The subject of testosterone is usually associated with images of muscle bound athletes and out-of-control frat parties, neither of which has much to do with anything beyond a macho image. But, did you know that testosterone does more than just make athletes stronger and faster, encourage those “here, hold my beer” moments, or increase your sex drive?
In fact, both men and women produce testosterone, and its functions include production of red blood cells and maintaining bone density, as well as some other key health functions.
Here is what you need to know about testosterone in both men and women, what it does, and the dangers of producing too little — or too much — of it.
So, What Is Testosterone?
Testosterone is the most predominant and active androgen hormone, or male sex hormone. Testosterone plays a key role in our development of male reproductive tissues such as testes and prostate, as well as promoting secondary sexual characteristics such as increased muscle and bone mass, deepening of the voice and the growth of body hair.
Both men and women produce testosterone, but men on average make 7 to 8 times more than women make. Likewise, men also produce the female sex hormone estrogen, though only in a fraction of the amount as women do.
In men, testosterone is produced mainly in the testes, with the pituitary and other glands also adding to the body’s supply. In women, testosterone is produced primarily in the ovaries.
Testosterone has two main effects on our body:
1. Anabolic effects including increased muscle mass and strength, increased bone density and strength, stimulation of linear growth and bone maturation
2. Androgenic (or virilising) effects, including development and maturation of male sex organs, deepening of the voice, facial/axillary hair growth and sperm development
Testosterone’s effects on our cardiovascular system has been hotly researched and debated. Maintaining normal testosterone levels in elderly men has been shown to improve many parameters and biomarkers that are thought to reduce cardiovascular disease risk, such as increased lean body mass, decreased visceral fat mass, decreased total cholesterol, and glycemic control.
What Happens When Testosterone Levels are Abnormal?
Abnormal testosterone levels in both men and women can not only lead to symptoms such as lethargy, reduction of muscle mass, and lack of sex drive, it can also indicate other health problems, such as chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and certain cancers.
However, while men and women can have similar symptoms and causes of abnormal testosterone levels, there are differences. For instance, women are more prone than men to suffer from high testosterone levels, and in fact, symptoms of high testosterone in men may go unnoticed.
For women, symptoms of low testosterone include:
- Reduced sexual interest and inability to achieve sexual satisfaction
- Muscle weakness
- Depression and/or lethargy
And in men, symptoms of low testosterone can include:
- Erectile disfunction and reduced sexual interest
- Low sperm count
- Loss of muscle mass and bone density
- Increased body fat
- Low energy
- Depression and/or lethargy
Men and women’s testosterone levels decrease naturally with age, and due to this, many symptoms of low testosterone may become apparent for men and women over 50, which is considered normal.
While overproduction of testosterone in men can occur, it is not a likely disorder, nor is it easy to detect. This is because men normally produce enough testosterone that the hormone’s characteristics are considered natural, and more testosterone only means enhanced natural characteristics, which easily go unnoticed.
In women, symptoms and signs of high testosterone can include:
- Virilisation: increased facial hair, lowering voice, reduced breast size, increased muscle mass
- Irregular menstruation (often periods stop- amenorrhoea, or are reduced in frequency- oligomenorrhoea)
- Male pattern hair loss
Elevated testosterone in women are mostly caused by polycystic ovary syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, hisutism, diabetes, adrenal or ovarian cancer.
Low testosterone in younger men is not something to ignore. Some of these health conditions can be associated with low testosterone production in young men: testicular disease or damage from injury; chronic disease such as type II diabetes, chronic liver or kidney disease, respiratory disease; pituitary disease; HIV; tuberculosis or sarcoidosis.
As the biomarker is easy to track through a simple blood test, regular and thus earlier detection can make the difference between earlier and thus likelier response to treatment, and worsening or irreversible conditions.
How to Manage Your Symptoms
If you suffer from abnormal testosterone levels, there are some things you can do. For instance, exercise (weight training in particular), and maintaining healthy weight helps your body produce testosterone.
There are also herbs and minerals, such as Yohimbe bark and zinc which are known to boost production of testosterone naturally, and healthy fats, vitamin D, and adequate sleep are also recommended.
However, you may need to have your doctor treat your low testosterone, which usually involves hormone therapy in which synthetic testosterone is administered using injection, topical gel, or a patch.
However, before resorting to hormone therapy, you should know that once you start, there is a good chance you will need to continue, since once your body senses adequate levels of testosterone (or other hormones), it stops producing it on its own.
And, if you are a woman who has high testosterone, androgen-reduction therapies such as glucocorticosteroids or metformin may be used, as well as oral contraceptives. Weight loss is also recommended, as up to 65% of women who produce excess testosterone are overweight.
Testosterone is a very important sex hormone that promotes our physical and developmental health. It is much more than just increasing your muscle mass and making you more macho as a man. It has many health benefits and it regulates many of your body’s functional systems like musculo-skeletal, mental, metabolic, sexual and reproductive. Many things can cause an imbalance in testosterone level, with many conditions that are treatable. Make a point to track this hormone’s level in your system.
So, if you have symptoms related to an abnormal testosterone reading, don’t hesitate to see your doctor and take any actions necessary in correcting it.
After all, doing so may be more than just correctional — it could be lifesaving as well!
If you’re interested in learning more about testosterone and how it affects your body, read on more about it in our biomarker post here!