While our female colleagues, in the great employer of life, have estrogen sloshing around inside their carnal husks, we –the males of the species– have been blessed with testosterone. You know the thing people inject to get “swole” and the chemical is scientifically proven to be responsible for the phrase “Hold my beer, I wanna try something.”
It’s the thing that turns a boy into a man (physically speaking) and it’s along with the female sex hormone are that gives us the difference between the sexes. But what is it? Why is it important? And should you even care?
How does a boy become a man?
Basically, there isn’t a huge difference between boys and girls before puberty. Put a hat and neutral clothes on any child and there’s no real way to know its gender. But then puberty comes along and everything changes.
Up to that point, a boy might only have a trickle of testosterone in their bodies, but when puberty starts that trickle turns into a fire hose. With testosterone production going through the roof. All the changes we associate with a boy turning into a man: a deeper voice, facial hair, developing more muscle, and an interest in girls. All these changes are caused by the massive ramping up of testosterone.
Girls go through the same process, but estrogen’s being in the driver seat in their case. Men and women have a mix of testosterone and estrogen. Which one you have more of is determined by your gender. The exact mechanisms of testosterone are beyond the scope of a men’s shaving blog, but it’s worth stating here that a lot of what makes men, men physically, and drives our behaviour, is testosterone. It affects everything we do. And is a driver of how we feel both physically and mentally.
Testosterone and the brain
When we think about testosterone, if we think about it at all, we normally think about its physical effects. Athletes and bodybuilders bumping up their natural supply to boost their muscle production and help them perform at a higher level. What’s less thought or talked about is testosterone’s effect on the brain. Studies of men with low testosterone show that it affects not just our physical bodies and energy but also our cognition and mood as well.
For example men with hypogonadism, i.e. men unable to produce normal levels of testosterone, who received testosterone supplementation performed better in spatial reasoning tests. They also noted that for some men with low testosterone increasing testosterone can also increased their mood. Although the link is not as simple as, more testosterone = better mood.
It’s worth pointing out that a lot of the examples in this article draw on people with clinically low testosterone levels. I’m using them as examples as the negative and positive effects of testosterone are much clearer. But it should be said that supplementing with testosterone is something you should only do under medical supervision.
Testosterone and sex
It’s also really important for your sex life. As in, really important. There’s a lot of natural variation in testosterone levels between people and over the course of your life, but dipping below a certain threshold will make it very difficult for you to get excited about or engage in sexual activity. Scientists found that reducing testosterone in primates reduced their desire to mate, but had no effect on their ability to mate.
Weirdly ovulation also affects your testosterone levels. It was shown that testosterone increases in men who are exposed to the smell of ovulating women, while a control group exposed to the scent of non-ovulating women didn’t have the same increase.
I don’t know how you feel about this information, but it makes me really worry about scientists. Like how did they get these scents? How did they recruit participants for this study? And what do they tell people when they get asked “What do you do?” at parties?
Testosterone and relationships
Your relationship status also affects or is affected by, your testosterone levels. Men in long-term relationships have lower levels of testosterone than their single compatriots, with the exception being men in polyamorous relationships. Who have the highest levels of testosterone overall? It seems that testosterone goes down in a committed long-term relationship as you are no longer trying to attract a sexual partner. While polyamorous men, and women, were both found to have higher levels of testosterone.
Men’s hormones are also affected by their partners. As mentioned above our testosterone will increase when our partner is ovulating but decreases during pregnancy. A study of 27 couples expecting their first child found that men’s testosterone dipped leading up to the pregnancy. In the book The Male Brain, it was theorised that the lowering of testosterone during and directly after pregnancy was to allow fathers to bond with their children. Men with children were also found to have lower testosterone than men without.
The authors of the same study found a link between partner synchrony i.e. if the man and women’s testosterone levels moved together, and the investment the father would make in the relationship post-pregnancy. i.e. the closer your relationship you have the more your hormones move in sync.
How it changes over time
Testosterone is affected by your relationships, but it also changes over time. Before you’ve even made it out of the womb it’s responsible for creating your sexual reproductive system. Then testosterone kicks it’s heals for about 13 years until puberty when it really gets the party going. Puberty is when testosterone is at its highest, and then it naturally decreases as you age. From the age of 30 men lose about 1% of their testosterone each year, so as long as you don’t live to be 130 you won’t lose it all.
Low testosterone is a real problem. I touched on it briefly in the section on sex above, but it causes more problems than just reducing your sex drive. Which honestly might not necessarily be a bad thing. I’ve had more than a handful of conversations about how much more productive we could be with a lower sex drive.
Some other negatives are more day-to-day such as hair loss (we’ve covered balding in-depth on this site), lower energy, increased body fat, reduced muscle mass, reduced bone density, decreased memory, and lower blood count. And while you have to have very low testosterone to require medical intervention. Lower testosterone decreases a lot of markers associated with good health.
The male period
The female hormonal cycle has been well documented in both the scientific literature and Amy Schumer specials. But did you know there’s also a male hormonal cycle? It’s a bit more simplistic as it’s not related to ovulation. Essentially your testosterone is at its highest in the morning and decreases over the course of the day. This could partly explain morning wood, and why so many people seem to enjoy sex in the morning.
There’s also some inconclusive evidence that testosterone ebbs and flows over the course of the year. Several studies in Scandinavia showed that men had lower testosterone in the summer, with testosterone peaking in the fall. But other researchers haven’t been able to replicate the findings. So a monthly or yearly natural testosterone cycle remains inconclusive.
So what’s a man to do?
If you’re worried about your testosterone then your first port of call should be your doctor. But for most men, you won’t need medical intervention. But if you still want some of the benefits testosterone can bring: such as increased muscle mass, or better cognition. Or you’re interested in polyamory and want to give your testosterone a head start, here are some simple things you can do.
Honestly, most of the ways to naturally increase your testosterone are just things you’d be doing to stay healthy anyway.
- Sleep. Get enough sleep. This is a no-brainer and will also help you look and feel better even without a boost to your testosterone.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Your testosterone goes down when you’re overweight, and lower testosterone makes it harder to get the weight off. So try to keep your weight in check.
- Lift weights. Your body needs testosterone to get and stay, moving and shaking. So if you’re always only sitting on the couch not doing anything then your body thinks it doesn’t need to produce as much testosterone. Getting regular exercise, especially lifting heavy weights, will increase your testosterone production.
- Get fat. Or at least get enough fat in your diet. Studies have found that low-fat diets reduce men’s testosterone. Good fats, like nuts and seeds, are also good for your skin. Check out our Skincare for men article for more skincare diet tips.
- Keep calm. When you’re stressed your body produces cortisol, which causes your testosterone to drop. So keep your stress levels in check. Check out our article on journaling for some tips on de-stressing.
If you’ve already got enough testosterone, or are a new dad who wants to bond with your child then do the opposite. Although if you’re a new dad your sleep and diet will probably all be screwed anyway so you’re partway there.