Hormones — you can't live without them, and sometimes, it feels like you can't live with them.
Serving as your body's chemical messengers, hormones are involved in many processes, from metabolism to sexual function to mood. As you age, how much of certain hormones you produce can change.
Women experience a major hormonal change called menopause — when a woman's ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. As a result, they stop getting their monthly period and can no longer reproduce.
As a man, you might also experience an age-related hormonal change. Specifically, the production of testosterone — the main sex hormone found in men — can decline over time. Because low testosterone (also called hypogonadism) can come with similar symptoms to menopause, it's sometimes referred to as "male menopause."
However, menopause is a transition unique to women. For instance, after menopause, all women have low estrogen, but not all men experience low testosterone. Also, egg production stops completely in women, and while sperm production in men may slow, it doesn't fully stop.
Testosterone plays an important role in your body. Here's a look at what causes testosterone levels to decline, the symptoms it can cause, and what you can do about it.
What is the Purpose of Testosterone?
From controlling entire organs to impacting growth and development, hormones work hard for you every day. Sex hormones, specifically, are vital to sexual characteristics and reproduction.
Made in the testicles, testosterone is crucial to your sexual development and functioning. Testosterone plays a role in:
- The development of male features, such as body and facial hair, a deep voice, and muscle strength
- The production of sperm
- Sex drive
- Bone mass
- Fat distribution
- Muscle mass
- The production of red blood cells (cells that bring oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and carry carbon dioxide back to the lungs to be exhaled)
The Varying Causes of Low Testosterone
Testosterone levels fluctuate often. In fact, they're frequently higher in the morning than they are by evening. They may also temporarily decrease because of too much exercise or a poor diet.
Testosterone levels can also change over your lifespan, decreasing with age. If they get too low (less than 300 nanograms per deciliter of blood), that's considered low testosterone.
While age is a primary factor, low testosterone can also be caused by:
- Medications, such as antidepressants, opioids, and those that control high blood pressure
- Hormone disorders, such as pituitary tumors or diseases
- Radiation or chemotherapy treatment
- Injury to the testicles
- Genetic conditions, such as Klinefelter syndrome and hemochromatosis
- Chronic illness, such as depression, diabetes, obesity
Symptoms of Low Testosterone
Low testosterone levels can lead to uncomfortable side effects, such as:
- Reduced sex drive
- Erectile dysfunction (trouble getting or keeping an erection)
- Low sperm count
- Decreased lean muscle mass
- Enlarged or tender breast muscles
- Low red blood cells
A simple blood test can help your healthcare provider diagnose low testosterone. Because levels can change throughout the day, a second test may be necessary in order to confirm the diagnosis.
Treating Low Testosterone — and Focusing on Your Health
Improving testosterone levels doesn't just relieve uncomfortable side effects — it also helps improve your overall health. Usually, low testosterone is resolved by treating the underlying cause, such as a hormone disorder or chronic illness.
However, if that's not an option, your provider may recommend testosterone therapy. This can come in the form of patches that you put on your skin, injections, tablets, or pills. Similar to many medications, there are risks, such as decreased sperm count, high red blood cell count, acne, or prostate cancer. Talk to your provider about which option works best for you.
Read more about the benefits and risks of testosterone treatment.
Leading a healthy lifestyle also plays a crucial role in maintaining your testosterone levels. Make sure to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and find effective ways to cope with stress. While hormones do their best to support your health, it's up to you to care for them in return.
Do you have questions about treating low testosterone? Call 610-431-5000 to talk to an endocrinologist at Chester County Hospital about your hormone health.
Read more about Men's Health A to Z.
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