21 October 2014

Teenagers and steroid abuse

According to a recent newspaper article, a worrying number of South African schoolboys are admitting to using anabolic steroids, mainly to enhance sports performance.


I was shocked to read the article “Steroids rife in schools” on the front page of The Times last Friday. According to reporter Katharine Childs, 5% of the 12,000 boys surveyed at 23 KwaZulu-Natal schools last year admitted to using steroids. The researchers believe that in high schools up to 10% of boys used these drugs for purposes of “bulking up”, while their coaches, teachers, parents and school principles turn a blind eye.

This is indeed cause for concern. I have personal experience of this practice and have often been asked what people “can give their children to help them enhance their performance in sport?” The questions seem ingenious, but what these parents actually want, is an endorsement of behaviour that can ruin the life and health of their children.


The above mentioned statistics were reported at the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport Supplement Summit last week. In her article, Ms Childs reports that steroids such as Winstrol, Dianabol, and Clenbuterol are being sold at schools to produce “super athletes”. I looked up what side-effects these drugs can have and want to ask any sane parent if they would like their son to develop these effects and symptoms.

Read: Teenage bodybuilders at risk for drug abuse

Let’s look at two of the drugs that are being sold to gullible young athletes at our schools, namely Winstrol and Clenbuterol.

Side-effects of Winstrol (also known as Stanozol):

  • Allergic reactions such as problems with breathing, closing of the throat, swelling of the face, lips and tongue, and hives. Such allergic reactions are potentially fatal and require immediate medical attention. Remember to take the tablets along when you go to the doctor or hospital to seek help, so that correct life-saving treatment can be administered.
  • Fluid retention which can cause oedema (swelling of the legs and arms), leading to heart problems, such as congestive heart failure which can potentially be fatal.
  • Problems of the reproductive and urinary systems, particularly in males who many develop a condition called oligospermia (low sperm concentrations), urinary obstruction, prolonged erections (priapism) and an increased frequency of erections.
  • Liver problems, including life-threatening liver cancer at high doses and prolonged exposure. It was found that these tumours did not shrink in all cases when the steroid was stopped. In addition, sportsmen of all ages may develop jaundice and gallstone-related hepatitis.
  • In young boys who are still growing, the use of such steroids can prevent normal bone growth, resulting in stunting and short stature.
  • Changes in the factors responsible for blood clotting, which may expose these young sportsmen to bleeding complications and clots.
  • While steroids may make sportsmen “bulk up”, they suppress the release of the normal male hormone testosterone, which can suppress the production of sperm cells, leading to infertility in later life.
  • Steroids also interfere with normal blood glucose control by reducing glucose tolerance, which counteracts the aim of most diets designed for sportsmen and women who require a steady blood glucose supply to fuel their physical performance.
  • Increases in LDL-lipoproteins and decreases in HDL-lipoproteins may increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Digestive upsets including nausea and vomiting may also occur.

The side-effects of Clenbuterol are divided into short-term and long-term symptoms as follows:

Steroids bad for mental health

Short-term effects:

These include muscle cramps, increased blood pressure, palpitations and increased pulse rate, insomnia, dry mouth, vomiting, shakiness, anxiety, nervousness and restlessness, headaches, problems with breathing and excessive sweating

Long-term effects:

a) Cardiovascular effects:

Clenbuterol increases the collagen content of muscle tissue, including of the heart, which in turn can increase the size of the heart muscle cells thereby reducing the pumping efficiency of the heart, and causing irregular heartbeats. Over time this drug can cause heart cell degeneration and aorta cell enlargement that can lead to rupture of the aorta and sudden death.

b) Skeletal effects:

Clenbuterol is known to increase bone fragility which combined with increased body mass due to “bulking up”, increases the risk of bone fractures.

c) Weight gain:

While many young athletes may be tempted to take clenbuterol because it is supposed to be a “fat-burner”, few are probably aware of the ironic fact that in the long-term this banned drug actually causes weight gain. The weigh gaining effect can evidently start rapidly when clenbuterol loses its effect after 3-4 weeks. So instead of losing weight, an athlete may, therefore, find himself gaining weight at a fast rate.

Steroids in dietary supplements?

As the website warns: “The list of potential side-effects caused by clenbuterol is long and perilous and is the reason behind the limited knowledge of clenbuterol’s weight loss properties in humans.” There are no results of studies conducted with humans available, particularly in young people with developing bodies. The listed side-effects are based on findings of various groups of people who ate meat that was contaminated with clenbuterol in countries such as Spain (1994) and China (2006). The steroid is used in cattle farming in Europe, China and the USA and excessive doses in meat have led to poisoning of consumers who ate the meat and offal such as liver. Pity the poor cattle and pity the poor people who ate the meat!

Vitamins and minerals

While the side-effects of the above mentioned illegal drugs may be swift and sometimes fatal, the long-term effects of taking excessive amounts of vitamins and minerals via sports supplements, shakes and “body fuel” products, may take longer to manifest but are just as serious and harmful.

If your son begs you to buy him one or more of the hundreds of the enticing “sport performance enhancing” products available at pharmacies, gyms and sports clubs, chances are you will fall for the “safe and natural” blurbs on the labels and end up buying a variety of shakes and powders and bars.

Vitamin supplements could be harmful

Before using these products, stop right there and do the following:

Write down each nutrient that these products contain and the quantities of each nutrient per serving (e.g. 3 scoops of “Product X”, which contains 900 micrograms of vitamin A) and the recommended frequency of intake (e.g. 3 times a day) and calculate how much of each nutrient your child would be ingesting on a daily basis.

In our imaginary example, your son would be swallowing 3 x 3 x 900 = 8 100 micrograms of vitamin A per day, or 9 times the Nutrient Reference Value (NRV), from just one “safe and natural” sports product.   

But let’s say your son is also taking “Product Y” which contains 500 microgram of Vitamin A per 30 ml (1 tablespoon) and the recommended dosage is 3 tablespoons a day. This works out to 3 x 500 = 1 500 micrograms of vitamin A from “Product Y” that you need to add to the 8 100 micrograms from “Product X”, thus equalling 9 600 micrograms of vitamin A per day, or nearly 11 times the NRV for vitamin A.

At this rate, your son will soon develop e.g. hypervitaminosis A which can lead to irreversible liver and joint damage. An unexpected and unfortunate result of using just two “safe and natural” sports supplements!

No growing child or teenager should be exposed to the dangers of banned substances or nutrient overdoses for the sake of sport performance; bulking up; getting an “edge”; pleasing the coach; or because of peer pressure.  Keep an eye on your sons and never allow them to sacrifice their health or even be driven to death (yes, it happens!) for the sake of winning at sport.

Read more:

SA schoolboys taking steroids
Kids and vitamin supplements
Can vitamin supplements be fatal?


- (Childs K (2014). Steroids rife in schools. The Times, Page 1. Published on Friday 17 October 2014;

- Daubert GP et al (2007). Acute clenbuterol overdose resulting in supraventricular tachycardia and atrial fibrillation. Journal of Medical Toxicology, 3(2):56-60; 

- (2014). Winstrol side-effects.  

- (2014). Fat burners: Clenbuterol side-effects.

Image: Steroid injections from Shutterstock

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Read more of her articles.


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