Natural steroids are organic, fat-soluble compounds that have 17 carbon atoms, and which are structured in four distinct rings. Acting as hormones, they are not manufactured by people, but rather occur in plants, fungi and animals. Good examples are cholesterol, estrogen, testosterone and bile acids. The body uses substances called prohormones, which are contained in food, to make many types of them. Many athletes controversially look to supplement versions as an alternative to synthetic varieties that already are illegal, hoping to boost performance, but a number of areas, such as the United States, restrict or ban the use of these products due to potentially dangerous side effects.
These substances are extremely common in nature, and experts estimate that the number of natural steroids is in the hundreds. Some foods contain ones that are bioidentical to those found in the human body, meaning a person doesn’t need to convert them in order for them to provide a benefit. Milk, for instance, contains progesterone. Most are not in the form people need, however, and even when they are, the amount is generally small, so individuals rely to a great extent on prohormones.
Sometimes called hormone precursors, prohormones are substances that the body can use to make hormones. One of the most well-known examples is dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, which helps create androgen and estrogen. Others include dihydrotestosterone, androsterone, pregnenolone, androstenedione, hydroxyprogesterone, estriol and 17-alpha-estradiol. These substances are found in plants, animals and animal-based products. By consuming them in food, people and other organisms are able to synthesize many of the natural steroids they need, so prohormones are critical to staying healthy.
Main Types in People
In people, natural steroids generally fall into two major classes, including those produced by the adrenal glands and those made by the gonads. Adrenocortical steroids, for instance, belong to the former group and help reduce inflammation. Testosterone, estrogen and progesterone all belong to the latter category. The hypothalamus is responsible for controlling the production of these substances, sending signals to up the amount made when levels in the blood fall too low.
Use in Athletics
Certain types of natural steroids and prohormones are anabolic, helping the body heal and build new tissue, particularly muscle. Testosterone is the best example. In many regions and sports organizations, synthetic types are banned because of their dangerous side effects, and because they can provide what some individuals consider an unfair physical advantage. Many athletes are turning to natural versions as a result to get stronger or improve endurance, in part because they are available as supplements over the counter at local health food stores and pharmacies with no prescription required.
Controversy and Health Concerns
For optimal health, people need a delicate balance of different chemicals. When something throws off this balance, it can disrupt one or more physical processes or functions, resulting in unwanted side effects. One of the biggest criticisms of using natural steroids as supplements, therefore, is that they still can be dangerous, even though they are not synthetically made. Some individuals also point out that they are little different than the man-made types, in that they still produce the same ending results. Subsequently, organizations are beginning to ban many versions — prohormone use became illegal in the United States in 2004 with the Anabolic Steroid Control Act, for instance.
Examples of side effects reported from these substances include hormone-related cancers, mood swings, impotence, liver damage, heart disease and changes to secondary sex characteristics, such as facial hair. Even when these side effects do not pose a serious threat to health, they can be socially disrupting. Men who develop breasts, for example, can be ostracized by others, as can women whose voices drop.
Another big part of the controversy is that, understanding that foods are primary sources, supplements generally are not necessary if someone has a well-balanced, sufficient diet. Often, those who want to improve their physical appearance and performance can do so simply by changing what they eat. In general, the only time people truly need to take a commercial type is if they have a particular medical condition that makes it difficult for their bodies to make them, or that is resulting in the unwanted wasting of tissue.