Steroid use may Lead to Heroin Abuse in Bodybuilders, Study Suggests

May 17, 2000 -- Belmont, MA -- A new study suggests that steroid use among bodybuilders may lead them to become heroin dependent.

The study, by researchers at McLean Hospital and Sunrise House, a private inpatient substance abuse treatment facility in northern New Jersey, appears in the Letters to the Editor section of the May 18 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The authors found that among 227 men admitted to Sunrise House in 1999 for heroin dependence, 21 had a history of steroid use. In contrast, only one out of 197 men admitted for heroin dependence in 1990 reported prior steroid use. The authors also found that none of the 21 men in 1999 reported substance abuse or dependence before they started using steroids. Seventeen of the 21 first purchased heroin from their steroid dealer, while 14 were introduced to heroin by a fellow bodybuilder.

"These findings suggest an alarming trend – that steroids may serve as ‘gateway’ drugs to heroin dependence, with substantial associated morbidity and even mortality," says study co-author Harrison Pope, MD, director of McLean Hospital’s Biological Psychiatry Laboratory. Co-author is Drew Arvary, a therapist at Sunrise House.

While the authors agree that the study cannot definitively establish that steroid use led to heroin dependence in the 21 men, they say that progression from steroid use to heroin dependence "deserves further exploration as a public health problem."

The majority of the 21 men, all of whom lived in suburban New Jersey and had household incomes of $38,000 to $145,000, faced charges of drug possession and/or served prison time; seven made at least one suicide attempt. One to 11 months following their discharge from Sunrise House, 17 of the 21 relapsed into heroin use and two committed suicide.