The two-way relationship between drug abuse and puberty


Puberty, the natural process of adolescent growth and maturity, encompasses various changes within the body. Many hormonal shifts affect physical features and influence behavior in teens, with multiple studies linking early puberty to increased drug abuse. Conversely, experts in the field have also noted how steroid abuse can disrupt bodily development through its direct effect on hormones.

Hormones influence substance use

New research from the University of Texas has found that these changes can influence an adolescent’s participation in at-risk behaviors. In a 2013 study led by Jessica Cance, M.P.H., Ph.D., the assistant professor surveyed 6,500 youth from ages 11 to 17, questioning them about their respective pubertal timing and substance use. Cance and her team found that when compared to teens who developed later, those who matured early at age 11 had a significantly higher chance of using cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana within the past three months.

These findings supported previous a previous study in 2004, where George C. Patton, M.D., and other researchers from the University of Melbourne and the University of Washington surveyed 5769 students between the ages of 10 and 15 for similar criteria. Patton’s results showed that participants who matured earlier had a higher risk of substance use and abuse, which continued to increase twofold and even threefold as they entered later stages of puberty.

Substance use influences hormones

“Pubertal development is a combination of biological, psychological and social processes that all likely interact…” said Cance when summarizing her study, and many interact in multiple ways. For example, the relationship between puberty and substance use can become bidirectional. Research has also shown that abusing drugs, particularly steroids, can result in a number of physical abnormalities during puberty.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the abuse of anabolic-androgenic steroids is the primary contributor to hormonal disruptions in both men and women. Especially during critical periods of development such as adolescence, these deviations from the norm can become a source of embarrassment, anxiety and depression at a time when self-image matters most. For men, these changes can consist of:

  • Testicle shrinkage, also known as testicular atrophy
  • Male-pattern baldness
  • Breast development, also called gynecomastia

The main symptoms of steroid abuse in women are the development of more masculine features. These changes include:

  • Reductions in breast size and body fat ratio
  • Roughening of skin
  • Genital changes (e.g. clitoris enlargement)
  • Deepened voice
  • Excessive fluctuations of hair growth in different areas of the body

The influx of sex hormone production caused by steroids also imbalances maturation regardless of gender. In normal, natural amounts, chemical agents such as testosterone and estrogen trigger growth spurts in the body. When there are abnormally high levels of these hormones in the body, systems will most likely end musculoskeletal development too soon, which will result in stunted height. Other illicit substances like PCP may cause severe muscle cramping and muscle weakness as well.

It is important to recognize the complex interplay between chemicals in drugs and chemicals in your body. White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school that treats adolescent boys with effective and comprehensive levels of care. If you or your teen is struggling with any type of behavioral health issue, including substance abuse, contact one of our representatives online or through our 24/7 helpline to set his future on the right track.

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