What is the Steroid Molecule?

Elite HRT

Written by Elite HRT on March 31, 2021

Medically reviewed by

Camille Frecking, Regulatory Affairs Specialist, MEDICAL ADVISOR

Steroid molecules have a reputation for muscle growth and being illegal, however, a lot of this is misinformation. Steroids are a type of molecule group that has a wide variety of functions in the human body that are mostly positive. 

Structure of the Steroid

The basis of a steroid is a 4 carbon ring structure. On the end of the 4 carbon rings is a tail that can vary from steroid to steroid and contain a variety of elements in different formations. As long as the molecule has the 4 carbon ring structure it is considered a steroid. 

Some examples of common steroids are estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, corticosteroids, and anabolic steroids. All of these steroids have a common biochemical structure with slight variations that make them unique. 

Knowing these structures are important for healthcare providers, biochemists, and pharmacists to understand how they will react in the body and how they can be used to enhance the health of people. 

How Do You Take Steroids?

Steroids can come in a number of forms, each that target different areas of the body. Topical, injections, and pills are just some of the ways that steroids can be administered. If a problem is on the skin or at an organ that is close to the surface of the skin it can typically be reached by a topical cream, spray, or gel. These reduce the amount of side effects that can occur to the whole body and help to target the specific area that you are wanting to treat.

Steroids may also be provided in a pill form. Pills can be given if the entire body is affected or if it is beneficial to have the steroid throughout all of the organ systems. Pills have the benefit of being easily taken without pain or much inconvenience. However, many steroid medications are better suited as other forms. 

Another common way that steroids can be taken are in the form of injections. These injections or shots can be placed into the fat tissue, muscle tissue, or even into joints. Where it is injected depends on the area that needs to be addressed, how quickly it needs to be absorbed, and the age and size of the patient. These injections are typically administered by a healthcare professional, however you can be taught how to give them to yourself for at home administration. 

The last way that steroids can be administered are into the veins. These are typically used only in extreme cases of inflammation and certain conditions such as multiple sclerosis. These are administered into an IV typically located in the arms. 

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids, also called glucocorticoids, are probably what you imagine when you think of steroid medications. 

Examples of these corticosteroids include hydrocortisone, cortisone, prednisone, prednisolone, methylprednisolone, dexamethasone, betamethasone, and many more. These corticosteroids act similarly to the hormone cortisol that is produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol plays a role in glucose regulation, metabolism, inflammation, and memory. All of these functions make corticosteroids very useful to use therapeutically.

When It’s Prescribed

Corticosteroids can be prescribed for a variety of reasons, including both short term and long term health problems. Inflammation is probably the most notable reason for a corticosteroid to be prescribed. This could be an inflammatory reaction of the skin such as in eczema or psoriasis, an inflammatory reaction of the airways such as in asthma, or inflammation of the joints such as in arthritis. These are only a few of the examples of inflammation in the body, but there are many more situations including inflammation that indicate the use of corticosteroids.

Another use of corticosteroids is when the body does not produce enough cortisol from the adrenal glands. This can result in a condition called Addison’s disease. Addison’s disease is recognized by cravings for salt, abdominal pain, joint pain, fatigue, gastrointestinal symptoms, weight loss, low blood sugar, and more. Addison’s disease is serious and needs to be managed through medications like glucocorticoids.

Risks and Benefits

The main benefits of corticosteroids are reducing inflammation and assistance with Addison’s disease. As for the risks, they are mainly with long term therapy. In children, when taken for a long time, corticosteroids can stunt growth and impact their proper development. For everyone, there are other side effects that could occur which include weight gain, moon face, blurry vision, acne, bone weakening, increased blood pressure, increased blood sugar, mood changes, and an increased risk of infection. 

Because all of these side effects, corticosteroids are reserved for cases that really need them and for as short of a time as possible. It is always important to make sure that there are no active infections before taking corticosteroids because they could suppress the body’s ability to fight off the infection.

Estrogen

Estrogen is a hormone that you have probably heard of before, but did you know that it is a steroid? Estrogen is in fact a steroid hormone and an important female reproductive hormone. Men also have estrogen, but in smaller amounts. Estrogen does many things in the body including regulating the menstrual cycle, libido, bone density, temperature perception, blood clotting, and more. Estrogen comes in the forms of estradiol, estriol, and estrone, all which interact in the body for different life events.

When It’s Prescribed

Estrogen is most commonly prescribed during menopause when the levels of estrogen significantly drop resulting in unpleasant side effects. Some of the common menopause symptoms you may recognize are hot flashes, mood swings, and night sweats. Estrogen can be prescribed to reduce these effects. There is also an increase in osteoporosis or a decrease in bone density when estrogen levels decrease. This makes it more likely that bones will break from minor bumps or falls. Taking estrogen can help increase the bone density and prevent these complications if they are related to low estrogen levels. 

Estrogen can also be combined with progesterone, another steroid hormone, to be an option for birth control. By alternating the levels of these hormones throughout a woman’s menstrual cycle it can prevent them from becoming pregnant. This is one of the most common ways that estrogen is used in medications.

Risks and Benefits

Reducing the symptoms of estrogen deficiency in menopause are some of the greatest benefits it can offer. Also, when combined with progesterone it can be very effective in preventing pregnancy. However, estrogen does have some risks associated with it. It can increase the risks for heart disease, stroke, blood clots, and breast cancer. All of these risks need to be carefully weighed with your healthcare provider to determine if the benefits outweigh the risks. The risks can also be varied depending on your age, specific therapy treatment, and health history. 

Testosterone

Testosterone is another commonly used steroid hormone in treatments. Testosterone is like the estrogen of men. Controlling bone density, hair growth, muscle growth, body fat, sex drive, the creation of sperm, mood, and more. Testosterone can be used as a therapy to help if these levels become low. Testosterone is also found in women, but it is in low levels. It should also be known that testosterone can break down through a process of aromatization which forms estrogen. 

When It’s Prescribed

Testosterone is prescribed when there are low levels of testosterone in the body. One of the most common reasons for this is immature testicles and aging. With aging there is a decrease in testosterone and an increase in estrogen. This may result in symptoms such as erectile dysfunction, low libido, hair loss, an increase in fat, low energy levels, and a decrease in muscles and strength. In cases of low testosterone, testosterone replacement therapy may be started. 

Risks and Benefits

The benefits of testosterone therapy mimic the roles of testosterone in the body. As for the risks these can include breast growth, worsening sleep apnea, shrinking testicles, low sperm production, acne, and growth of the prostate. Some of these risks can be reduced through the use of taking other meds along with testosterone such as HCG.

Conclusion

The steroid molecule is the basis for many molecules in the body, especially hormones like estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol. While the beginning structure is only 4 rings of carbon, each one has its own unique touch. Steroids can help the body to reduce inflammation, help with reproduction functioning, and even bone health.  Steroids are no longer just what you take to bulk up, they are meaningful structures that can be used to help millions of people. 

Resources

Steroids — NHS UK

Stress Hormone Cortisol — Hormone Health Network

Corticosteroids – Cleveland Clinic