Marks Daily Apple
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29 Jun

Testosterone: Not So Manly After All?

Last week’s primer on testosterone garnered a ton of responses, mostly positive, but there appeared to be a bit of confusion regarding testosterone’s role in the female body. Namely, folks seemed to think I was suggesting it played almost no role at all! I tried to be as clear as possible – testosterone is an absolutely vital hormone for women – but I’ll try to be clearer. There’s just that niggling, pervasive stigma of testosterone as the sole hormonal realm of big burly men with bulging muscles, and I guess it’s hard to shake, even for my enlightened readership. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been subject to years of simplistic, substandard health and nutrition advice, black-and-white proclamations that attempt to describe the complex inner workings of the human body with a few sentences.

Fat is bad! Whole grains good! Men make testosterone! Women make estrogen!

The reality is confusing and complex, sure, but when it’s reduced down to simple declarations, it’s made even more difficult to comprehend. As a result, there’s a ton of misinformation regarding women and testosterone. Some have the idea that women are unable to produce the stuff – that it’s only produced in the testicles (as if women and men are of different species or something). Others seem to fear testosterone, as if a bit of weight lifting and meat eating is going to flood their bodies with pure, unadulterated testosterone whose sole goal is to synthesize puffy muscles, convert lilting squeaks to husky baritones, and implode breasts to make way for muscular mounds. We have the notion that estrogen and testosterone are mortal enemies, waging bitter hormonal war as each tries to gain a foothold.

The reality, of course, is that testosterone is vitally important in the female body. It plays a huge role, and it does a few really important things. Women (and men) may consider testosterone to be the masculine hormone, but they’d definitely notice if it suddenly went missing from their lives.

Young women produce most of their testosterone in the ovaries. The rest is actually produced in body fat and skin tissue in response to the hormones DHEA and DHEAS, from the adrenal glands, and androstenedione, from the ovaries. That’s also where estrogen is produced.

Sexual Desire

Female libido is inextricably linked to testosterone. A common side effect of hormonal birth control is elevated levels of sex hormone-binding globulin, or SHBG. Its function is right there in the name – it binds to the sex hormones, especially testosterone and estradiol, and inhibits their function. Reduced bioavailability of testosterone means less desire for sex. You can want it all you want, but without the right hormonal balance, which includes plenty of testosterone for men and women, you’re not going to want it.

As women approach menopause, they produce far less testosterone (and they weren’t producing a huge amount to begin with) and experience far less sexual desire. Causation? Definitely. Female testosterone therapy can increase libido and restore sexual relations to a relationship (which, unfortunately, are often bereft of sex – I wonder why…). I’m not suggesting hormonal replacement therapy; I’m just pointing out that increasing testosterone in women does increase libido. So that’s one function.

Estrogen Production

Estrogen is made from testosterone. Yes, you heard me correctly. Without testosterone, women would be unable to produce estrogen.

Wait – let me back up a second and provide some detail. Testosterone is responsible for the production of estradiol, which is the primary estrogen in non-pregnant women, up until menopause hits. After menopause, estrone is produced, and in pregnant women, estriol is produced. For our intents and purposes, I’ll continue using “estrogen” when referring to the “feminine” hormone produced from testosterone.

We can all agree that estrogen plays an important role in female (and male) function – a post is probably in order, in fact – and it’s all made possible by the presence of testosterone.

Muscle Building

Just as in men, testosterone is responsible for the acquisition of lean muscle mass in women. We’re all human, remember, and hormones play similar roles in our bodies, regardless of gender. But because women have far less testosterone, packing on serious amounts of muscle simply isn’t going to happen naturally. The internal wiring necessary for muscle building is in all of us, though, as shown by the results of female exogenous testosterone usage.

Bone Health

Birth control pills have another unintended, unwelcome side effect: they lower bone density in females. The article doesn’t mention it, but I figure increased binding of testosterone by SHBG is probably to blame. After all, we know that testosterone and libido are linked in both sexes, and that anything that decreases the bioavailability of serum testosterone – like birth control pills – also decreases libido. Last time I mentioned that testosterone is responsible for proper bone mineralization, in both men and women, and this BC study seems to bolster that claim.

It’s true that women produce far less testosterone than males – roughly 1/10th as much, by most accounts – but their sensitivity to testosterone is far greater. Quite simply, women don’t need as much raw hormone to handle business. It’s no less important for women, and it plays the same roles and enables the same functionality as it does in males.

It’s just a matter of scale.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. At last. Someone who knows what he’s talking about and can explain it as well.

    Thanks you.

    Lance Chambers wrote on July 9th, 2010
  2. If both testosterone and estrogen are present (and needed?) in both males and females, then WHY are they still considered male and female hormones. I’m a woman and don’t care to have one thing of ‘male’ in me!! So until the hormones are just that.. hormones.. not sex-linked I will NOT believe that we females have testosterone. ZILCH. It’s all false with pharma trying to get more money. And all the medical society to lock into another medical profit industry!!
    I don’t believe one bit estrogen is derived from testosterone.
    GET REAL!! The mechanics of men needing testosterone for erections is false too. Why else would the boys get erections and play around with erect penises???????? I was raised with brothers, had sons (they were taught they could only touch themselves when they were alone of course) played with brothers friends and regardless of age would get erections!! Even my husband told me what he did as a boy!!

    CCC63 wrote on January 14th, 2011
  3. Right on Mark. As a woman I never once questioned my levels of testosterone until things were WAY off. With healthy eating and hardcore workouts, my weight gain was swift and uncomfortable.

    I was left scratching my head. Huh? What is heck is going on?!?!!?

    After 2k worth of blood tests and changing doctors like people change undies I finally got answers. No DHEA and VERY low Testosterone. No libido and increased weight. It sucks. I’m not back to normal yet but at least I have a most positive pathway to follow.

    Above all…I understand WHY!!!

    Hormones control all. Baby them.


    Babs wrote on July 3rd, 2011
  4. Thanks for the post. I have constantly observed that a lot of people are desirous to lose weight simply because wish to show up slim plus attractive. Having said that, they do not always realize that there are more benefits just for losing weight as well. Doctors declare that over weight people experience a variety of health conditions that can be instantly attributed to their excess weight. The great thing is that people who definitely are overweight as well as suffering from diverse diseases can help to eliminate the severity of the illnesses by losing weight. You possibly can see a steady but marked improvement in health as soon as even a bit of a amount of weight loss is obtained.

    Doreen wrote on October 27th, 2014
  5. When my husband uses Androgel, he becomes the asshole from hell.

    Darla Ng wrote on July 25th, 2015
  6. I’m female and lately I’ve experienced tiredness, acne all over my body, shrinking breasts, weight gain around thighs, hips and stomach, and now I hairloss with slight receding hair line ( not sure if it’s from hair dye ) now I have receding eyebrows and suffer with severe headaches and dry skin! Had all the blood work done and everything comes back normal. I feel like I’m losing my mind, I need to lower testosterone as I think adult acne and hairloss is an indication of high testosterone!

    Claire wrote on August 23rd, 2015
  7. Does anyone in the MDA community have advice for a 24-year-old female who thinks she may have too much testosterone? Thanks for your help!

    Chelsey wrote on May 1st, 2016

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