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Low testosterone is a hot topic as the population ages. Here are the facts you need to know about testosterone, how it affects you, and what you can do if your levels are too low.
What is Testosterone?
Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone. It plays a key role in the development of male reproductive organs such as the testes, penis and prostate. It also helps in the development of secondary sexual characteristics including increased muscle and bone mass, a deeper voice, and body hair. It is also responsible for a man’s sex drive and fertility.
Aside from sex, testosterone has many other functions. It increases energy, boosts red blood cell production, helps with motivation and confidence (in high amounts, it is known to encourage risk-taking), boosts memory, increases alertness and enhances spatial ability.
The levels of testosterone in the body constantly change in response to the body’s needs. In a healthy 19-39 year old man, the range is from 264-916 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL). Testosterone production peaks around age 19 and begins to decline after 30.
As you age, the body naturally begins to produce about one percent less testosterone each year. While this decline is normal, about 40 percent of men experience abnormally low testosterone levels. Low testosterone causes a host of unwanted symptoms including:
- Decreased muscle mass and increased body fat
- Low sex drive
- Growth of breast tissue
- Mental fog/inability to concentrate/poor memory
It’s not always easy to pinpoint the cause of these symptoms, though, and only a blood test can rule out low testosterone.
Low testosterone may be caused by several factors:
- Delayed puberty
- Testicular injury or disease
- Hypothalamic disease
- Pituitary disease or non-cancerous pituitary tumors
- Genetic diseases
- Type 2 diabetes
A testosterone test measures the amount of testosterone in your blood. Your doctor may ask you to stop taking certain drugs before your test as they may affect the outcome. Let your doctor know about all medications you take, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
How to Increase Testosterone Levels
It is possible to boost testosterone – both naturally and with the help of steroids and similar injectables – if it turns out that your levels are too low.
For many otherwise healthy men, lifestyle changes can naturally stimulate the body to produce more testosterone. These lifestyle changes include:
- Regular resistance training (weight lifting) and aerobic exercise
- Losing weight
- Eating a diet rich in leafy green vegetables
- Vitamin D supplementation
- Stress management
In general, maintaining a healthy lifestyle leads to healthy bodily functions. Weight lifting is related to temporary increases in testosterone levels; while younger men will experience greater increases than older men, weight bearing exercise is especially important for older men to maintain bone density, strength and stamina.
Testosterone boosters are generally herbal supplements that claim to help increase natural testosterone production. Supplements may be a great option for those wanting to avoid hormone replacement therapy. Many contain powerful stimulants as well as zinc, so caution is advised if you have sensitivity to caffeine or zinc.
Dietary changes can also be considered testosterone “boosters”: increase your intake of Vitamin D, zinc, and magnesium. Garlic, Omega-3 rich fish, leafy greens, nuts and red meat are a few sources of the nutrients your body needs to boost testosterone production.
Testosterone replacement therapy
Testosterone replacement therapy is used to treat people abnormally low levels of testosterone. Testosterone is delivered as injections, patches, topical gels, or implants. Testosterone replacement is just that – it does not stimulate production, it just introduces testosterone into the body. Therefore, it may cause side effects and must be continued indefinitely as the body gets used to producing even less. Testosterone replacement therapy requires frequent blood tests to monitor testosterone levels. Side effects can include acne, breast enlargement, and an increased risk of prostate cancer.
Low Testosterone in Women
Many men are curious whether women have testosterone. The answer is yes! Testosterone plays an important role in women’s health, contributing to bone health, cognitive functioning, physical energy, strength, libido, confidence, and hormonal balance. Testosterone levels are naturally significantly lower in women than in men. If a woman has testosterone imbalances, it’s usually on the side of being too high, and is usually caused not by lifestyle but by diseases including ovarian tumors, adrenal tumors, or congenital causes. Symptoms include:
- Irregular or absent menstrual periods
- Development of facial and body hair; or, paradoxically, some baldness
- Deepened voice
Testosterone levels in men naturally decrease a little every year with age. However, in some men, testosterone levels can be too low and cause unwanted symptoms.
Treatment is available, but start with a blood test to determine whether your symptoms are indeed related to testosterone and not a more serious underlying issue – and this will give your doctor a starting point in identifying the cause of low testosterone as well, and choosing the best treatment.
For women, abnormally high levels of testosterone are of greater concern. Symptoms of high testosterone in women may be an indication of a serious underlying condition.