Testosterone is a hormone that is responsible for many of the physical characteristics specific to adult males. It plays a key role in reproduction and the maintenance of bone and muscle strength.
Alternative names for testosterone
Testo (brand name for testosterone formulations); 4-androsten-17β-ol-3-one
What is testosterone?
Testosterone is produced by the gonads (by the Leydig cells in testes in men and by the ovaries in women), although small quantities are also produced by the adrenal glands in both sexes. It is an androgen, meaning that it stimulates the development of male characteristics.
Present in much greater levels in men than women, testosterone initiates the development of the male internal and external reproductive organs during foetal development and is essential for the production of sperm in adult life. This hormone also signals the body to make new blood cells, ensures that muscles and bones stay strong during and after puberty and enhances libido both in men and women. Testosterone is linked to many of the changes seen in boys during puberty (including an increase in height, body and pubic hair growth, enlargement of the penis, testes and prostate gland, and changes in sexual and aggressive behaviour). It also regulates the secretion of luteinising hormone and follicle stimulating hormone. To effect these changes, testosterone is often converted into another androgen called dihydrotestosterone.
In women, testosterone is produced by the ovaries and adrenal glands. The majority of testosterone produced in the ovary is converted to the principle female sex hormone, oestradiol.
How is testosterone controlled?
The regulation of testosterone production is tightly controlled to maintain normal levels in blood, although levels are usually highest in the morning and fall after that. The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland are important in controlling the amount of testosterone produced by the testes. In response to gonadotrophin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland produces luteinising hormone which travels in the bloodstream to the gonads and stimulates the production and release of testosterone.
As blood levels of testosterone increase, this feeds back to suppress the production of gonadotrophin-releasing hormone from the hypothalamus which, in turn, suppresses production of luteinising hormone by the pituitary gland. Levels of testosterone begin to fall as a result, so negative feedback decreases and the hypothalamus resumes secretion of gonadotrophin-releasing hormone.
What happens if I have too much testosterone?
The effect excess testosterone has on the body depends on both age and sex. It is unlikely that adult men will develop a disorder in which they produce too much testosterone and it is often difficult to spot that an adult male has too much testosterone. More obviously, young children with too much testosterone may enter a false growth spurt and show signs of early puberty and young girls may experience abnormal changes to their genitalia. In both males and females, too much testosterone can lead to precocious puberty and result in infertility.
In women, high blood levels of testosterone may also be an indicator of polycystic ovary syndrome. Women with this condition may notice increased acne, body and facial hair (called hirsutism), balding at the front of the hairline, increased muscle bulk and a deepening voice.
There are also several conditions that cause the body to produce too much testosterone. These include androgen resistance, congenital adrenal hyperplasia and ovarian cancer.
The use of anabolic steroids (manufactured androgenic hormones) shuts down the release of luteinising hormone and follicle stimulating hormone secretion from the pituitary gland, which in turn decreases the amount of testosterone and sperm produced within the testes. In men, prolonged exposure to anabolic steroids results in infertility, a decreased sex drive, shrinking of the testes and breast development. Liver damage may result from its prolonged attempts to detoxify the anabolic steroids. Behavioural changes (such as increased irritability) may also be observed. Undesirable reactions also occur in women who take anabolic steroids regularly, as a high concentration of testosterone, either natural or manufactured, can cause masculinisation (virilisation) of women.
What happens if I have too little testosterone?
If testosterone deficiency occurs during fetal development, then male characteristics may not completely develop. If testosterone deficiency occurs during puberty, a boy’s growth may slow and no growth spurt will be seen. The child may have reduced development of pubic hair, growth of the penis and testes, and deepening of the voice. Around the time of puberty, boys with too little testosterone may also have less than normal strength and endurance, and their arms and legs may continue to grow out of proportion with the rest of their body.
In adult men, low testosterone may lead to a reduction in muscle bulk, loss of body hair and a wrinkled ‘parchment-like’ appearance of the skin. Testosterone levels in men decline naturally as they age. In the media, this is sometimes referred to as the male menopause (andropause).
Low testosterone levels can cause mood disturbances, increased body fat, loss of muscle tone, inadequate erections and poor sexual performance, osteoporosis, difficulty with concentration, memory loss and sleep difficulties. Current research suggests that this effect occurs in only a minority (about 2%) of ageing men. However, there is a lot of research currently in progress to find out more about the effects of testosterone in older men and also whether the use of testosterone replacement therapy would have any benefits.