Part 2: benefits of testosterone and crushing some myths
By Joachim Bartoll, June 2015, for Classic Muscle Newsletter, issue 11
In the first part we looked at our production of testosterone and the three forms of circulating testosterone within our bodies.
When people speak of testosterone, most of us picture its masculine effects, such as larger muscles, more body hair and a deeper voice. However, that is only a small part of what testosterone does during puberty. Let’s take a look at some of the physical and psychological benefits that come with having optimal testosterone levels as an adult.
Please note that this part of the series is written for males. I will write another article that cover women, as testosterone deficiency are just as common, and as a big problem, in women as it is in men.
So, my friend. Do you jump out of bed in the morning feeling energized and ready to take on the world? Do you look forward to your training sessions with feverish anticipation because you just seem to get stronger and stronger? Do you make decisions quickly and decisively, whether it’s about work-related tasks or chores to do at home?
Or does that better describe how you used to be? If so, it could very well be low Testosterone that’s keeping you from having the life you still want to have.
But before we dive into the world of testosterone, there is this little dilemma in the world of science and research. And at times, some studies can be a bit inconclusive in some areas. The reason for this is that, in some scenarios, it can be difficult to distinguish between cause and effect. The question that sometimes arises is, “is it testosterone that is behind these great health benefits, or does simply being healthy give you these optimal levels of testosterone?”
In some instances, the answer can actually be “both”. You see, testosterone (like all hormones) plays a part in a “complex cycle” that regulates a whole host of processes in our bodies. So, as you increase testosterone, you get healthier and almost everything contributing to a better life increase; and as you get healthier and more active, that in itself will rise your testosterone levels. And it can also be turned around and play a part in a “vicious cycle”, meaning that if your testosterone levels go down, your health suffers; and as your health suffers, your testosterone levels decrease even more.
In other words, when referring to current research where the evidence is not 100 % conclusive, I will use the modifier “may” – as in, “while testosterone may make you a superhero on the streets, it surely will make you one in bed”.
Also, keep in mind that the effects of administered testosterone can be dramatic, the effects of normal T-levels in the higher range are more subtle, but still highly significant to your health and happiness.
Now, if we look at testosterone therapy where t-levels are increased to the upper normal range, the literature and experts report the following: In the first two weeks, most men will report a general improved enthusiasm for daily life. This is often accompanied by an increase in energy, a desire to be more active and get more things done. After roughly three to four weeks, there’s an increase in sex drive, often demonstrated by sexual dreams, spontaneous erections, “morning wood”, and an overall increased interest in sex.
After this initial period, the cosmetic benefits appear (provided diet and lifestyle factors are taken into account). These include; increased strength, increased muscle mass, better pumps, and a decrease in body fat.
And of course, risk factors for most modern diseases decrease to the lower range.
So, let’s look at these benefits and also the supposed dangers with high testosterone levels.
Testosterone and body fat levels
Testosterone plays an important role in regulating insulin, glucose, and fat metabolism. As our testosterone levels decrease, our body’s ability to regulate insulin, glucose, and fat metabolism decreases, which in turn causes adipose tissue (fat mass) to begin accumulating. To add insult to injury, that increased adipose tissue may also contribute to further decreasing testosterone levels because fat cells convert testosterone into estrogen.
Also, circulating levels of sex hormones control fat mass distribution and expansion, mainly through activation of estrogen and androgen receptors in adipose tissue. This is why both men and women with high estrogen levels tend to store more fat around the hips and thighs, and if a lot of testosterone aromatize to estrogen, fat stores around the chest increases.
In normal conditions, circulating androgens such as testosterone, control adipocyte (fat cell) size and adipose (fat) mass. On the other hand, the hormone leptin, mainly produced by adipose tissue, regulate testicular steroidogenesis (the process of turning cholesterol into testosterone).
Androgen deficiency increases fat mass and subsequent dysregulate several functions controlled by adipose tissue such as insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, vascular reactivity, and immunity.
The consequent reduction in testosterone triggers the expansion of adipose tissue with subsequent increase in aromatase activity, which in turn mediates conversion of testosterone to estrogen. Increased estrogen levels induce a reduction of luteinizing hormone, which in turn contributes to a reduction in androgen production (mainly testosterone). And on the other side of the coin, excess of circulating leptin, due to increased adipose mass, disrupts testicular steroidogenesis, with consequent suppression of androgen production. Thus, the vicious cycle is triggered.
Testosterone and muscle mass
We all know about testosterone’s ability to increase muscle mass and strength. Testosterone works its muscle-building magic by increasing muscle protein synthesis. While a short burst in testosterone and muscle protein synthesis will only do so much for you, a constant surge in your testosterone level will increase your rate of muscle protein synthesis around the clock. As protein synthesis increases, more protein can be used to build new muscle mass. This is one of the reasons why the bodybuilding community recommends a high protein diet – because 95 % (or more) of the featured athletes in bodybuilding magazines use Anabolic Androgenic Steroids and thereby has a chemically enhanced protein synthesis. The other reason is simply that supplement companies want to sell you their protein powder and meal replacement products.
Now, a high protein diet, as in 2.2 to 2.6 grams of protein per kilo of body weight (1 to 1.2g/lbs) will have numerous of hormonal benefits, while a diet of 3.0 grams or more per kilo of bodyweight (1.4g/lbs) is usually overkill for natural athletes.
Testosterone, brain health and depression
As mentioned earlier, testosterone increases life quality in many ways. Researchers have found that men suffering from depression typically have low testosterone levels. While some scientists debates whether it’s low testosterone that causes depression or if depression causes low testosterone levels, preliminary research has shown that some men suffering depression report improvement in mood and other factors of depression after undergoing Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT).
In other words, if you feel down, lethargic, and have trouble getting organized and fully living your life, naturally raising your testosterone levels or getting help via TRT may in all probability help you.
Some researchers also claim that testosterone increases your desire for power and status as well as “gameness”. One study showed that a man’s testosterone level after losing a game predicted whether or not he got back in for another round. Men who experienced a severe drop in testosterone were less likely to play again, while men who experienced little or no drop at all got back into the game. Researchers concluded that testosterone is one of the factors driving competitiveness in men and our ability to get up again and never quit.
This has also been noted in studies on risk-taking. One study found that college graduates with higher levels of testosterone (men and women alike) are more likely to go into riskier careers with a higher payoff. Another study discovered that among financial traders, a trader’s morning level of testosterone accurately predicted his day’s profitability – higher levels of testosterone meant he was more likely to take risks that day and score big.
Also, several studies have linked low testosterone levels to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers at the University of Southern California have reported that increasing testosterone levels in mice with Alzheimer’s actually slows the progression of the disease. This observation has led scientists to hypothesize that maintaining optimal testosterone levels into old age may help prevent Alzheimer’s in humans. There will probably be studies on this in the future.
Testosterone and your heart
Most people have probably heard of growing hearts and whatnot from extreme abuse of androgens. However, if we put such extremes aside, what does science really say about testosterone and your heart?
The research on testosterone’s relation to heart health is somewhat divided. Some scientists have found that men with higher testosterone levels have an increased risk of heart disease, while recent studies have shown that men with below-normal testosterone levels are more at risk for heart problems. The research is still on-going, but the findings within the majority of recent medical studies that have examined the relationship between testosterone and cardiovascular disease have clearly shown that testosterone offers protective effects against cardiovascular diseases.
To be clear, it’s not exactly the testosterone hormone itself that strengthens your cardiovascular system, but rather the myriad of health benefits that come from optimal testosterone levels.
Note: Men who abuse anabolic steroid drugs by using large doses and taking several different ones at a time, definitely do increase their chances of having a heart attack or stroke. Anabolic steroids are synthetically modified forms of testosterone, and when taken in large doses or for long periods, can increase a number of established cardiac risk factors, including high blood pressure, increased low density lipoprotein cholesterol, and lowered high density lipoprotein cholesterol. All of these factors favor the onset of serious heart problems. With that being said, the fact that they rarely occur, even in athletes and bodybuilders who use massive doses of anabolic steroids, offers testimony to the fact that normal recreational usage of testosterone, such as Testosterone Replacement Therapy, does not have any negative effects related to the onset of cardiovascular disease.
Testosterone and prostate cancer
One thing most doctors were taught was that testosterone causes prostate cancer (PC). Yet, few of them ever bother to check the source of this statement. If they did, they would find that it was based on a case study of a single patient reported back in 1941(!). There were several attenuating circumstances associated with that particular patient that don’t apply to most other men, yet this fact is routinely overlooked. Recently, other physicians and researchers have pointed out the misconceptions linked to the original study that indicted testosterone as a primary cause of prostate cancer. And indeed, it’s now clearly established that chronic low levels of testosterone are far more likely to promote prostate cancer compared with normal or even high levels of the hormone. Suffice to say, having normal levels of testosterone will not, in any way, cause PC. Unfortunately, a lot of doctors are not updated on this fact.
Testosterone and bone health
Osteoporosis, the bone-weakening disease is a serious health problem among the elderly. Although it seems to be most prevalent in women, men can suffer from this disease as well – and low testosterone levels may just be the culprit. Testosterone has been shown to play an important role in bone health. It increases bone density by stimulating bone mineralization as well as decreases bone break down. Research has shown that elderly men suffering from osteoporosis typically have low testosterone levels.
Testosterone and mood swings
Anger, aggression and mood swings – these are probably the most common myths about testosterone. The reality is that there’s no evidence what-so-ever that high testosterone levels cause anger and violent behavior. In fact, the opposite seems be true; low testosterone and/or high estrogen is what causes anger and irritability in men.
As mentioned earlier, having low testosterone levels may cause depression and damped spirits in men. And the primary symptoms of depression in men are increased angry outbursts (sometimes leading to violence) and irritability. So if you’re chronically ill-tempered, you might be depressed, and you might be depressed because you have low testosterone.
In the coming parts, we’ll look at the problem with aromatization of testosterone to estrogen (and high estrogen levels in general), and ways to naturally increase testosterone.
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Testosterone should be measured in the morning when its serum concentration is at its peak. My recommendation is that one should assess both free and total or free and bioavailable testosterone.