The dark side of fitness: Doctors sound alarm on growing steroid abuse in gym-goers

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Doctors in the United Arab Emirates are concerned about the increase in steroid abuse among gym-goers, a trend which has become more prominent since the pandemic.

With the desperation to achieve quick fitness results, more people have turned to steroids and growth hormones. In separate interviews with Al Arabiya English, experts warned of the dangers associated with the drug and other supplements.

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“The overuse of steroids and growth hormone in our gym culture is a concerning trend due to the serious health consequences associated with their consumption,” said Dr, Ali el-Houni, Senior Consultant Endocrinologist at Sharjah’s Burjeel Specialty Hospital.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a slight increase in patients experiencing side effects related to steroid or growth hormone use. The reasons for this increase are likely multifactorial, including heightened stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, reduced physical activity, and increased time spent indoors,” he added.

Dr. el-Houni said that the hospital has seen several patients being treated for issues related to steroid abuse, including liver damage, kidney damage, heart disease, hormonal imbalances and infertility.

“Using steroids and growth hormone for cosmetic or athletic purposes is not only illegal, but also dangerous,” he added.

Steroid abuse among gym-goers is an age-old problem that has assumed dangerous proportions post-COVID-19.

The pandemic caused unprecedented disruption to people’s lives, prompting them to adopt unhealthy habits such as binge eating, lack of exercise, and sedentary lifestyles.

With the world reeling under lockdowns, weight gain became a reality for many, leading to increased self-consciousness and a fervent desire to embark on fitness journeys. This has led to the rush to achieve desired results quickly, resulting in rampant steroid abuse, posing a severe challenge for doctors across the globe.

In the UAE, a YouGov survey conducted in April 2021 found that 51 percent of respondents had gained weight during the pandemic due to lockdowns and unhealthy eating habits. The same trend is evident in other countries, as a recent US study involving 7,753 respondents showed that 42 percent had gained weight since the onset of the pandemic.

“‘It’s all about the looks.’ That is the thought and goal of most people who go to the gym these days. And they now have an easier way - steroids. That is why we are seeing an increasing number of people fall into this trap to achieve easier and faster results,” said Dr. Pushker Singh, Internal Medicine Specialist at the Burjeel Day Surgery Center in Abu Dhabi’s Al Reem Island.

“Anabolic steroids and growth hormone supplements should never be used and are never recommended because they have extremely dangerous side effects that can be irreversible,” he warned.

The human body produces anabolic hormones as needed to maintain its functions, said Dr. Singh. However, when these hormones are taken externally, the body gets the impression that it already has enough of them. This then causes the pituitary gland signaling hormones to decrease, which can negatively impact essential functions like sperm and egg production, eventually resulting in infertility.

“This infertility may be irreversible unless a physician intervenes at the appropriate time,” Dr. Singh cautioned.

“Young women who use growth hormone may experience premature closure of their growth plates as well as short stature,” warned Dr. el-Houni.

Aside from muscle growth, people are using growth hormone supplements to slow down the ageing process, says Dr. Singh, who warned that this was “even more dangerous.”

“Our bodies normally require growth hormone to repair, build, and maintain healthy tissue,” Dr. Singh explained.

“In a normal body, growth hormone begins to decline in the third decade of life. Fasting is a natural way to boost your growth hormone levels. That is why Ramadan is scientifically beneficial to one’s health.

“Fasting primarily increases insulin sensitivity and growth hormone levels. But when taken as an external source, this will expose you to the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, joint problems, excess bone growth, reshaping the face and other physical features of the body, liver damage, enlarged breast in males and many more.”

Dr. Singh emphasized that the supplement should never be used for bodybuilding as it is only recommended for some medical conditions related to muscle wasting and stunted growth. The most common side effects are infertility, liver damage, high cholesterol, and male breast enlargement. The number of growth hormone-related cases seems to be “increasing day by day,” said Dr. Singh.

The doctors both urged gym-goers and young people to heed the advice of specialized medical professionals rather than following online advice that is not backed by scientific evidence.

“I will suggest not messing with the natural body physiology. Just focus on natural ways by going to the gym for inner strength and endurance and eating healthy,” said Dr. Singh.

“Your body will automatically produce the required hormones.”

The concern for steroids and growth hormone abuse comes as weight loss trends continue to sweep across TikTok, with many users promoting various drugs such as Ozempic and Saxenda, which are injectable drugs typically used to treat diabetes, as a quick and easy way to lose weight. This led to a global stock shortage earlier this year as people raced to find a quick fix for weight loss.

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