Testosterone: Functions, Imbalances, Symptoms and How to Boost Levels
One may not be wrong to describe testosterone as the main substance that makes a man. It has a connection to many characteristics that defines a male.
The hormone is also among the ones present in a female body, where it plays important roles as well. But many people hardly take note of this or may not even know it at all.
What is testosterone and why is it important for both sexes? What issues are you likely to experience if there are imbalances? We discuss these and more, including treatment, in this article.
What is Testosterone?
Testosterone is a type of androgen hormone. By “androgen,” it means this substance is crucial to the development and maintenance of characteristics peculiar to male. This explains why people commonly call it male sex hormone, even though it is not restricted to men.
The primary androgen hormone is mainly produced by the testicles in men. The production takes place in Leydig cells.
The characteristics that testosterone helps to both develop and maintain are what usually define a man. They are what you’d describe as masculine.
It could be worrisome when the amounts of this hormone drop below healthy levels. This is capable of bringing about certain undesirable changes in both body structure and functions.
It is, therefore, especially troubling to know that more people are being diagnosed with testosterone imbalances. The dramatic increase in the use of supplements in recent years can be attributed to this.
Decline in Testosterone Levels
The amounts of this androgen hormone are not the same at all points in time during a person’s life. Any of a number of factors can cause changes in levels to occur.
Levels can rise higher or drop lower than normal. But the latter is the more common medical complaint. Either of these situations can have unpleasant effects on your body.
Perhaps, the most common factor in incidence of decline is aging. The production of the hormone tends to drop as people get older. It is estimated that levels decline by roughly one percent a year after the age of 30 in most people.
Another estimate has it that around 40 percent of men suffer from low levels by the time they are in their mid-40s. Diagnoses of this problem in older men have almost tripled over the past seven years or so.
Apart from aging, there are some medical conditions that could make a person experience unwanted changes in testosterone levels. They include:
- Infection or injury to the testes
- High blood pressure
- Tumors affecting the pituitary or hypothalamus gland
- Genetic disorders (e.g. Klinefelter’s syndrome)
- Coronary artery disease
The use of certain drugs can also cause a person to have testosterone imbalances. Removal of ovaries is among possible reasons a woman may have this sort of issue.
Testosterone in Men
This androgen is what helps a young boy transform into a man. It promotes development of male characteristics.
Testosterone facilitates the growth of the penis and development of testes in young males. It is responsible for deepening of voice during puberty as well as increase in muscle size and strength.
The hormone contributes to the appearance of hair in the pubic region and other parts of the body during puberty.
Other functions testosterone plays in a man include:
- Bone density enhancement
- Sex drive boost
- Mood regulation
- Sperm production
- Red blood cell production
- Body fat distribution
Low amount of testosterone in a man’s body means he may not exhibit certain “normal” characteristics. Teenage boys may not develop normal masculine features if this issue is present. For instance, their penis may be rather small or they may experience poor hair growth.
Men with low testosterone could it difficult getting a woman pregnant. The condition can make it impossible to produce mature sperm for fertilization.
Signs and symptoms of low testosterone in men include:
- Low sex drive
- Hair loss (male pattern baldness)
- Increased body fat
- Loss of lean muscles
- Penile erection problems
- Enlarged breast tissue (gynecomastia)
- Low sperm count
Testosterone in Women
Although described as a male hormone, testosterone is also present in women. It is produced by the ovaries and adrenal glands. The main difference is that females only need smaller amounts, compared to males.
A healthy balance of estrogen and testosterone is crucial to ovarian function in women. It helps to make the ovaries work as well as they need to.
The male sex hormone also serves some other similar functions as it does in men. It promotes bone growth, strength, and sex drive in women.
Testosterone also helps a woman to produce red blood cells and to properly distribute body fat. It can enhance fertility due to effects it has on other reproductive hormones.
The following are some symptoms that may be noticed when a woman has lower level than normal:
- Weight gain
- Vaginal dryness
- Lower sex drive
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Sleep problems
- Muscle weakness and fatigue
- Fragile bones
These symptoms are most common around menopause when women tend to experience drastic drop in hormone levels.
Healthy Testosterone Levels
Having discussed some possible issues from low levels, you may be wondering what amounts of this hormone are ideal.
The right amount will actually depend on your health, age and sex. As already stated, you are going to need a lower amount if you are a female.
Adolescent boys (15-16 years) need any amount between 100 and 1,200 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dl). Their female counterparts, on the other hand, usually need no more than 75 ng/dl.
The healthy level range for older males is about 240 to 1200. That means the average normal level for men is around 675 ng/dl.
Adult females have their healthy levels in the range 8-75 ng/dl, depending on age.
It should be noted, however, that the lowest and highest thresholds of normal testosterone levels often vary from place to place. In other words, defining “normal” levels is not exactly easy.
Measuring levels based on age during puberty isn’t the most accurate. The Tanner scale is best used in such cases.
This second method measures levels based on visual development during puberty. Children develop at different pace. For example, a girl may develop breast buds faster than her peers and so belongs to a different stage than the others.
Some medical experts believe that testosterone levels peak around the age of 20. It gradually declines from then on.
What if Your Testosterone Level is Too High?
Testosterone imbalance doesn’t mean low levels; it also describes higher than normal levels. The only thing is that the former is more common.
In any case, you can also have too much of the hormone. This is most commonly observed among professional athletes and bodybuilders who use anabolic steroids and other related substances.
Possible issues from too much testosterone in men include:
- Shrinking of the testicles
- Reduced sperm production
- Weight gain
- Higher cholesterol levels
- Overly aggressive behavior
- Prostate enlargement
- Liver disease
- Heart muscle damage
- Mood swings and irritability
Young kids with very high levels of the male hormone may experience puberty very early – possibly before turning nine. This is a very rare disorder, though.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is synonymous with excessive testosterone in women. It results when the ovaries produce too much of the androgen. The cause isn’t clear, but scientists think it may have to do with genetics and the environment.
Symptoms of high testosterone levels in women can include:
- Deepening of voice
- Hair loss similar to male pattern baldness
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Reduction in breast size
- Enlargement of the clitoris
- Thick or oily skin
While too much testosterone can lead to male pattern baldness, it can also give rise to excessive hair growth on the face, pubic area and other parts of the body in both men and women. It has the potential to contribute to infertility problems as well.
Researchers have observed in recent years that high levels of the male hormone may increase the risk of uterine fibroids in women.
How are Imbalances Diagnosed?
Diagnoses of testosterone imbalances may begin with a physical examination and questions about symptoms.
Your waist size, BMI and testicle measurements may be taken. Females should expect questions pertaining to menstruation. You could also be asked whether you use opiates or steroids, among other things.
Your doctor will then order a blood test if there is a reason to suspect existence of T level-related issues. This can help to show whether levels are too low or high.
In females, doctors will usually first check for other conditions before ordering a test for suspected low testosterone levels. This is because of lack of significant research on the link between levels and symptoms in women. High levels are seen more as a problem.
Treatment of Low Testosterone
Typically, the approach to adopt for treating low testosterone levels will depend on the underlying cause. The problem will most likely resolve when the causative factor has been dealt with.
However, testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) is commonly used for correcting deficiencies. This is more advisable for men with low T than women. It is available in forms of injections, gels, patches, pellets and pills.
Studies have proven that TRT can be beneficial in certain regards. It can help to deal with some symptoms of low testosterone levels. Some people even consider it as an anti-aging formula, especially for men.
However, as appealing or promising as it might sound, TRT comes with its risks, particularly when you have levels normal for your age. These are similar to symptoms of high testosterone levels. They include:
- Shrinking of testicles
- Reduction of sperm production
- Enlargement of breast tissue and prostate gland
- Greater red blood cell count (not necessarily a good thing)
- Enlargement of the clitoris
- Breathing difficulties during sleep, also known as sleep apnea
Testosterone can also increase the risk of blood clot formation in a deep vein, a condition called deep vein thrombosis. It may increase your risk of cardiovascular problems as well.
Essentially, you will need to measure expected benefits against possible risks when considering TRT. Determining whether the therapy is worthwhile depends on each individual, especially their state of health.
Perhaps, due to the risks, the Endocrine Society recommends that doctors do not prescribe therapy to men younger than 65 years.
Other Treatment Options
There are supplements that are believed to be possibly helpful for treating testosterone deficiency. Some of these contain natural ingredients. But medical experts often do not support the use of such supplements. Many of the products do work.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved methyltestosterone for treatment of low testosterone. But most doctors are careful about prescribing it.
Medical professionals are tentative mainly due to pace of testosterone metabolism by the liver. The use of methyltestosterone may give rise to liver toxicity.
Owing to the advised caution on testosterone in females, women with low levels may consider over-the-counter (OTC) DHEA supplements instead.
Fully known as dehydroepiandrosterone, DHEA is a steroid hormone. It is naturally produced by the adrenal glands, gonads and brain. The substance is known to help improve the production of other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen.
Testosterone is an important hormone in both men and women. It helps to properly distribute body fat, improve both bone mass and mineral density, and increase muscle mass. The androgen also assists in regulating mood, boosting libido and supporting fertility.
This means there are bound to be serious issues when levels are too low than what is normal for your age. But you may also have some health problems when the level of the hormone rises too high. It is important to keep levels within the healthy range, depending on your age and sex.
Testosterone replacement therapy may be recommended if levels drop too low to start causing physical or mental health issues. This treatment has its own risks, however. You will need to weigh the benefits against the risks before proceeding with it.
DHEA and other types of supplements may also help. These may be better for persons for whom TRT is not advisable.
- Testosterone Deficiency Syndrome (Hypogonadism)
- Diagnosis and management of testosterone deficiency syndrome in men: clinical practice guideline
- Testosterone deficiency in women.
- Testosterone therapy: Potential benefits and risks as you age
- Is testosterone therapy safe? Take a breath before you take the plunge
- Testosterone therapy: Potential benefits and risks as you age – Mayo Clinic
- Testosterone — What It Does And Doesn’t Do – Harvard Health