The relationship between women and testosterone is poorly understood.
Testosterone is commonly blamed for libido problems… but that’s all anyone ever really talks about.
There is however a lot more to testosterone than meets the eye! Sufficient testosterone is important for mood, for energy, for cognitive function, and for overall health. Without testosterone, your energy and happiness can really suffer. How to know if you have low testosterone?
Most women are not in danger of insufficient testosterone levels. But you altogether might be, depending on your age and the type of health conditions and stressors you have endured over the years. This blog is a great starting place to learn about testosterone, and to help you identify if you suffer from low testosterone.
(And for even more on this topic, check out this book by Dr Sarah Gottfried, one of my favorites that addresses hormones and menopause.)
What testosterone does for YOU
Testosterone is important for your health because it plays a key role in reproductive function, in mood, and in physical fitness. Here are some of the things testosterone does, and why having low testosterone is a real problem. Testosterone:
-Enables female athletes to make greater increases in both lean mass and power. This study demonstrated gains in lean mass, chest-press power, and loaded sair-clibmer power in 71 women who had low testosterone due to menopause and/or hysterectomy.
-Increases sex drive, as shown by just about every study on menopausal sex drive. The measurements shown to improve are one measure of sexual fuction called the composite Brief Index of Sexual Functioning for Women, reported thoughts/desire, reported feelings of arousal, and frequency of sexual activity.
-Supports bone health. Even while estrogen is well known as the ‘bone mineral density’ hormone, studies like this one have shown that adding sufficient testosterone to the mix vastly increases success with bone strength, osteopenia and osteoporosis.
-Helps manage pain. At least we think. Rodent studies demonstrate that newborn female rats injected with testosterone experience better pain management than those that do not. But we are not quite sure if this effect extends to humans and how well.
-Manages mood and mental focus. Testosterone appears to help women feel motivated and upbeat. Depression, mood swings, and other unexplained emotional symptoms can be caused by decreased testosterone levels. Women with low testosterone also report failing to enjoy activities they once loved.
So how does your body do these things? Where does testosterone come from?
Testosterone is produced in part by the ovaries, and in part by the adrenal (stress) glands.
Both of these organs take their cue from the pituitary gland, so any sort of pituitary malfunction – whether due to a common problem like stress, or to something less common like a tumor – will hinder testosterone production.
The pituitary gland usually functions healthfully in adolescents and women of reproductive age. Once a woman enters menopause, however, it stops sending signals to the ovaries. (This is natural, it’s supposed to happen!)
Nevertheless, menopause can cause some problems and symptoms. In menopause, because hormones are no longer being produced by the ovaries, the bulk of hormone production is left up to other glands, like the adrenals. Sometimes this isn’t sufficient, and testosterone (and estrogen and progesterone) levels suffer.
Average testosterone levels
The standard healthy range for testosterone levels for adult women is 15-70 ng/dl.
Unfortunately this is a fairly large range. This means that you may experience some level of dysfunction – whether your levels are too high or too low – without actually falling outside of the normal ranges.
Testosterone levels rise throughout puberty (along with the rest of the sex hormones), and they stay relatively stable throughout young adulthood and middle age. During menopause testosterone levels drop significantly, as I just mentioned, due to the Retirement of the ovaries.
(Personally my ovaries will be retiring to Key West.)
Signs your testosterone levels may be low
There are many signs that you may wish to investigate your testosterone levels. They are:
-Osteoporosis, osteopenia or low bone mineral density (most likely coupled with low estrogen)
-Poor memory and brain fog
-Low mood, lack of motivation, no goals, and no competitive spirit
-Poor pain tolerance
-No evidence of ovulation (which would include spiked libido, increase in vaginal discharge, spike in body temperature)
Causes of low testosterone
Many things may contribute to low testosterone levels. Far and away, the most common cause of low testosterone in women is menopause. Second to that is an ovariectomy. In addiction to these two landmark cases, there are also:
-Sedentary lifestyle, since testosterone production is supported by exercise
-A very low fat diet (less than 30 grams of fat/day), since fat is necessary for producing hormones
–Estrogen dominance – you may experience symptoms of testosterone insufficiency if your estrogen levels are too high, since estrogen causes testosterone to become bound and inactive in the bloodstream (thus why they must always be in proper balance)
-A pituitary tumor. This is rare but not impossible! Doctor’s can screen for it with an MRI.
What to do about it
1) Overcome estrogen dominance.
Sometimes you just need testosterone alone. This would be the case if you are estrogen or progseterone dominant, regardless of your age. In that case you may wish to take a very small dose of a bioidentical testosterone hormone. My preferred method however would be to overcome the estrogen dominance via the methods I describe here.
Doing weight lifting exercises like these and some HIIT exercising can also be an extraordinary help.
2) Boost hormone production generally
Other times what women need is to increase all of their sex hormone levels. This often happens with hypothalamic amenorrhea, stress-based health problems, ovariectomies, and menopause. You can do this by:
-Increasing the fat content of your diet to at least 45 grams a day (or 25% of calories)
-Being sure to eat at least 75 grams of protein every day
-Eat carbohydrate with at least two meals a day
So in summary…
Most women of reproductive age are not at risk of low testosterone. But you may be if you’ve suffered from hypothalamic amneorrhea, any sort of HPA axis disruption, or the detrimental effects of a very low, vegetarian style, restrictive diet. You could also experience symptoms of low testosterone if your estrogen levels are too high.
The best thing you can do for this is to overcome estrogen dominance, as well as to boost hormone production. If in menopause, you may wish to consider bioidentical hormone therapy, but a more natural route would be to balance your hormones with diet and exercise.
Your libido, your lovers, your brain clarity, and your goal-driven, competitive edge may thank you. 🙂
For some further reading –
I really like what Sarah Gottfried has to say about menopause and hormone balance in her best-seller here.
And here’s a great tongue-in-cheek and insightful look at testosterone and human societies: The Trouble with Testosterone, which I love so much. Plus it’s SO PALEO!
What do you think? Do you have LOW T? What have you done about it?