Some people, both athletes and non-athletes, abuse anabolic steroids in an attempt to enhance performance and improve physical appearance. Anabolic steroids are taken orally or injected, typically in cycles rather than continuously. "Cycling" refers to a pattern of use in which steroids are taken for periods of weeks or months, after which use is stopped for a interval of period and then restarted. In addition, users often combine several different types of steroids in an attempt to maximize their effectiveness, a practice referred to as "stacking."
The immediate effects of anabolic steroids in the brain are mediated by their binding to androgen (male sex hormone) and estrogen (female sex hormone) receptors on the surface of a cell. This anabolic steroids receptor complex can then shuttle into the cell nucleus to influence patterns of gene expression. Because of this, the acute effects of anabolic steroids in the brain are substantially different from those of other drugs of abuse. The most significant difference is that anabolic steroids are not euphorigenic, meaning they do not trigger rapid increases in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for the "great" that often drives substance abuse behaviors. However, long-term use of anabolic steroids can eventually have an impact on some of the same brain pathways and chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and opioid systems that are affected by other drugs of abuse. Considering the combined result of their complex direct and indirect actions, it is not surprising that anabolic steroids can affect mood and behavior in significant ways.
Preclinical, clinical, and anecdotal reports suggest that steroids may contribute to psychiatric dysfunction. Research shows that abuse of anabolic steroids may lead to aggression and other adverse effects. For example, although many users report feeling right about themselves while on anabolic steroids, extreme mood swings can also occur, including manic-like symptoms that could lead to violence. Researchers have also observed that users may suffer from paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability, delusions, and impaired judgment stemming from feelings of invincibility.
Animal studies have shown that anabolic steroids are reinforcing that is, animals will self-administer anabolic steroids when given the opportunity, just as they do with other addictive drugs. This property is more hard to demonstrate in humans, but the potential for anabolic steroids abusers to become addicted is consistent with their continued abuse despite physical problems and negative effects on social relations. Also, steroid abusers typically spend large amounts of time and money obtaining the medication: this is another indication of addiction. Individuals who abuse steroids can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking anabolic steroids these include mood swings, fatigue, restlessness, loss of appetite, insomnia, reduced sex drive, and steroid cravings, all of which may contribute to continued abuse. One of the most dangerous withdrawal symptoms is depression when persistent, it can sometimes lead to suicide attempts.
Research also indicates that some users might turn to other drugs to alleviate some of the negative effects of anabolic steroids. For example, a study of 227 men admitted in 1999 to a private treatment center for dependence on heroin or other opioids found that 9.3 percent had abused anabolic steroids before trying any other illicit drug. Of these, 86 percent first used opioid to counteract insomnia and irritability resulting from the steroids. There has been very little research on treatment for anabolic steroids abuse. Current knowledge derives largely from the experiences of a little number of physicians who have worked with patients undergoing steroid withdrawal. They have learned that, in general, supportive therapy combined with training about possible withdrawal symptoms is sufficient in some cases. Sometimes, medications can be used to restore the balance of the hormonal system after its disruption by steroid abuse. If symptoms are severe or prolonged, symptomatic medications or hospitalization may be needed.