By Dr. Mercola
The first record of steroid use can be traced to 1930, when an extract of animal adrenocortical tissue was used to counteract human adrenal failure.1 After more than 10 years of testing and research, the first patient with rheumatoid arthritis was treated with steroids.
Based on the impressive results, it wasn't long before the drug was prescribed to other patients with arthritis. In 1950, the first oral and intra-articular (joint) formulations were used. By the 1960s, doctors were aware of many side effects and the importance of properly withdrawing the medication.
Scientists continue to discover the effects of adding an outside source of steroids to your complex hormonal mix. Three of the most common side effects, even from short term use, are osteoporosis or reduced bone density, cataracts and an increased risk of diabetes. Now, research demonstrates side effects from short-term prescriptions are greater than previously understood or anticipated by the researchers.
Sepsis, Broken Bones and Blot Clots Found With Short-Term Steroid Use
Nearly 1 million people suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD),2 and approximately 60 percent of those have taken steroids.3 IBD is only one medical condition for which steroids are commonly prescribed.
Millions of prescriptions of steroids are dispensed each year as most physicians believe side effects from just a week of the drug are relatively innocent. However, recent research from the University of Michigan reveals that just one week of steroids may have significant consequences.4
The researchers used data from over 1.5 million people, aged 18 to 64 between 2012 and 2014, who were enrolled in nationwide health care insurance.5 One in 5 patient reports indicated they had filled a short-term prescription for steroids during the three-year study period.
Patients who took a short "burst" of steroids had a higher risk of suffering a broken bone, blood clot or life-threatening course of sepsis.6 This increased risk lasted for up to 90 days after the steroid use had stopped.
The researchers excluded anyone who had been prescribed steroids in the past year, took oral or injectable steroids, and had cancer or a transplant. The results prompted the researchers to call for better education for physicians and patients about the potential risks. Lead author, Dr. Akbar Waljee said:7
"Although physicians focus on the long-term consequences of steroids, they don't tend to think about potential risks from short-term use. We see a clear signal of higher rates of these three serious events within 30 days of filling a prescription. We need to understand that steroids do have a real risk and that we may use them more than we really need to. This is so important because of how often these drugs are used."
Nearly half of those who used steroids were prescribed a "dosepak" where the drugs are prepackaged and labeled for daily use. These "dosepaks," also called "burstpaks," are designed to deliver the highest dose on the first day and taper the dose over the following five days.
Long-Term Dangers of Steroid Use Are More Significant
The dangers of long-term steroid use are well documented. Unfortunately, sometimes physicians and patients believe that steroids are the only option available to reduce their painful and uncomfortable symptoms. However, the long-term effects of the medication may outweigh the benefits of treatment, depending upon the condition.
Of those who were prescribed steroids in the study described above, nearly half received the drug for just six diagnoses related to back pain, allergies or respiratory infections.8 Steroids are also commonly prescribed for other health conditions, including arthritis, lupus, vasculitis, myositis and gout.9
The underlying common factor in the majority of conditions for which steroids are prescribed is an inflammatory process. Whether from disease, illness or injury, the intent behind corticosteroid use is to help your body manage the inflammation and reduce the symptoms of the condition.
But, steroids are not the only option, and may not be your best option. Since adding hormones (steroids) to your body alters the delicate balance of your natural hormones, the addition can cause a long list of reversible and/or irreversible changes. Long-term effects of steroid use may include:10,11,12,13,14,15,16
✓ Stomach ulcers
✓ Gastrointestinal bleeding
✓ Increased risk of heart disease
✓ Increased appetite and weight gain
✓ Suppressed adrenal gland hormone secretion
✓ Reduced bone density
✓ Higher risk of infection
✓ Slow-healing wounds
✓ Thinning skin
✓ High blood sugar and diabetes
✓ Metabolic syndrome
✓ Fluid retention
✓ Cognitive deficits
✓ Impaired memory
✓ Oral thrush
✓ Depression or psychosis
✓ Puffy "moon face"
✓ Stretch marks
✓ Increased facial hair
✓ Night sweats
✓ Genital yeast infections
✓ Urinary tract infections
✓ Increased blood pressure
If you do choose to use steroids to treat your symptoms, be aware that stopping the drug abruptly may trigger adverse effects that may even be life-threatening, depending on how long you've been taking the medication. Corticosteroids simulate the natural hormone cortisol, released by your adrenal glands.
When you add corticosteroids your body has not produced, it may shut down the production of your own hormone. These changes in the balance to your natural secretion may be the result of taking doses greater than your natural production.17 As you decrease or discontinue the drug, you can experience withdrawal symptoms.
These symptoms may be managed through a structured and coordinated drug withdrawal program, to help reduce withdrawal symptoms. The severity of your symptoms will be related to how long you took steroids, the dose and the taper schedule used.18 A sudden withdrawal of steroids from your system will trigger more severe symptoms, and can possibly be life-threatening. Symptoms may include:19
✓ Body aches
✓ Decreased appetite
✓ Weight loss
✓ Abdominal pain
✓ Low blood pressure
✓ Low blood sugar
✓ Joint pain
✓ Muscle aches
✓ Mental changes
✓ Ileus (the temporary arrest of intestinal peristalsis)
✓ Mood swings
✓ Skin rash
✓ Suicidal thoughts
✓ Changes in your menstrual cycle
✓ High levels of calcium
✓ Electrolyte imbalances
Steroid Poisoning May Be Unintentional
The 55 poison control centers around the U.S. took nearly 2.2 million phone calls about accidental exposure to poisons in 2014, a disproportionate number of which were for children under the age of 6.20 Of the top 10 reasons for accidental poison exposure, medications accounted for five. Poison control centers take approximately one call every minute of every day for children who accidently take medication, and 60,000 children required emergency treatment in 2014 for accidental medication poisoning.21
Today, there are three times more prescriptions filled, and five times more money spent on over-the-counter medication, than in 1980.22 Toddlers are at greatest risk, often finding medication dropped accidently on the floor or stored in purses, diaper bags, counters or in the refrigerator.
A review of emergency room records show that half of the time, children find medication belonging to their grandparents, who may not have drugs safely stored far from little hands, while 38 percent of the time they find medications belonging to their parents. It may take just one pill to poison a child, causing permanent or life-threatening damage. Steroid dosages are based on age and weight, so an adult dose of a corticosteroid will severely affect adrenal secretion of cortisol in a child's body.
If you suspect your child accidently took even one steroid pill, call your poison control center. In the U.S., that number is (800) 222-1222. If your child has symptoms of a poison emergency, or has collapsed, call your local emergency phone number; in the U.S. call 911. Signs and symptoms that may indicate your child has taken medication include a smaller number of pills in your pill bottle or dosepak than you expected, or if the child has a seizure, agitation, difficulty breathing, nausea/vomiting or low heart rate.
Cost to an Athlete's Life
Athletes have historically used anabolic steroids to improve strength and performance. While corticosteroids are created in a laboratory to mimic cortisol secreted from your adrenal glands and reduce inflammation, anabolic steroids are man-made versions of testosterone, the male sex hormone.23 Although both are referred to as steroids, they are two distinctly different types and cannot be used interchangeably.
New compounds used to mimic anabolic steroids are selective androgen receptive modulators (SARMs), which reportedly have fewer androgenic properties, with less of the negative side effects.24 However, SARMs do contain androgens, with the same intended effects of anabolic steroids, using a more selective action.
The side effects of using anabolic steroids, which are prohibited in competitive sports, are severe. These include heart, liver and kidney disease, hair loss, acne and high blood pressure.25 Long-term use of anabolic steroids may also result in breast tissue growth on a man's chest (gynecomastia), shrinking testicles and absence of sperm, infertility, and increasing problems with anger, also called "roid rage."
Anabolic steroids generate an abnormal growth of muscle tissue, but also life-long side effects that may ultimately take your life. There are far safer options that help you increase muscle mass.
Consider Less Hazardous Options
In specific instances, your medical treatment may require the use of steroids. However, I believe corticosteroids are prescribed far too frequently for conditions that may be addressed with other options. Athletes are also able to improve muscle growth using specific lifestyle strategies that boost the natural production of human growth hormone (HGH).
The effects of HGH are not identical to testosterone, but it is used by your body to grow muscle, get lean and improve your athletic performance. You may increase your natural production by using a sauna and high-intensity interval training. You can read more about how to integrate these strategies by following the hyperlinks provided.
Before taking a course of steroids, speak with your physician about using less risky options. In many cases you may prevent the use of steroids by incorporating strategies that help reduce inflammation in your body and lessen your symptoms. Some of these include:26
✓ Microactive curcumin
Curcumin is one of the ingredients in the spice turmeric and microactive technology helps improve absorption.27 Curcumin helps to balance excitatory and inhibitory cytokines, substances secreted by the immune system that have an effect on other cells.
In turmeric or in a natural form, curcumin is not readily absorbed into the body. However, using microactive technology, the bioavailability improves, as does the results. The supplement is also well tolerated, without adverse side effects, even at high dosages.28 Multiple human trials have demonstrated the effectiveness of curcumin to reduce inflammation.29
✓ Eliminate foods that promote inflammation
Foods that significantly contribute to the inflammatory response in your body include virtually all processed foods, sugars, gluten, trans fats and alcohol.
✓ Consume foods and nutrients that reduce inflammation
Foods that help reduce inflammation are high in antioxidants, including green tea, vegetables, bone broth, avocado and coconut oil. To reduce chronic inflammation, it's important to address your overall diet. To help you get started, I suggest following my free Optimized Nutrition Plan, which starts at the beginner phase and systematically guides you step-by-step to the advanced level.
✓ Stay well-hydrated
When dehydrated, your cells are not able to function optimally, and have a more difficult time eliminating toxins, so be sure to stay well-hydrated. As a general rule, drink to quench your thirst. A helpful guide to gauge your hydration is to look at the color of your urine. Urine that is a light, straw yellow color is typically a sign of being fully hydrated.
✓ Exercise at least 30 minutes each day and keep moving
Exercise helps lower stress and improves the quality of your sleep — both of which will lower your levels of inflammation. Exercise also improves your heart and lung function, flexibility and range of motion.
However, if you are sitting for the rest of the day, you lose the benefits of your workout. Get up and move every 15 minutes or so. Better yet, get a standing desk for work and sit 10 minutes each hour. Read more about the health benefits of standing at my previous article, "What Happens to Your Body When You Sit All Day?"
✓ Practice stress reduction
Science demonstrates that an increase in your stress level will increase the inflammatory response in your body. Meditation, yoga, exercise and deep breathing are all ways to help reduce stress.
One of my favorite methods is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which uses acupuncture points on your head and upper body to help you clear your mind and accomplish your goals. You can learn more about EFT for stress in this video:
✓ Quality sleep
Getting eight hours of quality sleep is important to your health for many reasons, not the least of which is that it will help reduce inflammation in your body. If you have trouble sleeping you'll want to follow my 33 tips to getting a better night's sleep.
✓ Essential oil and aromatherapy
There are many uses for essential oils — from lifting your mood to helping reduce inflammation. For suggestions on how to incorporate them into your daily practice, read my previous article, "How Essential Oils Can Help Improve Your Life."
✓ Detoxify in the sauna or tub
Although there is more than one way to help your body detoxify (which is important for lowering inflammation), using an infrared sauna or taking a hot bath may be among the easiest and most cost effective. Using a combination of Epsom salts and essential oils in your bath, you'll experience the benefits of a high-end spa at a fraction of the price.