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Dublin: 8 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019

'We're told we need a massive chest and washboard abs': The rise of steroids - and the unspoken dangers

Experts explain why using unprescribed drugs to get ‘the perfect body’ can cause serious health problems.

Steroid use has become more common in Irish gyms in recent years.
Steroid use has become more common in Irish gyms in recent years.
Image: Shutterstock/Jiri Hera

WITH IRISH PEOPLE becoming increasingly conscious about their health in recent years, the fitness and wellness industries have grown exponentially. 

But with our new-found love for the gym, a serious problem the country now faces is the use of illegal substances in an effort to enhance physical performance and gain a more muscular physique.

A survey released by the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) last year found that one in five adults aged 18-34 would consider taking anabolic steroids.

The HPRA’s Zero Gains campaign aims to inform and discourage people from buying such products — online or through other illegal suppliers — and using them. 

“Our research highlights the social pressure on young people to look a certain way,” says Dr Lorraine Nolan, chief executive of the HPRA.

“Young men are seeking to gain muscle and ‘bulk up’, and whilst use of illegal steroids was previously associated with competitive bodybuilding and enhanced sport performance, nowadays usage appears dominated by the desire to have the perceived perfect body image.

“We are looking to change that attitude and to dispel the myth that non-medical use of these products is safe and that users have nothing to lose by taking them. 

The real story is that anabolic steroids can have devastating, long term and life threatening side effects.”

Dublin-based personal trainer Ronan Finn, who owns Six Four Fitness, believes many users aren’t fully clued in to the dangers. 

“There was always a small amount of steroid use, but it has become more prevalent in commercial gyms of late,” he explains. “They’re also readily available online and through Facebook groups, where you can order steroids and get them delivered to you.

“The problem is you don’t know if what’s on the label is actually in the bottle as they are often produced in underground facilities. With the younger generation, they’re not really aware of the side effects during the course and also after it.”

Mark Kennedy of Merchants Quay Ireland has also witnessed a rise in the number of users during his work in drugs services. 

“We have seen an increase of in steroid use in the last six or seven years,” he says.

“We did a piece of research where we surveyed steroid users and one thing that stood out is that all those coming into us were male and the vast majority of them weren’t athletes, in that they weren’t using steroids to improve athletic performance. They were aiming to get stronger and look bigger.”

Societal pressures 

The images we are exposed to through both traditional and social media have a major part to play, as men and women strive for “the perfect body”. 

“A lot of athletes are getting bigger, faster and stronger due to sports science and more money being put into the industry,” says Finn. “People might look and think ‘I’m not the same size as the Irish rugby players so I need to accelerate the process’.

“The Instagram culture affects us all and you have the photoshopped pictures that are always just a scroll away. I certainly think there are a lot of pressures from society given the images that we are bombarded with everyday.

“We’re told people need to have bleached-white teeth, a massive chest and washboard abs.”

Kennedy agrees: “ When you look at research that’s been done in the area, it does point to body image being increasingly important in society.

You have TV programmes such as Love Island becoming popular, which features contestants with ‘perfect bodies’ as well as these ‘before and after’ pictures in health magazines, which promise you a six-pack in a matter of weeks.

“It’s just not realistic but people have definitely bought into the idea that having a perfect body is the norm. That puts increased pressure on them to conform.

“A lot of these images that are put out there have been touched up,” he adds, before emphasising the importance of a balance lifestyle. “When we see pictures on social media we need to ask ‘Is this real?’

_DSC1573 Personal trainer Ronan Finn, who owns Six Four Fitness in Dublin. Source: Ronan Finn

“While it’s healthy to go to the gym, if you’re doing it every single day other aspects of your life may be affected. Does it leave room for socialising and other elements of a healthy life or can it start to become obsessive?

“A healthy body is all well and good but self-esteem should also come from relationships with family and friends, meaningful work and spirituality. Take a holistic view of it instead of thinking ‘If I look like this guy on the front cover of this magazine, then I’ll be happy’. Ask yourself the question, how healthy is that?”

Side effects

The unprescribed use of steroids can cause serious physical and psychological health risks such as heart failure, liver issues, kidney damage, infertility, acne, hair loss, mood swings, increased aggression and even depression. 

“Many of the products have psychological side effects,” says Kennedy. “A lot of them are testosterone-based so you can experience major mood swings. They can contribute to depression. There is an impact on libido. When you stop injecting, the body’s own natural mechanisms for producing testosterone will have shut down. There can be erectile dysfunction and that can have enormous consequences in terms of relationships.

“People can become dependent on the substances, as in they feel great when they’re on them and crash when they’re not taking them. There can be a big fear and anxiety around the loss of muscle gains if they stop so people have difficulties when they’re trying to come off them. That can lead to mental health problems.”

“Once you come off them, you will have an unrealistic expectation of what you should be achieving in the gym,” Finn adds. “You can lose the gains as quick as you get them and going back up that hill is much tougher as gains will come at a much shorter rate.”

Advice 

The long-term damage that you cause by using steroids is often irreversible, and both experts advise looking into alternative solutions to get the results you’re after. 

“Our advice would be to avoid these substances completely,” says Kennedy. “Talk to a good personal trainer and someone who knows a lot about nutrition to optimise your diet and your time in the gym.

“For those thinking of using them, ask yourself the question ‘Why is it I want to go down this pathway?’. Do I have issues with my self-esteem, is this the only way to meet those needs? Could there be psychological advice that will help?”

Finn stresses the importance of focusing on the simple things – nutrition, sleep and a training programme that suits your individual needs. 

I would start by having a look at your diet,” he says. “Sleep is probably the biggest driver of muscle growth and it’s free so we should get it every night. You’re going to do much of your recovery and growth during those seven or eight hours of sleep.

“Examine your diet. Are you getting enough protein and the right amount of calories in general? Most people fall down on those things so they’re already putting themselves at a disadvantage when they’re going to the gym.

“Do as many of the simple things right that will benefit your development before, during and after training.

“There is an awful lot of trial and error during the early days of training. Not everyone responds to the same training programmes so it’s important that you try out a variety. People’s bodies respond differently to different types of training, so take some time to see what works for you. 

“That will give you a clearer vision in the long run, rather than going down the route of anabolic steroids.

“The best thing to do is to keep it natural. You’re going to learn more about your body in the long-term. If you’re 18 years old now, you could well be training into your 50s or 60s so opting to accelerate the process over six months is going to cost you an awful lot down the line.”

Using steroids can result in a range of nasty and serious health side effects. To learn more, visit zerogains.ie

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