What Are Steroid Hormones?

Elite HRT

Written by Elite HRT on April 13, 2021

Medically reviewed by

Camille Frecking, Regulatory Affairs Specialist, MEDICAL ADVISOR

Steroid hormones are usually thought of as a mechanism athletes use to boost their performance and muscle mass. While there are steroid hormones that do this, “steroid hormone” actually refers to the structure of the hormone itself. 

Steroid hormones are made up of lipids or fats and communicate in the body through a special system. Steroid hormones include both sex hormones and other hormones throughout the body. Estrogen (including estradiol), progesterone, testosterone, aldosterone, and cortisol are all examples of steroid hormones.

Not all steroids deserve the bad reputation that they have gotten, and many can actually be very helpful and therapeutic to the human body. 

Keep reading to learn more about what steroid hormones are, how they signal in the body, examples of steroid hormones, how they got a bad reputation, and how steroids can be helpful in the body.

Steroid Hormones, Also Known as Lipid Hormones

Steroid hormones fall under the category of lipid hormones. This means that they are made from fats, but steroid hormones have a special structure that makes them unique from other lipid hormones. The structure of a steroid is made up of four carbon rings, and a chain that differentiates it from each hormone.  

For example, estrogen and progesterone both have a four-carbon ring structure, but each has a different chain on the end that makes it unique from one another. The most abundant steroid in the body is cholesterol which is not a hormone but is important to the body’s functioning. Cholesterol is used in the structure of the cell membrane that surrounds the cell and other things as well. 

Lipid Hormone Signaling

In order for hormones to work, they have to be able to relay their message from the hormone to the organ, tissue, or gland that they are trying to reach. Hormones achieve this by using something called hormone signaling.  

Hormone signaling is the act of using a receptor on the target organ to carry out a function. The properties of the steroid molecule make it so that they must bind to proteins in the blood to travel through the blood since it is made mostly of water. You can think of proteins as pool floaties and the steroid molecule being the person being carried through the water. 

For lipid hormones like steroids, they are able to attach to receptors that are inside of the cell as opposed to on the surface. Because the steroid hormones are made of the same structure as the cell membrane, they can easily pass through to get to the inside of the cell. 

Sex Hormones

Sex hormones, also known as gonadocorticoids, are hormones that are used and created in the reproductive system. Both sexes have all of the sex hormones in their body but they are present in different amounts depending on if you are male or female. 

The hormones can also have different functions for the different sexes. The three main sex hormones are steroids are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These hormones work together to create a balanced reproductive system and maintain the cycles and functions of the system, while also contributing to sex characteristics like whether or not you develop breasts.

Estrogen

Girls go through bodily changes that progress them towards being able to bear children — this time is called puberty. During puberty girls also begin their menstrual cycles. Estrogen is the hormone that is responsible for both of these changes and has other roles in the body as well. 

On top of helping to initiate puberty, playing a role in pregnancy, and to control the menstrual cycle in women, estrogen also has roles in balancing cholesterol, supporting bone health, and influencing the heart and brain.

In men, estrogen works in conjunction with testosterone to balance male sexuality. Estrogen plays a role in sex drive, bone growth, maintaining an erection, breast tissue development, and fertility. Estrogen must be kept in a careful balance in men, or else it could have negative impacts. 

Progesterone

Progesterone is a unique hormone in that it is not produced widely by a permanent gland in the body. Progesterone is mainly a female hormone and is produced by the corpus luteum or the matured egg that is released during ovulation. 

When progesterone has been released, the lining of the uterine walls, called the endometrium, begins to thicken so that it can provide nourishment to a potential implanted fertilized egg. It also prevents the uterus from contracting, which would cause the egg to be displaced from the endometrium. 

Testosterone

Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone and it is important for sperm production, libido, male hair growth, mood, increase muscle mass, and other male traits. Testosterone is released from the testicles, specifically the Leydig cells. 

Levels of testosterone begin to decrease in men at around age 40 and can result in unwanted symptoms. 

Other Steroid Hormones

Aldosterone

Balancing fluid and electrolyte status in the body is vital to maintaining homeostasis and preventing complications. Imbalanced fluid and electrolytes can have serious implications from high blood pressure, cardiac rhythm irregularities, muscle spasms, seizures, and more. The hormone aldosterone is a vital player in the role of managing fluids and electrolytes in the body. 

Aldosterone is released by the adrenal glands that are located on top of the kidneys.  Specifically, aldosterone is created in the cortex of the adrenal glands, which is the outside portion of the gland.  

Aldosterone signals to the kidneys to increase the reabsorption of salt and water. This means that the body will hold on to more salt and water when aldosterone is released. 

Cortisol

Cortisol is another hormone that is released by the adrenal cortex of the adrenal glands. Cortisol is a powerful hormone that is used during the stress response. During times of stress, cortisol is released to help your body adapt to the stressor.  

While we don’t have to think about running away from wild animals too much in this day and age, it can be helpful to think about in relation to what cortisol does in the body.  

When cortisol is released, it increases heart rate and blood pressure so that more blood can be pumped into the body. It also increases the amount of sugar that is in the blood so that you can have access to the energy that you need during the time of stress. It also diverts blood and energy from systems that are not being used at the time such as the reproductive and digestive systems. 

The Bad Reputation of Steroids

Steroids have had a bad reputation over the years for being abused in the athletic and sports communities. These steroids are called anabolic steroids and are actually forms of the hormone testosterone.  

Testosterone can be used therapeutically but also abused for non-therapeutic uses. The problem comes when testosterone is used without the guidance of a healthcare professional.

Not only is this unethical in a sporting event, but it can also have potential harm to the body when there is not an indication for use. When men use testosterone inappropriately it can cause side effects including decreased testicle size, decreased sperm count, loss of head and body hair, growing breast tissue (gynecomastia), and increased risk for prostate cancer. 

How Can Steroids Actually be Helpful?

When steroids are used appropriately, they can be very helpful to the user. Steroids should only be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional and obtained from a reliable source such as a pharmacist or your healthcare provider directly.  

The most common use for steroid hormones is hormone replacement therapy, and those that have low levels of hormones such as testosterone or estrogen.  When the body does not have adequate levels of steroid hormones it can have negative effects that differ based on the hormone that is lacking. 

If you think that steroid hormones could be helpful for you, bring it up to your doctor, or come to Elite HRT for a telemedicine visit with our hormone replacement experts. 

Conclusion

As you can see, steroid hormones are very important to the functioning of everybody. Steroid hormones have a unique lipid structure that allows them entry into cells for hormone signaling and communications. 

Steroids can also be given as a medication but should be used cautiously and only for those that truly need them. They should not be used for building muscle or getting an advantage in athletic performance. 

Resources

17.2 Hormones – Anatomy & Physiology | Oregon State University

Anabolic Steroids | DrugFacts

Aldosterone | Endocrine Society