What’s the Deal with Testosterone?

The fact and fiction of this manly hormone.
Hairy man flexing

Most of us think we know about testosterone: It’s a male hormone that puts hair on a guy’s chest and makes his voice sound like Barry White’s. But what many of us don’t know is that testosterone is critical to your basic health. Here are a few basic things you should know about the stuff.

Testosterone is a hormone that plays a key role in physical development. For men, most testosterone is produced in the testes, which are governed by the pituitary glands and the hypothalamus. While women also produce testosterone in smaller amounts, men generally have a level that is 10 times higher. When you hit puberty, the amount of testosterone in your body begins to climb, which is why you start to grow hair in funny places and your voice changes. However, testosterone affects your body in other ways as well. “Testosterone is not just a sexual performance hormone,” says Rhoda Cobin, MD, clinical professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Men also need testosterone to maintain bone structure, muscle strength and hair growth.”

For the average adult male, testosterone also plays a significant role in his basic health. “Normal levels of testosterone are associated with positive feeling as well as general overall health and fitness,” says Michael Bar-Johnson, MSc, chair of the psychology department at the University of New York in Prague and researcher at the Sexology Institute of Charles University's medical school. So what happens if your testosterone levels are out of whack?

Low testosterone
“Low levels of testosterone can result in a lower sex drive, fatigue and sleep disturbance, decreases in muscle mass, and increases in fat mass,” says Stephen Brewer, MD, medical director of Canyon Ranch Tucson. Right around the time men reach their thirties, they begin to experience a natural decline in testosterone, losing between 2 and 3 percent each year. While some testosterone loss occurs naturally, there might be a relationship between testosterone and other ailments. “There are preliminary studies suggesting that there might be a link between low testosterone and obesity, as well as type 2 diabetes,” says Cobin. Because testosterone helps men maintain bone structure, muscle mass and muscle strength, low levels can make it difficult for your body to sustain a healthy weight. “The numbers are small, a lot of the science is very new, and it’s very early, but there does seem to be a higher incidence of heart disease, obesity and insulin resistance among men with low testosterone levels,” says Brewer.

High testosterone
“Generally speaking, too much testosterone doesn’t occur naturally,” says Cobin. Some patients need drugs with testosterone in them as a legitimate form of treatment, while many ill-advised men use anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass and strength. “High levels of testosterone contribute to the development of muscle mass,” says Johnson. “But they also have psychological effects such as risk-taking, tolerance for conflict, and therefore greater assertiveness.”

Some physical effects of high testosterone include liver toxicity, harmful changes in lipid and cholesterol levels, decreased sperm production, acne, blood-clotting, stunted growth, the development of breast tissue and testicle shrinkage. “In case anyone wonders about the harmful effects of too much testosterone, such as anabolic steroids, I always give my male patients three reasons,” says Brewer. “They will be shorter, they will have breasts, and their testicles will be smaller. That usually does the trick.”

Monitoring testosterone levels might not be necessary for all men, but Brewer thinks it’s a good idea for men over 40 to consider taking a test during their next doctor visit. As with so many things regarding your health, eating properly, exercising regularly, and maintaining an ideal weight can only help you in the long run. “The simplest thing you can do to maintain a healthy level of testosterone is to follow a healthy diet and muscle-building exercise plan,” says Johnson.

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