Testosterone, it’s a natural substance with a colorful history and now its synthetic equivalent is a powerful moneymaker for the pharmaceutical industry. The television commercials for testosterone gel are ubiquitous. They go something like this: a middle-aged male, somewhere between ages 46 and 55, can barely drag himself out of bed. He shuffles through his day at the office while the younger men around him appear to skip down the halls. He has no energy for a pick-up game of basketball or handball or tennis. He has no appetite for drinks after work and forget dinner, dancing or sex with the wife. And of course, he’s depressed. Who wouldn’t be? But all it takes is a little testosterone gel and voila, he’ll soon dance the night away, work around the clock, and be a tiger in the bedroom. The Mighty “T” has come out of the illicit steroid trade of sports and into the mainstream of men’s health care.
Let’s start with the basics. For men, testosterone is the building block of all things identified as physically male. This is the ingredient a boy requires for puberty to get under way. With the help of testosterone, the penis and testicles grow. Muscles get bigger and bones grow stronger; hair sprouts on the face and groin, sperm is produced, the sexual urge, (libido), becomes pressing, moods modify, and believe it or not, the brain functions better. This crucial stuff, one of a group of hormones called androgens, actually has a starring role that begins in the womb. A genetically male (remember the XY chromosome combo from biology?) fetus develops male genitalia thanks to testosterone.
Hormone With A Past
Long ago, before testosterone was named and known, the curious and miracle-minded in different cultures, from Egyptians to Europeans, suspected the testicles might hold something special–beyond the obvious. Aphrodisiacs made from the gonads of animals considered sexually robust were taken as a cure for impotence and a restorative of vigor. Of course, culinary appeal is a matter of individual taste and nowhere is that more evident than in the elixir brewed by one Edouard Brown-Sequard, a 19th century French scientist. His model of male potency was found in dogs and guinea pigs. He used the animals testicles to concoct his potion. Sequard claimed his drink improved everything from brain power to sexual prowess to colons. Who knew guinea pigs were such Don Juans?
Despite no scientific evidence to support the aphrodisiac claims, there are still modern day versions of this ancient idea. One such offering comes from Charlie Bigham, a pastry chef from Britain. For Valentine’s Day, Chef Bigham makes a special treat that he sells to customers interested in improving the odds for a romantic tryst. He insists his special pie made with a filling of bull testicles, ginseng, and Mama Juana’s liquor is so potent it should a health warning. Not everyone agrees. Alex James, a food critic for the The Sun, a Brit tabloid, thinks there’s a better treat to inspire a passionate, virile evening—chocolate éclairs. He says “the suggestive shape and…oozy, gooey nature makes” the dessert the perfect indulgence for a sexy evening.
Pies and elixirs aside, scientific inquiry into the mystery of the male testicles and testosterone did have a breakthrough in 1936. That year Nobel Prize winners, Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt and Leopold Ruzicka, were responsible for the creation of an artificial testosterone substitute. Abuse of this hormone alternative by athletes began in the 1940s and continues to this day. It’s a shame testosterone replacement has attracted so much negative press because there are legitimate uses for it, though not in the areas the general public might suspect.
Testosterone: How Low Can You Go?
Low testosterone is a tricky diagnosis. As the male body ages decreased production of the hormone naturally occurs. There is a medical standard in place to gauge if a man’s testosterone is outside of the normal range. Certain medications, injuries, or illnesses may cause a man’s testosterone to drop below the standard but the normal dwindling of production that occurs with growing older is not likely to be a problem. In other words, the male body is designed to gently ratchet down as the years go by.
Science has recognized that the benefits of this steroid are many and varied but not necessarily in the ways many people might suspect. Where synthetic testosterone has shown genuine medical promise is in the treatment of age-related heart disease, osteoporosis, depression, and chronic fatigue. For women, the “Mighty T” has shown promise, in small quantities, for increasing sexual desire after menopause.
Testosterone has been praised and blamed for much that is right and wrong with a man’s health, happiness, and behavior. But the hype about “low testosterone” that’s now galvanizing attention through ads and commercials is likely more about boosting sales of the synthetic gel than an actual epidemic of male testosterone deficiency rampant across the country.