Can a Woman have too much Testosterone?
by Benjamin Bunting BA(Hons) PGCert
Written by Ben Bunting: BA(Hons), PGCert. Sport & Exercise Nutrition. L2 Strength & Conditioning Coach.
We all want to stay in shape and feel great, and sex hormones such as testosterone have an important role to play.
What is natural testosterone?
Testosterone is an androgenic steroid hormone (also refered to as testoids) that is essential for male development and health. It is produced mainly in the testes, but also in the brain, liver, and other organs.
While much of the press associates this hormone with men, this is a hormone that is present in both males and females, although it must be said this is because it is the principal male sex hormone and an anabolic steroid.
As a result, the effects of this androgen is most prominent in males, but as mentioned females also have some testosterone circulating in their system.
As testosterone is naturally higher in men than women it is responsible for traits that are associated with masculinity, such as facial hair and a deep voice. It also affects libido, aggression, and muscle mass. You can read more about its benefits, here.
Testoid levels are regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. When a man has low testosterone, these glands produce more of it to compensate.
Testosterone can also be administered as a medication to increase libido or fertility functions; this is known as testosterone replacement therapy (TRT).
Furthermore, data released by The Journal of Urology saw a fourfold increase of testosterone replacement therapy use between 2003 and 2013 among men who were aged 18 to 45.
However, the prescription of TRT isn’t without risk. TRT has been linked to prostate cancer, benign prostatic hyperplasia, polycythemia and obstructive sleep apnea.
What affects testoid production?
There are many different things that can affect testosterone levels, such as age, weight, overall health, estrogen levels, genetics, stress-related factors, medications, or lifestyle choices such as drug use, alcohol intake or whether you smoke.
How are hormones made?
Testoid androgens are thought to fuel many of the sex-related differences between men and women, including the desire for sex and dominance.
Before puberty, testosterone levels are equal between the two sexes, however, during puberty, hormone levels increase, and that includes testosterone levels in males. Women also see a rise in testosterone during puberty which peaks around the ages of 20 to 25 but at a much lower level.
Testosterone is produced in the testes of men by the Leydig cells. There are two types of testosterone produced by the body, free testosterone and bound testosterone. Bound testosterone circulates in the bloodstream while free testosterone enters cells locally to exert its effects, which includes muscle growth and prostate protection.
As men age their levels of testosterone decrease (known as the andropause) so they can experience major health risks due to low levels of the hormone, which include loss of muscle mass, obesity, infertility and anemia but can also include cognitive decline. You can read more about the natural decline of testosterone as men age, here.
Whereas men produce testosterone from the testes, in females, testosterone is produced from the peripheral conversion of androstenedione, the female's ovaries, and adrenal glands plus various other tissues.
It is well documented that males produce more testosterone on average than females by about 15 times more than women at any age.
This is because while testosterone is produced, most of it is converted to estrogen which helps regulate a hormone balance.
The role of androgen hormones
Testosterone is responsible for many characteristics in human physiology, these include:
- Muscle mass growth and retention
- Promotes retention of bone mass
- Presents masculine characteristics such as body hair and depth of voice
- Reproductive function
- Sex drive
- Fat distribution
- Red blood cell production
- Strength and endurance
Testosterone is a steroid hormone that has many functions; in children it promotes pubertal growth including height and weight gain.
Many people believe that testosterone is only produced by men, while it is responsible for many of the male characteristics such as increased muscle mass, lower fat levels and a deeper voice, the truth is, females do produce it too, albeit at a level that is much lower so these typical male characteristics such as facial hair are not prevalent.
Testosterone concentrations remain fairly level in women with fluctuations during the preovulatory and midluteal phases of the menstrual cycle.
Male versus female testosterone levels
Every person is different, and there is no clear-cut level for testosterone in either men or women.
That said, there is a clear distinction of testosterone levels between men and women. In fact, you may describe it as a gulf.
There have been many studies and lots of analysis trying to establish what is considered a ‘normal’ level of testosterone. While a singular ‘normal’ isn’t available, there is a lower level and an upper-level range.
It's hard to pinpoint an exact 'normal' level, but if we look at testosterone levels on sliding scale it helps create a clearer picture.
For men, the lower range is between 7.3 nmol/L to 12.6 nmol/L. The upper range is from 24.2 nmol/L to 39.0 nmol/L.
Therefore, anywhere between the highest figure of the lower range and the lowest figure of the upper range may be considered healthy.
There is a considerable difference in the levels presented by women. The lower range is between 0.03 nmol/L and 0.8 nmol/L whereas the higher range is between 0.92 nmol/L peaking at just 2.8 nmol/L.
As you can see, there is a considerable difference between the two genders.
What is a woman’s testosterone level supposed to be?
If we consider the figures mentioned and the available data, it would be uncommon for most women to have more than 2.0 nmol/L of circulating testosterone.
The highest level from the lower range is 0.8 nmol/L, therefore, anything between these two figures would probably be considered as a ‘normal’ or healthy range.
We would also have to consider individual factors, such as age, weight, ethnicity, level of stress, illness and medications.
What causes women’s testosterone to be high?
Extremely high levels or abnormal levels of testosterone circulating in women is known as hyperandrogenism.
Some possible reasons for high testosterone levels in women include the following:
- PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) – PCOS is one of the most common hormonal disorders affecting women today. With this condition, a woman’s body becomes resistant to insulin and there is an increase of androgens (male hormones). The University of Rochester’s Medical Center explains that PCOS may come with the following symptoms:
- Lack of menstruation
- Blood sugar issues
- Facial hair growth
- Hyperthyroidism – this is a condition where the thyroid gland produces an excessive amount of hormones that lead to symptoms such as increased heart rate, weight loss, sweating and difficulty concentrating. It is a condition often seen in postmenopausal women.
- Stress – stress can also be a contributing factor as it may cause excess production of cortisol which has been linked to increased testosterone levels in women as well as suppressed estrogen levels. That said, everyone reacts differently to stress, and the findings from this study demonstrated that testosterone in some participants increased whereas for others it decreased.
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia – an issue with the body’s production of hormones, usually with the overproduction of androgen.
- Pituitary gland diseases – issues with this gland can cause cushing syndrome, acromegaly, or prolactinoma.
- Obesity – obesity in men reduces testosterone whereas in women it can increase testosterone. This is in response to insulin production.
- Social context – It has been suggested that behavior can influence testosterone, and a study found that when females wield social power, their testosterone levels increase.
What does it do to a female body?
Because testosterone is the male sex hormone and dominant in males it is responsible for the development of the characteristics in humans that are commonly associated with men and are what separate those from women.
For instance, male characteristics are often defined by the following:
- Broad shoulders and narrow hips
- Less fat
- Increased muscle mass
- Body and facial hair
- Deep voice
- Broad jaw and square like facial features
Whereas the typical female characteristics are as follows:
- Narrow shoulders and broader hips
- Higher percentage body fat
- Rounder features
- Less muscle mass
- Finer hair
An interesting study that was published by the American Journal of Human Biology found that women preferred men with extreme facial features that appeared masculine and dominant that are associated with high testosterone levels.
The study also found that these preferred facial features also correlated with higher levels of strength.
If a woman has high or abnormally high level of testosterone it can start to bridge the gap between the two sets of typical gender characteristics.
Some of these side effects that females experience because of testosterone are as follows:
- Increased muscle mass and strength
- Increased sex drive and libido
- Deepening of voice and hair growth on scalp and face (Hirsutism)
- Increased red blood cell count
- Enlarged genitals
- A more defined jaw
- Reduced breast tissue
- Fat loss
However, please be aware that this is for very high levels of testosterone, unless you have a medical condition these effects are unlikely. Otherwise, the use of anabolic steroids would be required.
Steroids and women’s health
Due to the advantages that men naturally have over women for their athletic ability because of testosterone’s effect on muscle mass, bone size and red blood cell count, it is not uncommon for female athletes to take anabolic steroids to enhance their physical abilities.
However, these practices can cause significant changes to a woman’s health that may not be reversed. This can include changes to their reproductive system and cosmetic appearance, causing them to become masculinized.
This can influence changes in their voice, hair growth, facial structure and features, clitoris enlargement and also changes to their psychological health as outlined by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
It is for these reasons and the unknown long term risks associated with TRT for women that it isn't as popular.
Symptoms of low testosterone for women
The symptoms of low testosterone are similar in both men and women, as they are with high levels.
The first sign of low testosterone in females is a lack of energy. Females with low testosterone don't have the usual oomph to get through the day and often feel tired, sluggish and lethargic.
Low testosterone in females can also be accompanied by weight gain or difficulty losing weight. Low testosterone in women can lead to an inability to lose weight even when strenuously exercising and restricting caloric intake.
Both genders can be affected by abnormally low testosterone, and the symptoms can include:
- Muscle weakness
- Disturbed sleep
- Reduced libido and/or sexual desire
- Increased fat mass
- Poor mood
- Breast cancer
What causes low androgen levels in females?
There are a few reasons why a woman may have low levels of testosterone, here’s some of them outlined below:
- Age – those women aged 40 can have 50% less testosterone than those aged 20.
- Medical treatments – some treatments for conditions can reduce ovary function.
- Extreme weight loss – this can be due to high levels of exercise or stress.
- Premature menopause – early ovarian failure.
- Hyperprolactinaemia – excessive prolactin production.
Benefits for females
A healthy and ‘normal’ level of testosterone is critical to female health with important physiological roles.
The benefits of testosterone for females are outlined below:
- Improves cognitive function
- Fights stress/anxiety
- Helps build muscle
- Increases libido
- Normal body hair growth
- Prevents osteoporosis
- Vitality and positive mood
- Estrogen is produced from testosterone
- Visceral fat reduction
Women (as with men) with a higher level of testosterone can also feel more confident according to research published by the Association for Psychological Science.
The hormone testosterone is often associated with aggression, competitiveness, and dominance with a documented rise of testosterone before competitive sport. It’s no surprise that it’s also linked to reduced feelings of anxiety and depression.
How to boost women’s testosterone
There are many ways to increase testosterone levels naturally and safely. This way you can reap the health benefits without risks often associated with health conditions or the use of anabolic steroids.
We’ve listed three simple measures you can take to ensure you have a healthy balance of testosterone:
Exercise – a study of women from 19 to 69 years of age saw increase of testosterone after endurance and resistance training. You can read an article we have published looking in to the benefits weightlifting has on tesosterone levels.
Nutrition – a supplement rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and other vitamins has shown promise to reduce the symptoms on the menopause whereby testosterone levels are decreased. Studies also link highlight the importance of protein, and
Sleep – sleep deprivation is associated with altered sex steroid secretion in women which can affect fertility.
Hormone balance is key for both genders. As with men, testosterone is an important part of our health, it is responsible for many bodily functions that range from physical, physiological to mental.
Therefore, it is important to understand that women do produce and need testosterone, albeit at levels much less than men.
However, if a woman is suffering from a medical condition or abuses anabolic steroids this can have a negative impact on many aspects of their health which can lead to masculinization of their appearance and psychological state that may not be reversed.
If you are wanting to take advantage of the benefits that natural testosterone can give you, then simply follow a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise.