Most people think of testosterone as a male hormone, responsible for male characteristics, but did you know that it is an important and often overlooked hormone in women too? Hormone health expert Dr Katie Hodgkinson explains why it's important, what to look out for and provides diet and lifestyle tips to help support your testosterone levels.
What does testosterone do?
Testosterone plays a significant role in our overall health and wellbeing. It helps with muscle and bone strength, mood, confidence, motivation, energy, memory, fertility and metabolism for both men and women. It also helps to increase dopamine levels, a neurotransmitter which is involved with libido.
Do women have testosterone?
Most testosterone is converted to oestrogen in women, so naturally they have lower levels than men. However, despite these smaller amounts, when women’s testosterone levels are not balanced, it may result in symptoms that can impact on their quality of life.
Causes of a decline in women's testosterone levels
The ovaries are one of the main sources of testosterone in women and there is evidence that some women will experience symptoms of lowered testosterone levels in the years leading up to and including the menopause, where there is a decrease in hormones produced by the ovaries.
Read our blog on 8 unusual symptoms of menopause.
Younger women can also be affected. Surgical removal of the ovaries and oestrogen-containing medications can lower levels of testosterone. As symptoms can be subtle, the effect of low testosterone can sometimes be mistakenly diagnosed as depression.
Emotional stress (read our blog 6 big signs of stress) and lifestyle factors such as diet and sleep problems may also contribute to declining testosterone. Other factors that can cause lower levels of testosterone in women include pituitary or adrenal gland problems, genetic conditions, cancer treatment and medications.
Symptoms of low testosterone in women
How do you know if you have low testosterone? Here are some symptoms to look out for which may be a sign your testosterone levels are low:
- Physical changes - increased body fat and reduced lean muscle mass
- Emotional change - low mood or mood swings, low motivation
- Reduced concentration and memory
- Sleep disturbances
- Low sex drive
- Thinning hair or hair loss
- Fertility issues
- Thinning of the bones (osteoporosis)
Causes of high testosterone in women
The most common reason for heightened levels of testosterone in women is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) where there is an imbalance of hormones and problems with your metabolism. It is estimated to affect around 4-8% of women of child-bearing age.
In many women with PCOS there are raised levels of the androgenic hormones such as DHEA and testosterone, which can present with symptoms. It is often associated with obesity and insulin resistance.
In particular with PCOS, emotional stress, diet and lifestyle can be factors contributing to hormone imbalances, and there is also evidence that PCOS may be linked with poor gut health.
Other conditions that can lead to higher levels of testosterone in women are Congenital Adrenal Hypoplasia, an inherited condition, which can lead to an excess of hormones being produced by the adrenal glands, and Cushing’s Syndrome, a condition caused by having too much cortisol (a stress hormone) in the body.
Symptoms of high testosterone in women
How do you know if your testosterone are too high? Here are some symptoms to look out for which may be a sign your testosterone levels are high:
- Irregular or absent periods
- Excess body hair, especially on the face, chest, back and buttocks
- Weight gain, although gain in some weight can be normal
- Acne or oily skin
- Thinning hair or hair loss
- Fertility issues
- Increased muscle mass
- Mood changes
- Low libido
Some women will experience an excess of body hair during the menopause irrespective of their testosterone levels. As oestrogen levels decline, androgens – which are usually kept in check by oestrogen – can then present with symptoms such as coarse facial hair.
How diet and lifestyle affect testosterone
Although the specific management of high or low testosterone levels depends on the cause of the imbalance and your goals, below are some tips to help keep your testosterone levels in check.
Eat a healthy balanced diet
Eat foods containing the following nutrients
Zinc – legumes (e.g. beans, lentils, chickpeas), nuts and seeds, wholegrains (e.g. oats and quinoa)
Magnesium – nuts and seeds, in particular pumpkin seeds, avocados, legumes and wholegrains
B Vitamins – e.g. wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens, meat and dairy
Omega 3 – e.g. oily fish, nuts and seeds, olive oil
Vitamin D – this is mostly sourced from sunlight which converts vitamin D into its active form. Dietary sources include oily fish, mushrooms and fortified foods.
An unhealthy diet, lifestyle and emotions can elevate cortisol, one of the stress hormones, which impacts on testosterone levels as well as affecting our health in many other ways. Not only that, stress itself can result in an unhealthy lifestyle and a vicious cycle can occur. Read our blog on foods to boost your energy and reduce stress.
Reduce unhealthy foods and drinks
Examples are alcohol, caffeine, refined sugar and foods that are high in saturated fats. These can impact on our gut health, create stress on the body, and may lead to weight gain. Testosterone levels can be impacted by a poor diet.
Get enough quality sleep
Testosterone levels increase during sleep and decrease the longer we are awake. The REM phase of our sleep cycle, which is essential for learning and memory, and the time when we dream is when the biggest testosterone production occurs. Read our blog on how your diet can help your sleep.
Maintain a healthy weight
Low testosterone can cause weight gain. Some women who are overweight may have high levels of testosterone which can be a factor in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and reducing weight is a key factor in managing symptoms.
Regular exercise has been shown to decrease stress levels and can help with weight management. Read our article on top nutrition tips for increased sports performance
Reduce exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals
Examples are chemicals such as phthalates and BPA in plastics, and some personal care and cleaning products which can have an effect on testosterone and other hormones. Read our article on checking your labels for hazardous ingredients
Dr. Katie Hodgkinson is a GP and runs Hampshire Health & Hormones, specialising in lifestyle medicine and in particular the effects on hormones on the body.
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