Do you have enough of it? Too much, maybe?
First off, you should know that women produce it too. Testosterone secreted by the ovaries plays a role in maintaining sexual desire. In men, the hormone is secreted by the testicles and the adrenal glands. And in addition to the sexual role it plays, testosterone also plays a part in keeping you healthy. Your blood testosterone levels will change with age: it’s highest between the ages of 20 and 45. After that, it’ll begin to drop, gradually at first; and once you hit your 60s, it’ll drop even further, only then to plummet after 75.
What’s it good for?
Testosterone has a number of roles to fulfill, and those roles are varied and indispensable to your overall health and not just your masculinity, affecting bone density, aggressiveness and facial hair. Read about the extent of testosterone’s influence here:
- The brain: libido and aggressiveness. It reduces fear, which explains why some men are risk-takers. Originally, testosterone enabled guys to head out on an often perilous hunt that was essential to their survival. It also explains why men are more permissive and laid back when their children explore the world.
- Skin: facial and body hair, baldness
- Muscles: muscle mass and strength
- Bones: bone density and the production of red blood cells in the marrow
- Male sexual organs: sperm production, enlarged prostate, erectile function
The effects of a surplus
A testosterone surplus is rare and generally linked to taking testosterone supplements or to a thyroid condition. A surplus generally leads to increased muscle mass and aggressiveness, less body fat and more energy, which makes testosterone supplements especially popular among some athletes. However, there are some drawbacks:
- When too much testosterone circulates freely in the body, it tends to get converted to estrogen. While men are supposed to have small amounts of estrogen in their body, an abnormally high level causes water retention, mood swings, sensitivity and breast tissue growth.
- Oily skin and pimples are also common among testosterone supplement users.
- Male-pattern baldness may also accelerate, though opinions on this vary.
- Sleep apnea can become a problem.
- The jury is also out regarding testosterone’s link to an enlarged prostate.
- Shrinking of the testicles: The brain assumes that the surplus is being produced by the testicles, so it halts the production of luteinizing hormone, which notifies the testicles when there’s a need to produce testosterone. As a result, the halted production leads to a reduction in testicle size.
- Increase in the production of red blood cells. As you age, this higher red blood cell count increases your risk of heart problems and strokes.
The effects of dropping testosterone levels
It’s perfectly normal for testosterone levels to decrease with age. While the effect of the decline is usually subtle and causes nothing more than a few age-related inconveniences, the effect can be much greater and much more intense in some men. The symptoms include:
- Hot flashes
- Irritability, mood swings, lack of concentration and energ; keep in mind that these symptoms are often caused by other health problems, such as anemia, depression and lack of sleep
- Drop in libido to varying degrees, from slight to complete loss of interest
- Difficulty obtaining and maintaining a sufficient erection
- Loss of muscle mass
- Hair loss
- Breast development
- Softening of the testicles
- Osteoporosis (porous, brittle bones)
- Infertility: testosterone plays a role in sperm production
Normal aging aside, certain diseases can cause testosterone levels to drop: type 2 diabetes, kidney or liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pituitary gland problems and testicular injuries. Some medical treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can also have a negative impact on testosterone.
How to support testosterone production
The best method is also the simplest: live a healthy lifestyle! A proper diet rich in fruits and vegetables combined with regular exercise will help you maintain good energy levels, strength and muscle tone. Regular exercise—at least 20 minutes a day on average—will help you sleep well and improve your mood.
If you live in a permanent state of stress, your adrenal glands may be affected. Stress stimulates the production of glucocorticoids (stress hormones) such as cortisol, which block an important reproductive hormone (GnRH), which in turn slows the production of testosterone. A healthy diet and regular exercise will help you better manage stress, but certain plants, such as valerian and St. John’s wort can also help.
All that, in a very big nutshell, is the low-down on the link between a healthy diet, exercise and testosterone. That’s quite a bit of information to digest, so if after all that reading you’re getting the munchies, remember that beer and pizza won’t boost your biceps: when in doubt, just think of Popeye and reach for some crunchy carrots and celery sticks instead!