A study conducted on male weightlifters in Norway found that those who used anabolic-androgenic steroids exhibited significantly more symptoms of psychopathology than those who did not use these substances. On the other hand, they were much stronger than non-users, although they spent less time training per week. The study was published in Brain and Behavior.
Androgenic-anabolic steroids, commonly referred to simply as steroids, are synthetic substances that mimic the effects of the male sex hormone testosterone. They are known for their dual properties: androgenic – related to the development of male sexual characteristics, and anabolic – they promote muscle growth and tissue repair. These steroids are often used illicitly by athletes and bodybuilders to enhance muscle mass, strength, and performance.
However, the misuse of steroids can lead to a range of adverse health effects, including cardiovascular issues, hormonal imbalances, and psychological disturbances. In spite of these risks, around 3%-6% of young men in most Western countries use these substances. Typically, they consume doses that exceed physiological levels, further amplifying the potential for adverse effects. In addition to this, studies indicate that psychiatric disorders are more common among steroid users compared to the general population. This is the case with both male and female users of steroids.
Study author Marie Lindvik Jørstad and her colleagues wanted to investigate the personality psychopathology and specific psychiatric syndromes of users of anabolic-androgenic steroids. Acknowledging that steroids are typically used by individuals engaged in sports that focus on muscle mass, they decided to focus their study on weightlifters. For a comparative analysis, they chose weightlifters who confirmed they did not use steroids, surmising that this group would closely resemble the steroid users, except in the aspect of steroid consumption.
The study encompassed 118 previous and current male steroid users and 97 weightlifters who confirmed they had never used steroids. Both groups also took part in another ongoing study at Oslo University Hospital in Norway, examining the neurological, medical, and psychiatric implications of prolonged steroid use. Participants, on average, were aged between 35-36 years. Those who abstained from steroids typically had two more years of education than the steroid-consuming group.
Participants completed the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory-III (MCMI-III), an extensive self-report instrument assessing a number of personality disorders and psychopathological syndromes. They also completed a semistructured interview designed for this study. Through this interview, participants provided their demographic data, weight lifting training history, various health related information, and history of prescription drugs use.
Results showed that steroid users were 8 kg (17.64 pounds) heavier, on average, than non-users. They spent less time training per week, but were much stronger, as indicated by the number of bench presses and squats they were able to do. Moreover, 41% of steroid users consumed prescription medications, in stark contrast to the 7% usage observed among non-users.
Regarding mental health evaluations, those using steroids scored substantially higher across nearly all psychopathology metrics, with the singular exception being the narcissistic personality disorder scale. These users displayed pronounced traits associated with antisocial, aggressive, passive-aggressive, self-defeating, avoidant, depressive, and schizotypal personality disorders.
“The findings from the present study using the MCMI-III demonstrated marked differences in psychopathology between the groups of 117 anabolic-androgenic-steroid-using and 97 non-using weightlifters. Anabolic-androgenic steroid users showed significantly higher BR [base rate] scores on all personality and syndrome scales, except for the narcissistic scale, with a much higher number of scale scores reaching the clinical cut-off,” the study authors wrote.
The study sheds light on the links between steroid use and psychopathology. However, it also has limitations that need to be considered. Notably, the study design does not allow any conclusions about causes and effects to be derived. Additionally, the information about steroid use was based solely on self-reports allowing for the findings to be affected by reporting bias.
The study, “Clustering psychopathology in male anabolic–androgenic steroid users and non-using weightlifters”, was authored by Marie Lindvik Jørstad, Morgan Scarth, Svenn Torgersen, Harrison Graham Pope, and Astrid Bjørnebekk.