Teenage girls who admit using anabolic steroids are less likely to be athletes and more likely to have other health-harming behaviors, researchers are reporting.
A national survey of high schools showed that 5.3 percent of teen girls admitted to using or having used anabolic steroids, which are synthetic substances related to male sex hormones and are illegal without a prescription.
“Steroid use is a marker of very risky behavior,” said lead researcher Dr. Linn Goldberg, head of the division of health promotion and sports medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. His research is published in the June issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
In the study, Goldberg and his colleagues collected data on anabolic steroid use among teen girls using a national sample of U.S. high schools done in 2003 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the survey, 7,544 teen girls in grades nine through 12 answered questions about sports participation, steroids, ecstasy use and other illegal or unhealthy behaviors.
“In seventh grade, over 7 percent admitted steroid use,” Goldberg said.
The researchers also found that girls involved in team sports were less likely to use steroids.
Girls take steroids for a variety of reasons, Goldberg said. “These are body-shaping drugs,” he said. “They take it to get more lean body mass. Some take them for protection — to get stronger.”
In addition, girls using steroids were significantly more likely to practice other health-harming behaviors, including smoking, drinking and using marijuana and cocaine, Goldberg’s group found.
Moreover, these girls were more likely to have had sexual intercourse before age 13; been pregnant; to drink and drive or ride with a drinking driver; to carry a weapon; or been involved in a fight on school property in the past year. They were also more likely to have feelings of sadness or hopelessness almost every day for at least two weeks, and attempted suicide.
Goldberg noted that steroids can be harmful: They get rid of good cholesterol and increase bad cholesterol, they increase blood pressure, increase risk of liver tumors, make young women more masculine and can also stunt growth.
“Some of these changes may not change [after steroid use is stopped], including a deep voice and facial hair,” Goldberg said. “They can also cause psychological problems, including, rage, uncontrolled aggression and depression.”
Goldberg thinks that programs that teach girls about the dangers of drinking, smoking and drug use should include steroids. “In prevention programs for girls, you would want to deal with diet pills, marijuana and cocaine and not think of steroids in isolation,” he said.
Other experts viewed the research with a range of emotions.
One expert thought the problem of steroid use among teen girls is overstated.
“The publicity about steroid use was due to a mistake about the way these national surveys were constructed,” said Dr. Harrison Pope, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The CDC’s estimates of steroid use among teenage girls are almost certainly grossly inflated.”
Pope thinks the problem is that the question about steroid use was too open-ended in the CDC survey. Since so many compounds contain steroids in one form or another, he said many girls probably didn’t understand that the question was limited to “black-market” anabolic steroid use.
“The data suggests that true use of anabolic steroids among teenage girls is probably closer to 0.1 percent,” Pope added.
Another expert disagreed.
“These data have been well established,” said Charles Yesalis, professor emeritus of health policy and administration and exercise and sport science at Penn State University. “This paper just reinforces what has already been established. It’s a done deal”.
Yesalis thinks that part of the solution to steroid use in schools is drug testing. “These drugs are so unbelievably destructive that education alone is not going to do it,” he said. “I am a strong proponent of drug-testing kids. If you are really going to make inroads, you have to drug test.”
Dr. Todd Schlifstein, a sports medicine rehabilitation doctor at New York University, found the study “chilling.”
“Girls are more sensitive to hormonal levels in anabolic steroids and risk irreversible side effects, including arrested growth, infertility and permanent secondary male characteristics,” said Schliftein, who last year testified before Congress on the issue.
He added, “Many are using steroids because they want to look better — the steroids provide leaner body mass. This shows these girls know what to take and how to take it. We’re not talking about professional athletes or celebrities. This is an under-publicized, frightening trickle-down effect.”
For more information on teens and steroids, visit the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.