Inform
How long do steroids stay in your system? Drug testing | Addiction Resource
What are the side effects of anabolic steroid misuse? | NIH: National Institute of Drug Abuse
What is erectile dysfunction? | Urology Care Foundation