What is Testosterone and what does it do?

In the past testosterone has got a bad press from gym junkies on steroids who’ve developed an (allegedly) testosterone-fuelled “roid rage,” so it’s fair to ask ‘What is testosterone, and what does it do?’

Testosterone is the male sex hormone that is the key to men’s vitality. It’s the hormone which signals:

  • Sexual attractiveness and virility

  • Gives muscle and bone strength

  • Powers sex drive

  • Is responsible for sperm production

  • Engenders mental alertness, energy and confidence

Both men and women have some testosterone, but men’s testosterone levels are up to 20 times higher than women’s (that doesn’t mean men have 20 times the sex drive – men need more testosterone to fuel their sexual desire).

High Testosterone Makes Alpha Males 

High testosterone men are typical alpha males, says Dr Louann Brizendine, M.D, who is an expert on how hormones affect men’s brains.

“Focused and goal-oriented, he feverishly builds all that is male, including the compulsion to outrank other males on the pecking order.”

“He activates the sweat glands, sex and aggression, and he is single-minded in his pursuit of the desired mate. He is a convincing seducer but the grouchiest of bears when irritable.” (The Male Brain: An Essential Owner’s Manual for Every Man and a Cheat Sheet for Every Woman! Bantam Books; 2010).

That isn’t the whole story though. Recent studies indicate that testosterone is a far more complex hormone than the trigger for fuelling aggression; rather it propels men to seek higher status – and thus ‘score’ the most desirable females – but testosterone also increases social cooperation and moderates after fatherhood to sustain stable family life.  One study even showed men were more like to be honest and less likely to lie when they had good testosterone levels.

Testosterone Reduces Fat & Increases Muscle

It’s becoming increasingly clear that testosterone plays a key role in weight control, insulin sensitivity and the metabolic syndrome that leads to chronic illness including Type 2 diabetes.

Latest research confirms testosterone is an important factor in blood glucose control, the sensitivity of the body to insulin and the processing of fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides:

  • There is a link between low testosterone and increased insulin resistance

  • Testosterone reduces fat and increases muscle mass in middle aged men

  • Testosterone plays a key role in controlling obesity, especially abdominal fat which is a high risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Testosterone Declines With Age

Testosterone naturally declines as you age, at a rate of about one to two percent a year from your 20s, accelerating as you reach your 40s and 50s, and it can be heavily affected by traumatic life events like job loss or divorce, severe stress. Even a lack of sleep can depress testosterone and kill a man’s sex drive.

However Australian research shows testosterone is affected more by obesity, diabetes and depression than by aging alone.

Study coauthor Gary Wittert, a clinical endocrinologist of the University of Adelaide, reported that age had only a slight effect on testosterone levels in 1,384 men studied over five years, whereas depression had reduced testosterone by two to three times as much.

Professor Wittert says testosterone loss was attributable to a variety of factors including:

  • social demographics

  • health status (particularly smoking)

  • chronic disease

  • obesity and depression

Some men notice little effect from lower testosterone levels, but others will notice symptoms of low testosterone hormone.

What Too Little Testosterone Does

If you are lacking in testosterone you will be experiencing some or all of the following:

  • Lower sex drive – few spontaneous erections – such as during sleep – and infertility

  • Insomnia or disturbed sleep

  • “Male Menopause“ – hot flashes, reduced energy, increased weight, reduced muscle and bone strength, swollen and tender breasts (gynecomastia or ‘manboobs’)

  • Reduced confidence and motivation, lower energy, depression, memory loss, loss of concentration

  • Chronic disease risk – low testosterone levels are also linked to the metabolic syndrome – a cluster of metabolic risk factors that increase the chances of developing erectile dysfunction, heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes

  • Erectile dysfunction – erection drugs like Viagra will not work if testosterone levels are low, but if testosterone levels are supplemented the erectile drugs will start to work. Some don’t need drugs once their testosterone levels are normal.

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