What is low testosterone in women?
Testosterone is a hormone known as an androgen. It’s often thought of as a “male” hormone. However, women also have testosterone in their bodies.
Imbalances of either too much or too little testosterone can affect a woman’s overall health. Some of the functions testosterone serves in a woman’s body include:
- producing new blood cells
- enhancing libido
- influencing follicle-stimulating hormones that can affect reproduction.
According to the Department of Health & Human Services in Victoria, Australia; testosterone production in women is often age-dependent. By the time a woman is 40 years old, her levels of androgens have decreased by half.
There’s still a lot that doctors are researching about low testosterone in women and treatments for low testosterone. However, new treatments are being studied that may provide help to women affected by low testosterone levels.
Some of the symptoms associated with low testosterone in women include:
- affected sexual desire
- affected sexual satisfaction
- depressed mood
- muscle weakness
Often, the symptoms of low testosterone in women are underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Some of the conditions that low testosterone may be mistaken for include: stress, depression, and the side effects of menopausal changes in women.
Doctors can use a blood test to test a woman’s testosterone levels. The numbers that determine if a woman’s testosterone levels are high or low can vary by the laboratory performing the test. According to the Boston University School of Medicine in 2002, if a woman’s plasma total testosterone level is less than 25 ng/dL in women under 50 years old, this is low. Testosterone levels lower than 20 ng/dL in women aged 50 and older are considered low.
Doctors may have difficulty detecting low testosterone levels in women because their hormone levels constantly fluctuate on a daily basis. If a woman still has her period, she should ideally take the blood testosterone test about 8 to 20 days after her menstrual period starts.
Women produce testosterone in several locations in their bodies. These include the:
- adrenal glands
- peripheral tissues
Because the ovaries are a major producer of testosterone, the decrease in hormones produced by the ovaries associated with menopause means that some pre- and post-menopausal women may experience low testosterone levels. Traditionally, decreases in libido have been attributed to post-menopausal drops in estrogen. However, researchers are identifying more and more links between decreased testosterone production and affected libido.
In many women, the ovaries continue to produce hormones like testosterone. Therefore, doctors suggest that some women with low testosterone may have something in their genetic makeup that affects their ability to produce the compounds DHEA and DHEA-S, which are the precursors to testosterone. Some women may also be deficient in enzymes that process DHEA and DHEA-S into testosterone.
Other possible causes of low testosterone in women include:
- adrenal insufficiency, where the adrenal glands don’t work as well as they should
- history of oophorectomy, or the surgical removal of the ovaries
- taking oral estrogen therapy, as estrogen can reduce the production of testosterone
- early menopause
Treatments for low testosterone in women haven’t been largely studied by medical experts. While doctors know about the effects of excess testosterone in women, the symptoms of too-little testosterone aren’t as well known. As a result, doctors don’t always have the same regimen for treatments related to low testosterone levels.
Doctors may prescribe a medication called Estratest in post-menopausal women. This medicine has both estrogen as well as testosterone in it. However, the testosterone form is a synthetic one and may not be as effective in treating low testosterone.
Doctors can also administer injections of testosterone and medical researchers are currently studying the effects of testosterone patches and pellets implanted in the skin. Some women may also obtain testosterone gel formulations from compounding pharmacies. However, these gels are traditionally used for men that have much higher average testosterone levels than when compared with women.
An over-the-counter option is taking a DHEA supplement. Because DHEA is a precursor to testosterone, the idea is that if someone takes DHEA, they could increase the amount of testosterone in their body. Speak with your doctor before starting a DHEA supplement as treatment for low testosterone.
Having too much testosterone in your body can also cause side effects. Side effects of excess testosterone use in women include:
- Facial hair
- Fluid retention
- Masculine physical characteristics, including male-pattern balding and deepened voice
Women who are or may be pregnant shouldn’t take androgens. Women who are breastfeeding also shouldn’t take testosterone medications as it could pass on to the child.
You should always talk to your doctor before starting any testosterone or related medications and supplements. They’ll be able to provide tests and make sure that there are no interactions with other medications you take.