Hormones and Women
Testosterone - It's Not Just For Men
Many people consider testosterone a male hormone and estrogen a female hormone. However, both males and females have both hormones, but in different amounts, with men having more testosterone than women.
What this means is that women do need a certain amount of testosterone in their systems in order to remain healthy.
Chemical Structure of Testosterone and Estrogen
As you can see from the figures below, the chemical structures of testosterone and estrogen are not all that different, however, their effects on the body are very different.
This is because each hormone molecule can only fit into its specific receptor, with testosterone binding to and activating testosterone receptors and estrogen only binding to and activating estrogen receptors. It is this binding and receptor activation that leads to the main physiological differences you see between men and women.
Another steroid hormone that figures prominently in a woman's reproductive cycle is progesterone. It is involved in the menstrual cycle and pregnancy.
There are also several plant sources that contain molecules that will bind to, and activate the estrogen receptor. These are collectively called phytoestrogens. The best sources of phytoestrogens are found in soy and flaxseed. Many other plants contain phytoestrogens in lesser amounts.
When women consume phytoestrogens, the phytoestrogens compete with estrogen naturally present in the body for a spot on the estrogen receptor. When phytoestrogens bind to the receptor they activate the receptor, but to a lesser extent than if estrogen were to bind to it. This lessens the effects of estrogen in the body.
This is a very good thing. Too much estrogen causes all kinds of problems for both men AND women. Too much estrogen can lead to breast cancer and other cancers of the reproductive system. Although many women may think of estrogen as the "womanly hormone," having too much estrogen is a very bad thing for the body.
See the image below for the chemical structure of phytoestrogens (top two structures) and the structure of estradiol (estrogen produced within the body - the bottom structure).
The phytoestrogens occupy and activate the same receptor in the body as estradiol (estrogen), but activate it to a lesser extent.
In contrast to phytoestrogens, xenoestrogens are not naturally occuring estrogenic molecules. Xenoestrogens are man-made molecules commonly found in pesticides, growth hormones given to farm animals to fatten them up for human consumption, and chemicals that leach into our food from plastics (e.g., plastic water and soda bottles, the plastic lining of canned foods).
Xenoestrogens also bind to and activate the estrogen receptor, but to a much greater extent than estradiol (estrogen). This means that while phytoestrogens may help prevent estrogen induced cancers, xenoestrogens may help to cause cancer. You want to avoid consuming these whenever possible. Heating plastics, especially in a microwave, causes these xenoestrogens to be released into your food.
Are There Plant Sources of Testosterone?
Strangely, while there are many molecules found in our environment that activate the estrogen receptor, there don't seem to be any plant sources of testosterone. Nor do I know of any xenotestosterones.
If there were plant sources of testosterone they would probably be illegal. This is because testosterone is such a performance enhancing molecule, whereas estrogen is not. In fact, estrogen really doesn't have any enhancing effects on the body, other than to induce breast development, female reproductive cyle involvement, soften skin, and to increase body fat (if you consider that an enhancement).
In contrast, testosterone increases muscle and bone mass, increases energy, and increases a person's sense of well-being or positive mood.
Testosterone does have its downside too - for example, too much testosterone can lead to increased aggression, male-pattern baldness, and increased facial and body hair. In addition, if too much testosterone is present it is often converted into estrogen.
How Woman Benefit from Higher Levels of Testosterone
As a woman ages, her production of testosterone by the ovaries decreases. Many peri or post menopausal women could benefit from low doses of testosterone. Osteoporosis is very common among this age group and a serious problem. Low doses of testosterone could help prevent, or even reverse, osteoporosis in these women. However, testosterone isn't approved as a treatment for osteoporosis at this time.
Believing that testosterone is only for men, many women would be reluctant to take testosterone anyway. In addition, most doctors wouldn't want to prescribe it because they would fear that the woman might get a few facial hairs. The idea is that better to have broken bones and be womanly, than have a few stray chin hairs and be healthy.
Testosterone also improves mood, energy, and overall well being. The dose that would need to be given wouldn't be enough to cause masculinazation.
Currently, the only approved use for testosterone in women is to increase sex drive. Sorry ladies, but estrogen has very little to do with a woman's sex drive. Testosterone is the hormone responsible for a healthy sex drive.
If you go and tell your doctor that you no longer care about sex then you might get some testosterone. First they test your testosterone levels to see if your levels are low. If your levels are low then your doctor may or may not prescribe a low dose of testosterone. It basically depends on your doctor's view of whether women should be taking testosterone or not. However, if your doctor actually bothers to check your testosterone levels then he or she will probably prescribe some for you if your levels are too low.
How to Raise Testosterone Levels Naturally
Soon there will be another article on this site that goes into this in more detail, but just briefly:
- Keep your percentage of body fat low
- Exercise/work out with weights
- Get plenty of sleep
- Eat cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage
- Try to keep stress to a minimum
- Avoid xenoestrogens
- Avoid Alcoholic Beverages
- Consume phytoestrogens (if you are female)