Anabolic steroids, or anabolic-androgenic steroids, are man-made hormones that cause development of male sex characteristics and body tissues to grow and develop faster, mimicking the effects of the male hormone testosterone. Usually, athletes will use steroids for a time then take a break to minimize negative side effects and allow the body to recuperate and natural hormone levels to return to normal. This is called a steroids cycle, and it usually has athletes using the drug for 7-14 weeks with a break of about 10-12 weeks.
If use is continuous, the body stops responding to the steroid. Rather than increasing dosages and seeing more side effects, cycling gives the tissues and hormone levels to return to normal and causes the body to be receptive to the steroid again. A steroids cycle will often be stacked, meaning two or more steroids taken simultaneously, to maximize results.
Sometimes a steroids cycle will include one type of steroid at the beginning with other types taken in the middle and end of the steroids cycle. This is done to gain the benefits of multiple steroids during a single cycle. Cycling often follows a pyramid pattern, meaning dosage is steadily increased, peaked, and tapered down. During an off-cycle, other drugs may be used to increase testosterone levels back to normal, counteract other side effects of the steroid, and keep muscle loss to a minimum. Many professional athletes also take different substances during the off period to mask the steroid use in attempts to pass drug test that may be required by his or her specific sport.
Despite negative physical and psychological side effects, steroid usage continues to be popular, even among some amateur, high school and college athletes. Many athletes feel pressured to take steroids to remain competitive with others who are taking them. Steroids are legally available by prescription for medical use; all other use, by athletes or other individuals, is illegal. Anabolic steroids are used medically to treat patients with low testosterone levels or tissue-wasting diseases, such as cancer or AIDS.
Side effects can be permanent, dangerous, and even life-threatening if steroid usage is not carefully monitored by a medical professional. Some of these side effects include premature heart disease, acne, male pattern baldness, gynecomastia, or development of breast tissue in males, testicular shrinkage, decreased sperm counts, aggressive behavior, or liver cancer. Women who take steroids can develop masculine characteristics that may be irreversible, such as deepening of the voice, increased body hair, and loss of hair on the scalp.