Bigger, Stronger, Faster: Bodybuilding enthusiasts abuse steroids to enhance their performance Image Credit: Corbis

There are concerns about the widespread prevalence of steroid and human growth hormone (HGH) abuse in gyms across the UAE. Industry experts are worried that the lack of knowledge on the physical and mental risks of the drug could lead to devastating consequences.

The availability of illegal performance-enhancing substances is also a concern given the zero tolerance policy on drug use advocated by the UAE’s Ministry of Health (MOH). Ani*, a Dubai-based Eastern European personal trainer, says steroids are presenting a “huge” problem for the UAE’s gym culture. “There are a big number of guys in the weights area taking steroids — especially in Dubai. And many of them are talking about it openly,” he tells GN Focus.

Anabolic Androgenic steroids (AAS) — also known as roids in gym nomenclature — are the synthetic variant of the male sex hormone testosterone. Anabolic refers to its muscle-building properties and androgenic to the increased male sexual characteristics the compound omits.

Vanity or health

Some athletes, bodybuilders and general gym goers abuse steroids to enhance their performance or improve their physical appearance for reasons closer to vanity than physical conditioning.

Ahman*, an Egypt-born bodybuilding personal trainer based in Dubai, tells GN Focus: “Basically everyone in the gym does it. There is a perception that you cannot build muscles without taking something. The hormones in your system weren’t designed to get you super built or super cut. So you have to use substance enhancers if you want to look a certain way.”

With the MOH upholding and enforcing a strict zero tolerance approach to recreational drug use, which includes steroids, some obsessive gym goers have turned to pharmaceutical products that could, until a few years ago, be obtained over the counter in the UAE.

In a loophole that some users have cottoned onto, HGH and AAS can be legally prescribed to treat medical conditions resulting from steroid hormone deficiency, such as delayed puberty and diseases that inhibit the natural production of lean muscle mass, such as cancer and AIDS. 

High connections

Prescription medicines used to treat hormone deficiencies — such as norditropin and kigtropin — contain HGH, which is often used as a steroid replacement supplement by those who cannot gain easy access to AAS. There is little difference between the outcome of using HGH and AAS. They are both classified as ergogenic aids — substances that rapidly enhance one’s physical performance.

Asked where users are acquiring the banned substances from, Ani said some people take the risk of trying to smuggle them into the country when they’re returning from vacation or business, but the most prevalent acquisition comes through personal connections within the health-care sector in the UAE. “The most common way the users get HGH is that they have connections with someone who is working at a pharmacy,” he says.

The implication is that steroid users are able to get access to prescription medicines such as norditropin made through a qualified doctor or chemist, from which they are able to use the HGH to supplement their recreational bodybuilding activities.

Dr Amin Al Amiri, Assistant Under-Secretary for Medical Practice and Licence at the Ministry of Health, outlines to GN Focus in a telephone conversation the policy on steroid use in the UAE: “The administration of steroids is not allowed unless it is prescribed in a legal or scientific way by doctors or physicians,” he says. 

“If this sort of thing is happening, the MOH needs to be notified. And if the MOH was to be notified of these malpractices, we would be glad to send our inspectors to monitor the situation to make sure medicines are not being prescribed [illegally]. I would recommend that people who know these things make the MOH aware of the names of these people and we will monitor the situation from there,” he adds.

Focus on exercise

Asked whether the practice had been spotted, Mark Botha, Group Operations and Marketing Head of Fitness First Middle East, tells GN Focus in an emailed statement: “Within our 54 clubs, we don’t witness steroid use very often. This is mainly due to us being a lifestyle health club with a broad mix of members who are focused on exercise and not typically known for venturing down this route.

Botha says Fitness First focuses on educating its members on the benefits of exercise and healthy nutrition as opposed to experimenting with unregulated and unlicenced products such as steroids. “However, we do recognise that this goes on and is more prominent in bodybuilder-type gyms. We have zero tolerance for any type of steroid use, for both our staff and our members, and we would not hesitate to report it immediately to the MOH,” he says.

However, the problems don’t stop there. Majority of steroid users in the UAE are not even aware of the long-term psycho-somatic risks. “Most [users] don’t have the knowledge of a proper cycle: most of them don’t have a clue that they need to be cycling, or even what post-cycle therapy (PCT) is,” says Ahman. “The mentality here in the UAE is that they don’t care. They just want to get big. Basically, when you get into [bodybuilding], you don’t care about the side effects.”

According to UK-based bodybuilding support website bodybuildingwarehouse.co.uk, “PCT is one of the most important things when running either a cycle of AAS or a pro hormone cycle if you are serious about keeping those hard-earned gains. It is all about restarting your body’s natural hormonal systems. If done correctly this can make or break a cycle and set you up perfectly for your next visit to the hormone world,” says the website.

Inherent dangers

When bodybuilders stop a cycle of AAS, HGH or any other increased testosterone intake, the body takes time to realise it’s not getting an additional influx of testosterone and slacken in producing its own, shutting down the naturally occurring testosterone production in the body.

Adolescent steroid users,  a worryingly high percentage of users, usually suffer from body dismorphia and are at risk of completely overturning and confusing their incipient hormonal cycles and upsetting their metabolic rhythm for the rest of their lives.

Liver and heart disease, stroke and drug dependence and increased aggression are all likely outcomes of dabbling with the potent drug, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Other side effects in males include: reduced sperm count, shrunken testicles, infertility, baldness and increased risk of prostate cancer.

In one of the best modern satires on the dangers of steroid use, Michael Bay’s Hollywood production Pain and Gain — inspired by the true story of three bodybuilders turned extortionist gangsters — a nurse asks one of the characters who is suffering with erectile dysfunction: “Are you using steroids?” to which the patient answers “No.” Unconvinced, the nurse asks “When was the last time you injected?” “Monday,” he replies , which happens to be the day before.

The cognitive malfunction embodied by the actor is symptomatic of the destructive influence any form of steroids can wreak havoc on humans. It’s a condition that the authorities and gyms in the UAE are keen to see doesn’t develop further.

*Some names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities.