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What Is the Function of Steroids?

By Jillian O Keeffe
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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Steroids are molecules that mimic the effect of natural hormones in the body. There are a number of different varieties, from steroids that help build muscle to steroids that help to reduce inflammation. The function of steroids largely depends on the type of steroid being used, as well as the symptoms being treated by using a particular substance.

A healthy person has a vast number of varying steroids moving around the body at all times. All natural steroids are fatty molecules. Some are signaling molecules, which tell one part of the body to do something at particular times, such as the female sex hormone steroids that control menstruation and female fertility.

The immune system also uses steroids, which in this case are called adrenocorticosteroids, to regulate inflammation in response to injury and infection. Some adrenocorticosteroids are regulators of metabolism, and help move glucose and other nutrients around the body. Testosterone, a male steroid hormone, promotes the development of male genitalia and body hair.

Although steroids are naturally occurring molecules, the term steroid is most commonly used in medicine and in bodybuilding to describe artificial forms of steroids. The function of steroids in bodybuilding is to increase the rate at which a person can develop muscle mass. These steroids are forms of testosterone that mimic the natural testosterone in the body.

Medical steroids are commonly used to treat inflammation. Autoimmune diseases like psoriasis or asthma are relatively common, and result from an overreaction of the body to a stimulus. Natural immune system steroids act as regulators of the inflammatory response. Modern medicine uses synthetic forms of these regulatory molecules to help control autoimmune inflammation and reduce inflammation from other causes when it could be dangerous to health.

Normally, a healthy body has complex systems in place which respond to problems and allow the body to function smoothly. Different natural steroids are part of these processes, and when a person introduces artificial levels of the steroids into the body, then the body responds to the synthetic steroids. When the body's own processes become disrupted through disease, then artificial steroids help restore balance.

Sometimes low levels of natural steroid can also cause problems like Addison's Disease, where the adrenal gland cannot produce enough steroids. In other cases, the body attacks itself in autoimmune diseases, and added steroid helps to dampen down the immune system. Steroids that are associated with bodybuilding can also be useful in medicine, if a person suffers from low levels of testosterone, and needs additional steroids to help develop normally.

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Discussion Comments
By burcidi — On Jan 29, 2013

Steroids are not just useful for bodybuilders. One of their main functions is to improve the immune system for people suffering from various immune related illnesses. Steroids are used by cancer patients as well as those who have immunodeficiency diseases (like AIDS) to fight illnesses.

By serenesurface — On Jan 28, 2013

@ysmina-- I'm not an expert on steroids. But as far as I know steroids are used by bodybuilders because it increases the amount of testosterone in the body which is essential for building muscle. Anabolic steroids allow bodybuilders to gain muscle mass very quickly. They also feel more energetic, so they are able to work out much more than they usually would.

Of course, there are side effects. Steroids mess up the body's natural production of hormones. It usually leads to the body producing less of testosterone (because there is already so much in the system) and producing more of estrogen to re-balance it with the testosterone. This leads to the symptoms you mentioned. In addition to those, aggressiveness and other psychological or mood changes are also common.

I believe some bodybuilders take additional medications to limit the production of extra estrogen while on steroids to limit or prevent these side effects. But I don't know how safe or effective they are.

By ysmina — On Jan 28, 2013

I know that many body builders take steroids to speed up the process of building muscle and burning fat. But they also experience a lot of side effects from it. They lose hair, the genitals can shrink and furthermore, they can lose the muscle mass they built when they stop taking the steroids.

Why do body builders still insist on using this stuff despite all this? I don't get it.

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