Hormones are produced in the body and transported in tissue fluids, such as blood, to stimulate specific cells and tissues. Testosterone and growth hormones are two of the more important types of hormone that promote strength and muscle mass, whilst also decreasing fat mass and preventing the breakdown of muscle mass (catabolism).

Steroids are any of a large class of organic compounds that share a distinctive molecular structure; there are many types but perhaps none more familiar than anabolic steroids. Steroidal hormones can be separated into five distinct groups according to the receptors to which they bind; a receptor is a molecule in a cell membrane. Anabolic steroids are a class of steroids that interact with androgen receptors to increase muscle and bone synthesis – an androgen is a male sex hormone, such as testosterone. Indeed, anabolic steroids are technically referred to as anabolic-androgen steroids (AAS); they mimic the effects of testosterone and dihydro-testosterone in the body.

There seems to be no question that anabolic steroids increase strength and muscle mass and perhaps even cause the formation of new muscle fibres. However, their adverse side-effects are also well established ­- so much so that they are perhaps better known for these than anything else. Side-effects include liver and hormonal dysfunction, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, deepening of the voice and an increase in body hair; some side-effects are irreversible, especially in women.

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There are supplements that block some of the side-effects of anabolic steroids, and they are often prescribed by doctors who are treating patients that need steroids, but it would seem more sensible for an athlete to avoid anabolic steroids in the first place. Although they may still be purchased legally in the UK (though banned by sports’ bodies), they have been illegal to buy in the USA without prescription since 2004.

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Pro-hormones

are naturally derived precursors to testosterone or other anabolic steroids that increase the strength of hormones already present in the body, but they do not add hormones. Anabolic steroids, on the other hand, do add hormones to the body, and this is an important distinction between them that is often the cause of confusion. There are many pro-hormones, such as dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), androstenedione, and 4-androstenediol, and most of them come with the same or similar side-effects as anabolic steroids but without the potential benefits.

Many finely tuned trials on athletes have repeatedly shown that supplementation with pro-hormones has failed to produce desired effects in body composition, strength, or performance enhancement when compared to placebos. Pro-hormones are legal to buy in the UK, but were banned (along with anabolic steroids) from sale in the USA ­- with the notable exception of DHEA, which is still widely used in medical trials, especially for the elderly and is available as an over-the-counter supplement.

The reason DHEA was not banned is that it has been widely used in a large number of medical trials for many years and has consistently shown to have few (and non-severe) side-effects. Manufacturers recommend DHEA in doses of between 50mg and 100mg, and trials have shown that doses far higher have little or no side-effects. No matter, since they do not have any documented benefits (yet the possibility of some side-effects) it is a pointless risk and an obvious waste of money.

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