What is Testosterone and How Does It Affect the Body?
We get a body at the moment we are born. But have you ever noticed how, while we get manuals and help guides - and in some cases a 24/7 toll-free customer service number - for every other important item we own, no one has ever offered you are "body 101 manual?"
This doesn't always matter so much when we are young and everything mends and heals so quickly. But as the body ages, more things start to go wrong...and stay wrong. This can leave you wondering, "What the heck is going on with my body?," and "Who can I ask for help?" The body is so complex, with so many moving parts and systems, that sometimes it feels like the more we learn the less we understand!
Hormones are particularly important in terms of helping the body to regulate its own internal systems. PBS explains how hormones are the body's chemical messengers. They relay messages from one system to another for when it is time for the body to grow, digest food, fight off germs, make babies and many additional internal activities.
Testosterone is one hormonal messenger among many that the body relies on to transmit important memos.
While testosterone has become known as the "man's hormone," women need it too, albeit to a lesser degree. Men really need it, and when the male body fails to produce sufficient amounts regularly, we start to suffer.
In this article, learn what testosterone is, how it affects the male body and what happens when you don't get enough testosterone.
How Does Testosterone Affect Our Body?
So what does testosterone do, precisely? As the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains, medical science is still researching the full spectrum of testosterone's influence in the body.
But what we already do know is this:
- Testosterone is a "sex hormone," which means it is critical to support a boy's development of secondary sex characteristics that signal the onset of manhood AND to support a man's ability to father children.
- Testosterone helps the male body to produce fertile sperm and also regulates libido.
- Testosterone is also thought to affect bone mass and density, muscle mass, physical strength and distribution of fat cells.
- Testosterone levels in the male body shift and change over time, and can decrease markedly as the male body ages.
What the Research Says
Intriguingly, this is not all that testosterone is now thought to be responsible for! Men's Health reported on the results of a University of Bonn research study that showcased differences between men who received additional testosterone in gel form and men who received a placebo.
The two groups, each in their own sequestered areas, then played a few rounds of dice, self-reporting on their results to win money. The group that received additional testosterone was more honest in self-reporting their results than the placebo group!
"Why might this be?" you may legitimately be wondering. While more research is still needed, researchers speculated that increased levels of testosterone are good for our self-esteem. In other words, when we feel good about who we are, we don't want to do anything to decrease our worth in our own eyes, even if no one will ever know but us.
The most important take-away from this research study is actually far broader than you might think. It showcases how testosterone affects not just your physical health but also your psychological health and wellbeing.
This type of research is spurring additional research into the importance of testosterone for everything from relationship health to fiscal responsibility. For instance, consider these additional research findings:
- Wayne State University researchers discovered that men with higher levels of testosterone were more successful at attracting a mate (or at least a date).
- Science Daily published study results to indicate low testosterone levels are linked to increased risk of heart disease and untimely death.
- High levels of testosterone are positively linked to optimism and positive mood as well as mutually satisfying intimacy in couples.
- High testosterone levels can increase risk tolerance as well as stress tolerance, according to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
So What Is a Healthy Testosterone Level?
This could honestly be the million dollar question. The reason this is a tough one to answer is because, as with most "healthy range" estimates, medical professionals are working from a bell curve range, where some men have naturally lower levels of testosterone than others.
According to WebMD, in men, "normal" testosterone levels can range from 270 ng/dL to 1070 ng/dL, or from 9 nmol/L to 38 nmol/L). That is a pretty wide range!
As well, as Men's Hormonal Health makes clear, everything from the medications you take to the time when you have your test done to which lab your physician uses to process your test results to how the results are read and interpreted can also impact the results themselves.
For example, did you know your body actually makes three kinds of testosterone? The first kind is called "free" testosterone. The other two types are "protein binding" testosterone (albumin and SHBG). The results of a testosterone test will indicate levels for all three types.
For this reason, it can be helpful to visit an endocrinologist for more specific testing and treatment recommendations, if needed. An endocrinologist is a medical specialist with advanced training in the endocrine, or hormone, system of the body.
As Endocrine Web reports, the Endocrine Society issues its own guidelines for healthy testosterone levels.
The Role of the Testosterone Test
While many general practitioners can prescribe a testosterone test for you, they may not have the training and expertise to render the most accurate and helpful diagnosis. In general, a testosterone test is considered to be just one aspect of a bigger picture of your health.
For example, low testosterone is not always caused by the natural process of aging. There are many other possible reasons, including nerve damage, brain injury, exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive use of alcohol or substances, cancer medications, heart arrhythmia and other potential causes.
Another possible reason is that you just have naturally lower testosterone levels (although if this is the first time you have been tested, there may be no way to know this other than to re-test again in the future).
However, for diagnostic purposes, the most important criteria an endocrinologist will look at is your symptoms. If you are experiencing classic, textbook symptoms of low testosterone, then even if your test results are considered within normal range or on the borderline of normal, it is likely you will receive a recommendation for hormonal treatment to address your symptoms.
When your testosterone levels begin to drop, at first you may not be aware of it. And in fact, you may not even realize your symptoms are tied to testosterone at all.
This is because the symptoms of testosterone dysfunction are mimics. At first, they can pretend to be all kinds of other unrelated health issues such as depression or stress.
Here, it isn't uncommon to read an article like this one or head in for a general physical exam and only then learn that all your symptoms are tied together by an unlikely trigger - low testosterone.
MedicineNet lists the most commonly reported symptoms of low testosterone in men:
- Low libido.
- Weight gain.
- Insomnia or sleep disruptions (try this Ginkgo Biloba).
- Decreases in strength and endurance.
Yikes! No one wants to experience these symptoms, right?
So let's get right to the heart of the matter and talk about treatment options.
Hormone replacement therapy
The goal of testosterone hormone replacement therapy (TRT) for low testosterone (low-T) is to help you feel better in body and mind by boosting your body's testosterone supply.
As Harvard Health points out, while HRT is not without certain side effects, not every patient experiences side effects, and some HRT delivery methods produce more side effects than others.
The important thing is to talk with your doctor and find the right method for your needs. Current methods include:
- Subcutaneous (under-skin) implant.
- Transdermal (on-skin) patch.
- Cream or gel (applied topically).
There are also things you can do to naturally boost your testosterone levels:
- Diet - Add more red meet, avocado, nut butters, eggs, dairy and vegetarian oils.
- Exercise - Aim for high-intensity resistance training to encourage your body to boost testosterone production.
- Supplements - Take a fish oil supplement for more Omega-3/6 fatty acids.
- Sufficient sleep - Your body produces most of its testosterone while you sleep. So be sure you get at least eight hours per night!
- Ease stress - High stress can cause testosterone to plummet.
Learning about your body's relationship with the hormone testosterone can take some time, but it really is worth it.
Once you understand just how important testosterone is for your health and quality of life, you can remain alert for signs that your body may not be making sufficient quantities on its own to meet its own needs.