Don’t fear the testosterone

“But I don’t want to get huge!”

I cannot begin to count the number of times I have heard that from other women when they ask if they should lift weights and I enthusiastically respond “yes!” Leaving aside the political issues for a moment (e.g., why is it bad for a woman to be muscular?), there is a basic physiological issue at work here: women’s bodies are generally not built in such a way that “getting huge” is a realistic goal. For most women, that would require taking lots of androgens, frequently called “steroids” in the athletic vernacular.

As the prospect of masculinization does not appeal to many women, androgens are often not considered as therapy, even when they should be. Give androgens a chance! Sure, they can make you (comparatively) huge, but let’s learn a little bit about them before we get all Reefer Madness about testosterone.

a bit o’ background

Observant (or bewildered) readers will notice that I have used three diferent words to refer to the substances in question: steroid, androgen, and testosterone. These terms are frequently misused, so any discussion should define the terms accurately. Since is the domain of the smart chicks, this article will do exactly that for the Mistress’ dear readers.

say hello to our little friends

Fig 1 (below): cholesterol, the big mama
Fig 2 (below): estradiol, the, um, other mama
Fig 3 (below): testosterone

“Steroids” are a generic name for a specific class of substances. Testosterone is a steroid. So are pregnenolone, cortisol, and all of the hormones known as estrogens. Chemically speaking, all steroids are structurally similar to a molecule called cholesterol. (Don’t panic: it’s not the same thing that clogs your arteries. That’s another article altogether.)

Androgens are steroids that act in the same or similar ways to testosterone.

Testosterone itself is an androgen. Your body produces several different kinds of androgens, but there are many synthetic androgens that have been cooked up in various biotechnology labs, too. Two of them are shown here: nandrolone (which is produced naturally in decent quantity by some animals, but not by humans) and trenbolone, a totally synthetic androgen.

synthetic androgens

Fig 4 (below): nandrolone
Fig 5 (below): trenbolone

Testosterone is produced by the body through a few different metabolic processes. It is synthesized in two separate places: in the testes, for those who have them, and in the adrenal gland, which pretty much everybody has. Yes, women too, but usually in about one tenth of the amounts produced by the body of a normal biological male! A body without some testosterone is not a healthy system.

Testosterone does many things with our innards. It is in significant part responsible for muscle growth. (And, while you might not want to look like Chyna, you probably do enjoy the ability to walk and to sit up on your own, so muscles are a good thing.) It has effects on sexual desire, on mood, on energy levels, and on the nervous system in general. (A curious fact: while testosterone is occasionally correlated with aggression, some studies have demonstrated that many violent criminals actually suffer from testosterone levels that are LOWER than normal. Makes you think, hmm?)

Since we became aware of the presence of testosterone in the early 1900’s, researchers and medical professionals have found a variety of therapeutic uses for it. It has been used to enhance mood, to stimulate hunger, to improve recovery from surgical procedures, to prevent muscle wasting in diseases like AIDS, and yes, to enhance athletic performance.

Until recently, the notion of using testosterone for treatment of women–at least in North America–was taboo. Testosterone is generally known as a “male” hormone, and as such it was thought that supplementing testosterone for women would be a bad thing because… well, I’m not sure. I guess they thought it would make us want to paint our faces, go to football games, and scream ourselves hoarse whenever an opposing player battered a quarterback. Or whatever it is that testosterone is supposed to make men do. (Chug a beer in one breath? Fart in public? Insert your own stereotype here for maximum, if worn-out, hilarity.)

At any rate, testosterone is experiencing a surge in popularity with women. As hormone levels fluctuate at menopause and drop off afterwards, some physicians who treat menopausal or post-menopausal women have hit on testosterone therapy as a way to ease the symptoms of menopause, to improve energy levels, and to aid in the prevention of muscle wasting and osteoporosis. A group of doctors known as Life Extension doctors — who are certainly some of the most progressive and innovative physicians working today — are using it to improve the quality of life for older women AND men.

Taken in normal physiological doses, and under the supervision of a trained and knowledgeable physician, testosterone is turning out to be a boon for many women.