Testosterone is a hormone produced by both men and women. Men produce it in much higher amounts. Levels drop with age but kidney or liver disease, alcoholism, and being overweight can also cause testosterone levels to drop. Men with low testosterone might feel tired, have a low sex drive, gain weight, feel depressed, and have low self-esteem. Women might also experience these symptoms but it's harder to detect low testosterone as women's hormones fluctuate a lot. A healthy lifestyle can help boost testosterone levels or your doctor might recommend testosterone replacement therapy.

What is testosterone?

Testosterone is a sex hormone (androgen), it’s sometimes called a “male” hormone. Women also produce testosterone, but in much lower amounts. Testosterone helps control many important processes in your body.

Testosterone in men
Even before birth, testosterone is already there helping reproductive organs (penis and testicles) to develop. During puberty, the effects of testosterone are easy to see. It’s responsible for:

  • growth spurts
  • body hair
  • deepening of the voice

And throughout life, testosterone helps control:

  • bone density
  • muscle mass and strength
  • sperm production and fertility
  • red blood cell production
  • sex drive

Testosterone can also affect behaviour. For example, it’s linked to aggression, dominance, competitiveness, and self-esteem.

Testosterone in women
Even though women don’t produce as much testosterone, it still plays a really important role. It helps control:

  • red blood cell production
  • sex drive
  • hormones that control menstrual periods
  • reproduction

Symptoms of low testosterone

Low testosterone can cause lots of different symptoms.

Common symptoms of low testosterone in men include:

  • low sex drive (libido)
  • erectile dysfunction
  • weight gain, especially around the stomach
  • infertility
  • lack of body hair
  • excess breast tissue
  • low muscle mass
  • insulin resistance — increasing the risk of diabetes

Common symptoms of low testosterone in women include:

Low testosterone might also lead to mood and mental health issues in both men and women. For example, low levels are linked to depression, insomnia, lack of motivation, poor memory, and concentration issues.

Causes of low testosterone

In men, it’s normal for testosterone levels to drop with age. From the age of 30 years, testosterone levels drop about 1% every year. But low levels can also be caused by:

  • being overweight or obese
  • alcoholism
  • kidney disease
  • liver disease
  • diabetes
  • pituitary or hypothalamic issues
  • damage to the testicles

In women, testosterone levels also drop with age. But low levels can also be caused by:

  • oral contraception (the pill)
  • ovarian issues

Testing your testosterone levels

You can test your testosterone levels at home by using a finger-prick blood test. We recommend doing this test in the morning when your testosterone levels are at their highest. Saliva tests are sometimes used to test testosterone levels. But it’s still not clear how accurate these are.

What are normal testosterone levels?

Normal testosterone levels in men are between:

  • 8.64-29 nmol/L

But sometimes an age-specific reference range might be used. In this case, normal testosterone levels in men are between:

  • 8.64-29 nmol/L in 24-49-year-olds
  • 6.68-25.7 nmol/L in > 50-year-olds

It’s difficult to test for low testosterone in women because women’s hormones fluctuate a lot. It’s recommended that women test their testosterone levels 8-20 days after the start of their period.

Normal testosterone levels in women are between:

  • 0.29-1.67 nmol/L

Free testosterone
You can also measure your free testosterone. This is the amount of testosterone that's available for your body to use — giving you a clearer picture of whether your levels are in the normal range or not.

Free testosterone is calculated based on your total testosterone, sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), and albumin level.

How to boost your testosterone levels

There are lots of natural methods you can try to boost your testosterone levels. Or sometimes, a doctor might prescribe testosterone replacement therapy.

Natural testosterone boosters
Get enough exercise. Exercise, especially weight training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), can boost your testosterone levels.

Eat a balanced diet with enough carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. Yo-yo dieting, overeating, and too much alcohol can lower your testosterone levels.

Manage your stress levels. Long-term (chronic) stress causes your cortisol levels to jump up, which lowers your testosterone levels. Mindfulness, breathing exercises, and yoga are all great ways to reduce stress.

Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D — this might mean taking a vitamin D supplement in the winter or if you spend a lot of time indoors. Also, make sure to get enough of the mineral zinc.

Herbal supplements like ashwagandha and ginger extract might also help to boost testosterone levels. You should always get advice from a health professional before starting, particularly if you’re on any medication.

Testosterone replacement therapy
Testosterone replacement therapy means getting synthetic testosterone through an injection, gel or patch. This can help increase muscle mass and sex drive. But there are some side effects like oily skin and fluid retention. Sometimes the testicles can shrink and sperm production can decrease. If you take it long-term, it might increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

This therapy should never be done without supervision from a health professional Self-medicating with synthetic testosterone (anabolic steroid) is dangerous and can cause aggressive or violent behaviour.

Thriva podcast: Testosterone


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