Harvard Health Letter

By the way, doctor: Why did my doctor prescribe steroids?

Q. I have been diagnosed with temporal arteritis and am being treated with a drug called prednisone, which the doctor says is a steroid. I know athletes use steroids to bulk up, and I can't see how that would have anything to do with temporal arteritis. Can you explain?

A. I understand your confusion.

The word steroid encompasses a large group of chemicals, each of which has very different effects on the body. Plants and animals contain hundreds of different kinds of steroids. Cholesterol, estrogen, testosterone — they're all steroids. Every steroid has a basic chemical structure that contains four rings of carbon atoms, but there are many variations beyond those four basic rings. Different steroids can have very different effects on the body because of those variations.

The steroids that athletes (and athlete wannabes) use and abuse to get stronger are anabolic steroids. They're called anabolic because anabolism is the constructive aspect of metabolism — the metabolism that builds cells and tissues. (Catabolism is the deconstructive counterpart.) The anabolic steroids have muscle-building effects similar to that of natural testosterone.

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