FORT BRAGG, N.C. - According to a military website, a survey conducted by the Department of Defense in 2008 (the last year for which figures were available), showed that 2.5 percent of Army personnel had illegally used steroids within the past 12 months.
The disparity between the cost of a steroid analysis, from $240 to $365, to what a marijuana analysis cost, about $8, is huge. Officials do not routinely test for steroids unless abuse is suspected.
Servicemembers know that steroid use is illegal unless prescribed by a physician and its a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as listed under Article 112a. Use can be punishable by actions such as a reduction in rank or expulsion from the armed services. Any use of an illegal drug or misuse of a prescription drug could raise questions about trustworthiness or about the willingness to comply with laws and regulations -- which could affect a servicemember's security clearance.
But, despite legal and health ramifications, Fort Bragg officials have dealt with steroid use among its ranks.
Steroids can easily be purchased over the Internet, said Maj. Benjamin J. Ingram, chief of the Department of Sports Medicine at Womack Army Medical Center. Steroids can also be inadvertently purchased as sports supplements. There is very little regulation by the Food and Drug Administration over those supplements.
"A large number of supplements do get pulled from the market because they are found to contain steroids," said Ingram, who cautions servicemembers who would take supplements. "Be very selective of the supplement you take."
Typically, the athletes who knowingly take steroids are anaerobic athletes, such as body builders, football players or weight lifters who require sudden bursts of movement.
A soccer player or long distance runner, for instance, is less likely to take steroids.
Steroid consumption increases a person's baseline strength by about 5 to 20 percent, said Ingram.
There are various negative effects associated with steroid use. Those effects include liver damage, increased bad cholesterol or LDL, which collects in the inner walls of the arteries to form plaque and could lead to a stroke or heart attack. Use also accounts for elevated blood pressure, which is a contributing factor of a heart attack and a lowered immune system, Ingram said.
Steroid use does not paint a pretty picture for the body. The negative effects do not stop there. Steroid use has been associated with psychological effects such as marked irritability and mood swings, a decrease in testicle size or the cessation of sperm production altogether, as well as overproduction of breast tissue in males, a condition known as gynecomastia. In women, steroid use has been associated with an increase in facial hair, baldness, and a deeper voice.
So, what are alternatives to steroid use?
"I'm not wild about any supplement, but creatine is probably safe," Ingram said. Creatine is a substance that is ingested in the diet through meat, fish or supplements or produced in the liver. Creatine leads to increased energy stores in the muscles which leads to an ability to work out harder and longer thereby leading to greater strength gains. Creatine doesn't work for everyone and caution should be used in those with kidney disease. Caution should also be used when working out in the heat.
What does Ingram think is the best alternative to steroid or supplement use?
"First, actually go the gym and work out. I'm not a fan of supplements as most have very little scientific evidence of benefits and many may cause harm. Second, take in adequate protein. 1.2 to 1.5 grams/kilograms per day total (through diet and supplements) is adequate intake. Milk has a lot of protein in it," he said. "It is given to babies during the largest growth period in their lives. It's a fuel designed for growth. It also has carbs in it for post work out refueling of the muscles."