Supplements

What Is the Difference Between Testosterone and Steroids?

Do you trip up over the difference between testosterone and steroids? If that’s a yes, this in-depth guide is for you.

Far too often news outlets, sports stars, and gym-goers talk about anabolic drugs without really understanding what they are.

Many of us talk about our hormones in the same vein too. But what’s the actual difference? Aren’t they both the same?

In this article, we’ll dissect the difference between naturally occurring hormones and synthetic, lab-created steroids. Keep reading as we uncover the impact each one has on your body too.

What is testosterone?  

Surging under your skin are hundreds of powerful hormones. How well they’re balanced has a direct impact on your health too.

When the right ones flow freely in balance, hormones can keep you fit and strong in both body and mind. If the right ratios fall out of sync, you risk the total opposite.

Hormones are vital signalers that trigger changes inside your body – especially testosterone.

Testosterone is a potent, naturally occurring steroid that triggers muscle growth. It really comes into its own during puberty; turning your boyish frame into a strong, lean, and muscular body of a man.

Regular testosterone levels for men sit between 300 – 1,000 ng.dL[1].

The huge range is a clear representation of how different men can be. From age and size through to inherited assertiveness and drive, we’re all unique.

When your testosterone levels are healthy, they can promote[2]:

As you can see, thriving testosterone is great for your wellbeing. Problems start to arise, however, when proper production slows down.

testosterone and steroids - know the difference?!

Low testosterone in men

Low testosterone is when your natural levels drop below the 300 nf.dL baseline. There are absolutely no positives to low testosterone; all the benefits listed earlier begin to disappear, and your risk of obesity and disease climbs upward.

Any man is at risk of low testosterone – even more so if you’re overweight or abuse drugs and alcohol. Older men also face a more significant chance of low testosterone due to natural age-related decline.

A lot of things you might associate with getting older like muscle loss, disappearing sex drive, and less energy can be down to underperforming testosterone[3].

Here is a list of low testosterone warning signs:

    Fewer spontaneous erections
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Impotency
  • Infertility
  • Large breasts in men
  • Reduced motivation
  • Brain fog / poor concentration
  • Muscle and strength loss
  • Reduced bone density
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping

Looking at the symptoms, it’s easy to see how disruptive low testosterone can be. For some men, it can cause a complete lifestyle overhaul. Visit the hospital for a blood test if you’re concerned.

Young man walking

What is testosterone replacement therapy?

One way of tackling low testosterone is testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). Millions of men across the globe use it to reignite their muscle mass, vigor, mood, and sexual energy.

Testosterone replacement therapy isn’t administered to just anyone. Like we looked at earlier, lifestyle factors such as abusing alcohol or being overweight can impact your hormones.

Your doctor might suggest making subtle changes to your habits or other health markers before trying therapy.

Because testosterone fuels prostate cancer, you’re less likely to be given TRT if you show signs of having or developing the disease.

If your doctor is satisfied that you fit the criteria, you might be offered TRT. As the name suggests, men receiving treatment are given a synthetic version of testosterone to bolster their existing levels.

TRT isn’t the natural anabolic hormone you produce yourself, but a synthetic version made inside a lab. This is one of the most important things to remember about testosterone replacement therapy – it’s not natural.

What are steroids?

It’s hard to say exactly what a steroid is without the context. Depending on who you’re speaking to, a steroid could be a type of naturally occurring hormone, or something created in a lab to help bodybuilders build muscle.

There’s a lot of scope between the pair, meaning that intention is everything.

Naturally occurring steroids are hormones. Peptide hormones are made from proteins, whereas steroids are formed from cholesterol.

They’re literally created using a sterol carbon ring, hence the name. It just so happens that testosterone is one of five natural steroid hormones.

If we were talking as medicinal scientists, we’d say steroids are man-made hormones that can be used as medicine.

Corticosteroids, for example, are anti-inflammatories for addressing lots of different conditions. Naturally, this makes TRT itself a synthetic steroid too. So, why do they get such a bad rap?

What most people mean when they say steroids though is synthetic anabolic steroids – aka lab generated, man-made testosterone.

The truth is in the context – people who aren’t prescribed steroids take them and abuse their power. Athletes who don’t have a prescription use synthetic testosterone to gain a competitive edge.

Suddenly, what was once a medically assigned treatment becomes an unfair misuse of drugs. It’s important to understand that anabolic steroids carry considerable health risks too. Anabolic androgenic steroid side effects can include[4]:

  • Complete loss of libido and sex drive
  • Massive kidney, heart, and liver strain
  • Mood swings – sometimes extreme
  • Bad acne and oily skin

Some studies have even associated AAS abuse with increases in schizophrenic symptoms, psychosis, and homicidal tendencies[5].

So, it’s not just your physical health you gamble by taking anabolic steroids, your mental health can be severely damaged too.

It’s illegal to buy, sell, and use anabolic steroids that aren’t prescribed. Only a doctor can legally give out AAS to someone.

Steroids uses

Depending on the kind, steroids have a handful of different uses.

Steroid hormones

Natural steroid hormones are secreted into the blood where they race to specific cells. Once there, they trigger a response and change the way your body operates.

First, they pass through the cell membrane, something that’s possible because they’re fat soluble – remember the sterol part?

Next, the hormone binds to a specific receptor, which then calls for the production of messenger molecules.

Put plainly, a steroid hormone triggers adaptation inside your body. This is how testosterone ignited all your dramatic changes through puberty. It’s also the same reason a lot of testosterone’s masculine traits disappear when levels plummet.

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids, on the other hand, are used as medicine. When taken in higher amounts than your body produces naturally, they can reduce inflammation.

They can also work toward reducing the body’s immune system response, which is how you fight off infection. It’s not uncommon to be prescribed a course of corticosteroids to get rid of a bad cough or wound infection.

Inflammatory diseases such as Chron’s, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis can also be calmed by corticosteroids.

Anabolic steroids

Finally, you have the anabolic steroids – aka synthetic testosterone. Originally, these anabolic steroids were used to trigger puberty or treat low testosterone.

But because of testosterone’s many athletic benefits, they were soon adopted by people looking for a competitive edge – albeit an illegal one. We say people because it’s not just men who abuse anabolic steroids, but women too.

It could be that a bodybuilder wants to build bigger muscles, or a powerlifter needs to be stronger for their next meet.

Sprinters are always going to try and be faster, and football players more explosive. Interestingly, anabolic steroids can give sore athletes faster recovery times – aka a quicker turnaround.

Anabolic steroid use is unfortunately now a part of many sports – both amateur and professional. While most athletes stay clean for their health and principles, some still take the risks.  

How steroids work

Corticosteroids are going to be left out of this section. Chances are you’re here to learn the difference between testosterone and anabolic steroids, not anti-inflammatory medication.

Muscle and strength

When you train hard and lift heavier weights than you’re adapted to, you create tiny microtears inside your muscles. This is why it’s important to employ progressive overload and challenge your muscles to grow.

During the natural repair process your body overcompensates by using larger cells to make the muscle fiber stronger. As a result, the cross-sectional size of the muscle fiber increases, and makes your muscles look bigger.

In the gym you’ll have heard this called ‘size gains’, but the scientific term is muscular hypertrophy.

Testosterone plays a huge part in dictating how well this process happens. One sign of thriving testosterone is its influence on muscle protein synthesis – aka building muscle mass[6].

Of course, higher levels of testosterone can enhance this turnover process. So, by taking anabolic steroids, people can propel their natural testosterone levels into the upper echelons. Which type of anabolic testosterone and how much people use can depend on their goals.

Some can cause a significant stacking of size, whereas others might help make a man more toned and leaner. Anabolic steroids certainly aren’t a one size fits all approach for athletes.

Couple training in the gym

Faster recovery

Sometimes an athlete gets tested and to the media’s shock anabolic steroids show up in their system.

But how? They’re not bulging like the main stays of professional bodybuilding or impressively strong? The fact is, with the pressure to perform day after day, a lot of steroid abusers use them for recovery.

Intense exercise like a competition or tough training sessions cause the release of cortisol. This is your body’s natural response to stress and sometimes be beneficial. However, in high enough amounts, cortisol can break down muscle tissue and make athletes sore.

This is obviously less than ideal if you’re an eager soccer player who needs to bounce back from an action-packed game.

Anabolic steroids have the ability to block cortisol from binding to receptor sites.

So, by taking synthetic testosterone derivatives, athletes can hold back the muscle breakdown process. Post-exercise fatigue and soreness can quickly become a lot less intense.

Even though the benefits stand out as enticing, anabolic steroids are not safe. Side effects from abusing them range from irritability and moodiness, all the way to infertility and suicide[7].

What is the difference between testosterone and steroids?

Fundamentally, the difference between testosterone and steroids is in the context. One is a naturally occurring hormone and the other is a man-made synthetic.

Testosterone is the potent androgen steroid hormone you create inside your body. As a man it’s integral for your vitality and governs all your masculine traits.

But that’s not the steroids everybody talks about.

Most people mean anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS). These are synthetic drugs you have to either inject in yourself, take orally, or wear a patch for.

As you already know, these were designed with honest intentions to help treat hypogonadism – also known as low testosterone.

In the case of performance enhancement, AAS are usually injected or taken as a tablet. Athletes use them to gain an advantage over their competition, which is why they’re illegal under most governing bodies.

You can also face jail time for supplying them, as AAS are only meant to be prescribed by a doctor.

AAS are extremely similar to their natural testosterone. Yet, they can actually pass through the cell membrane of target cells and attach directly their androgen receptors.

Protein synthesis can then be unnaturally accelerated, making the athlete able to build more muscle, faster.

The end result is a greater growth of muscle mass than that person would have normally achieved.

By abusing exogenous AAS you basically boost your regular testosterone levels.

Taking a huge dose is considered supraphysiological too, because it hikes up your T levels higher than the hypothalamus regulates as a normal upper limit. AAS can literally take your testosterone past what’s naturally possible.

While this has its obvious ergonomic benefits, like the ones we saw earlier, there’s a definite tradeoff for some athletes.

The highs might make your sporting career a success, but the lows could take your health, happiness and life. Using anabolic steroids is an incredibly risky procedure – even for the professionals.

Athlete training

The Final Word

So, what’s the difference between testosterone and steroids? It’s all about the implication.

Testosterone is a natural steroid hormone produced by both men and women. It’s responsible for maintaining muscle mass, keeping you invigorated, and fuels your sex drive.

But, as we’re all too familiar with, people aren’t asking about the type you make yourself. They’re talking about a different kind of testosterone.

What most people mean is anabolic steroids – testosterone you take or inject. These are synthetic, man-made versions created in a lab to be used as medicine. Unfortunately, athletes are known to abuse them for enhancing performance too.

Bottom line – testosterone is a naturally produced hormone integral to human health. Steroids, on the other hand, are man-made versions exploited to enhance performance.


[1] https://www.auanet.org/guidelines/testosterone-deficiency-guideline

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5434832/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4391003/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15248788

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8746927

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2917954

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3827559/


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