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Now that McGwire has fessed up, it’s a good time to ask: What can steroids do to the immune system?

Posted Jan 14 2010 5:38am

Anabolic steroids have been so widely discussed in the past 10 years, it’s hard to remember when sports and steroids

Duh! It's a drug, not a supplement, folks.

Duh! It's a drug, not a supplement, folks.

weren’t cohabitating together.  From Major League Baseball to Olympic sports to high school athletics to…gasp!…professional golf, steroid use, whether proven, admitted, suspected or denied, has permeated almost all sports discussion.  Heck, I even remember the East German and Soviet women athletes in the 60s and 70s looking and sounding like men–and winning every medal in sight–due to steroid intake.

And with the steroid controversy has come a lot of conversation about side effects. Pretty much everyone has likely heard about “roid rage” that can accompany prolonged, intensive steroid use. Acne, kidney malfunction, and heart problems are other significant risk factors.

What about immune function?

The messages I’ve seen out there are mixed. Some information resources range from bizarre to informative. For example this passage from TeenBodybuilding.com (that just doesn’t seem right to me) says this about steroid use:

“Immune system side effects — This is probably one of the only side effects that can lead to an advantage if the proper precautions are necessary. Steroids greatly strengthen your immune system making it easier to recover and prevent illness. The only way to use this to an advantage would be to not let yourself get tired out, because that makes you dependent on your immune system. The bad side effect to this is, once you stop taking steroids, you get run down (tired out), and you get pretty sick. So, like most good things, they only last a while.”

So what is a young kid to make of that? Go ahead and roid up. It’s good for your immune health.

Let’s see what’s said about anabolic steroids from a medical source: “High doses of anabolic steroids can have significant effect on immune responses. In one study anabolic steroids were shown to significantly inhibit the production of antibodies in mice. They have also directly stimulated the production of the inflammatory cytokines IL-1b and TNF-a , but had no effect on IL-10 or IL-2 production. And corticotropin production in human peripheral blood lymphocytes after viral infection was significantly inhibited. Interferon production in human cells was also inhibited (17).

Fearradez et al. (22) studied the effect of high doses of anabolic steroids on activity of immune cells in cultures of rat spleen and thymus lymphocytes. They reported impaired lymphocyte mobility and an inhibition of mitogen-induced proliferative response of 90 percent. They also showed that endurance training, as opposed to high-intensity training, counteracted the negative effects. ”

Actually, depending on the type of steroid used, steroids can deliver immunosuppressive or immunostimulating response. Steroids have many legitimate, medical therapeutic roles beyond just quickly building muscle mass with which to hit 75 home runs in a season. Summarizing from a very good overview page (from a source NOT promoting body building steroids):

There are two types of steroids present within the body. Corticosteroids are produced in the adrenal gland located above the kidney. These hormones include aldosterone, which helps regulate sodium concentration in the body, and cortisol, which plays many roles in the body, including serving as part of the body’s stress response system and decreasing inflammation. Common corticosteroid medications, like prednisone and prednisolone, may be taken by mouth or by injection and may be used to treat diseases like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and systemic lupus erythematosus to decrease inflammation when it is part of the disease’s process. The use of steroid ointments and creams on the skin, like triamcinalone and betamethasone, is common in the treatment of dermatitis.

“The second group of steroids, the androgenic/anabolic steroids, are hormones made in the body to regulate the manufacture of testosterone in the testicles and ovaries. The androgenic part of testosterone is involved in developing the male sex characteristics, while the anabolic part is involved in increasing the amount of body tissue by increasing protein production. The pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, helps regulate testosterone production and hormone secretion. Growth hormone and FSH are among the hormones that stimulate testis and ovary function and are two of the many hormones secreted by the pituitary.”

Seems like treating steroids as a medical intervention product, not an everyday supplement, is the smart thing. Taking a substance that, by design, can greatly ratchet up or ratchet down your immune function is nothing to mess with as a daily dietary regimen. This video probably says all you need to know:

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