When there’s talk about sex hormones in females, estrogen and progesterone are always the stars of the show.
While estrogen and progesterone do play a crucial role in the maturation of the female reproductive system and the appearance of female secondary sexual characteristics, a woman’s body is also driven by male sex hormones.
A class of male sex hormones known as androgens contributes largely to the physical and psychological health of women. One of these androgens is testosterone.
That’s right, testosterone isn’t exclusive to males; it’s just that men have more testosterone whereas women have more estrogen.
However, just because women have less, doesn’t mean that testosterone isn’t essential for various functions in a woman’s body.
Intrigued? Then you’re in for a treat!
This science-backed guide on facts about women and testosterone offers fascinating and reliable insight into the effects of this infamous male sex hormone throughout the female body. Let’s jump in!
Where Is Testosterone Formed in a Woman’s Body?
If you don’t know what a hormone is, think of it as a chemical compound that serves as a messenger.
When a tissue secretes a certain hormone, this hormone travels through body fluids to another tissue and causes it to perform a specific action.
Our bodies produce many types of hormones, one of the main hormone categories is known as sex hormones, which includes estrogen and testosterone.
The rate and amount of release of estrogen and testosterone in women vary from one individual to the next. They also vary between day and night, from one hour or even minute to the next, and from one menstrual cycle stage to another.
To get specific, testosterone is mainly produced by sex organs. These are the testicles in men and the ovaries in women.
Besides the ovaries, testosterone in the female body is also produced by the adrenal glands, lipid (fat) cells, and skin cells.
How Is Testosterone Made in the Female Body?
Testosterone is the most prominent member of androgens (a class of sex hormones), which is primarily responsible for the expression of male-type sex characteristics such as muscle building (anabolism).
This is why testosterone is referred to as an anabolic androgenic steroid.
Although a lot less than males, the female body produces testosterone. How does it make it though?
Testosterone is formed from cholesterol. An enzyme breaks cholesterol down and turns it into pregnenolone.
Pregnenolone is a hormone that serves as a precursor or prohormone (starting material) to the biochemical production of testosterone as well as cortisol, estrogen, and progesterone.
A bunch of different reactions occur between the formation of pregnenolone and the making of testosterone as the end result. Among the notable hormones that are formed along the way are DHEAS (dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate) and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone).
Around 25 percent of testosterone in the female body is secreted by the ovaries. The adrenal glands also secrete about 25 percent, whereas the remaining 50 percent are released from peripheral tissues (fat cells and skin cells).
Is Testosterone Production Affected by Your Diet?
Yes, testosterone production and levels can be indirectly affected by certain types of foods. The diet you consume may alter your testosterone levels.
Does this mean that some types of food can increase testosterone formation in females?
The answer to this question is no because the levels of testosterone within the body are regulated by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland.
These control centers can’t be governed by food, otherwise, all of our bodily reactions would be seriously messed up!
Even if there was a spike caused in our testosterone levels by a certain food, the negative feedback mechanism in our bodies will bring it down to normal levels.
- Negative feedback is a highly specialized mechanism responsible for maintaining hormonal homeostasis within the endocrine system.
It’s a response that happens when the concentration of a hormone is greater than a certain level, which triggers actions to oppose/lower the increased levels of the hormone such as lowering secretion, releasing antagonistic hormones, or blocking receptors.
So how can your diet affect testosterone levels if it’s not going to boost them?
Well, even though food can’t really increase your testosterone production, some types can help maintain optimal testosterone levels.
Additionally, some foods may be able to reduce testosterone concentration inside the body. As such, you can prevent your testosterone levels from dropping below the baseline by avoiding these dietary elements as part of an enhanced lifestyle.
Mint, licorice root, flaxseed, trans fat, and alcohol are among the foods that may lower testosterone levels in the body.
Low-fat diets are also associated with reduced testosterone levels. Female athletes are at risk of having low estrogen because of their lower body fat.
What Is the Function of Testosterone in Females?
Testosterone in women contributes majorly to the health of female reproductive organs, sex drive, fertility, heat regulation, sleep, cognitive skills, blood cell formation, and bone health.
Additionally, testosterone causes the constriction of blood vessels. So, low levels of testosterone can harm cardiovascular health due to low blood pressure, but elevated testosterone levels can also result in compromised cardiovascular health due to high blood pressure.
As such, maintaining testosterone levels within the normal range is crucial.
Testosterone also has a powerful effect on hair follicles. When testosterone is higher than estrogen, it’s linked to loss of head hair and excessive growth of facial hair.
What Are Normal Testosterone Levels in Women?
We can measure the serum testosterone level with a blood test known as a total testosterone blood test (usually done in the morning). The results are expressed in nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL).
Over the age of 19, the normal testosterone levels in women range between 15 ng/dL and 70 ng/dL on average.
According to research from the European Society of Endocrinology, it’s more likely for female athletes to have naturally occurring higher testosterone levels than not.
Additionally, there’s a bigger chance among female athletes to suffer from disorders (mild, severe, and rarer) that also lead to increased levels of testosterone.
Does this mean that athletic women have testosterone levels beyond the maximum average for non-athletic women?
The answer is no.
While the testosterone levels in athletic women will probably be higher than in non-athletic females, they should still fall below the maximum normal level.
As mentioned above, the normal testosterone levels in women range between 15 ng/dL and 70 ng/dL. According to these values, female athletes shouldn’t have testosterone levels exceeding 70 ng/dL.
But how do these numbers hold up in the world of sports?
This matter has been under a lot of debate recently, especially with “transgender women” starting to compete in some athletic events and biologically female athletes fearing for the fairness of competition if they were allowed to compete at an official or world-class level.
Various worldwide sports organizations have been deliberating on this issue. Rules and regulations regarding the participation of athletes with ‘differences of sexual development’ (DSD athletes).
In their most recent statement on 23 March 2023, World Athletics announced that “transgender women” are no longer allowed to participate in female competitions regardless of their levels of testosterone.
The organization’s president Sebastian Coe also announced a new limit for the maximum amount of plasma testosterone level that a DSD athlete should fall below to compete in female events.
The new limit is set at 2.5 nm/L (nanomoles per liter), a 50-percent decrease compared to the previous limit of 5 nm/L. To qualify for elite and world-class female competitions, athletes will also have to keep their testosterone levels below the set limit for at least two years, instead of just one year.
The new maximum testosterone level of 2.5 nanomoles per liter is only slightly higher than the maximum average level of 70 ng/dL.
Testosterone Levels in Men vs Women
Before puberty hits, there’s no notable difference in testosterone concentrations in males vs females.
After puberty, however, a clear variation appears in serum testosterone levels that also produces a significant effect on athletic performance.
With the testes producing 30 times more testosterone than pre-puberty, men have between 15 and 20 times higher testosterone levels than women or children at any age.
Here’s a quick summary of the difference in the typical testosterone blood levels in men vs women by age:
|Below 12 months old||Males: Lower than 12 ng/dL|
Females: Lower than 12 ng/dL
|Between 1 and 5 years old||Males: Lower than 12 ng/dL|
Females: Lower than 12 ng/dL
|Between 6 and 10 years old||Males: Lower than 25 ng/dL|
Females: Lower than 25 ng/dL
|Males between 11 and 15 years old||Lower than 830 ng/dL|
|Males between 16 and 17 years old||Between 102 to 1010 ng/dL|
|Females between 11 and 17 years old||Lower than 31 ng/dL|
|Between 18 and 99 years old||Males: between 300 to 824 ng/dL|
Females: Lower than 70 ng/dL
What Happens When a Female’s Testosterone Level Goes Low?
Testosterone serves many functions in a woman’s body, including bone formation, blood cell production, enhancing libido, improving sex organs’ health, and hair growth.
Any hormonal imbalance that causes too much or too little testosterone concentration in the blood can lead to health issues.
A 50-year-old or younger woman is considered to be suffering from low testosterone if her plasma testosterone level falls below 25 ng/dL, according to the Boston University School of Medicine. For women above 50 years old, the cut-off for a diagnosis of low testosterone is 20 ng/dL.
When a woman is suffering from low testosterone levels, the following symptoms usually appear:
- Muscle weakness
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Low sexual drive
- Decreased sexual satisfaction
- Decline in mood
- Loss of bone density
- Sleep disturbances
- Fertility problems
- Weight gain
- Vaginal dryness
Some of these symptoms can cause misdiagnosis of low testosterone due to their similarity to symptoms of conditions such as depression, stress, anxiety, thyroid diseases, and menopause.
As mentioned earlier, testosterone in women’s bodies is mainly produced in the ovaries and adrenal glands.
Being a major site of testosterone formation, the decreased activity of the ovaries as a result of menopausal changes has a huge impact on testosterone levels.
This is why older women typically experience a reduction in testosterone production upon entering menopause.
Other than natural aging and menopause, if a woman is suffering from issues with her ovaries or adrenal glands, chances are her testosterone levels will also decline.
What Happens When a Female’s Testosterone Level Goes High?
As we discussed above, any hormonal imbalance that results in too much or too little testosterone in the blood can damage women’s health.
A woman is considered to be suffering from high testosterone if her plasma testosterone level goes beyond 75 ng/dL.
For women above 50 years old, a diagnosis of high testosterone can be considered if the hormone concentration is more than 60 ng/dL.
When a woman is suffering from high testosterone levels, the following symptoms usually appear:
- Deep voice
- Thinning hair
- Excess facial and body hair
- Increase in muscle mass
- Decreased sexual drive
- Mood swings
- Enlarged clitoris
- Decrease in breast size
- Irregular periods
In severe cases of high testosterone levels in women, obesity and infertility can occur.
Hormonal imbalance can happen due to various conditions and diseases. When it comes to increased testosterone levels, the most common causes are:
How Does Testosterone Work With Estrogen?
The ovaries produce testosterone as well as estrogen. There are several ways that testosterone and estrogen interact, including:
- Testosterone is converted to estrogen by an enzyme called aromatase. As such, taking testosterone via hormonal replacement therapy can increase estrogen levels.
- Unlike testosterone, estrogen promotes the dilation of blood vessels.
- Both testosterone and estrogen have anti-inflammatory effects on the nervous system, so they work to improve mood and cognition.
- Research suggests that high estrogen levels can cause testosterone levels to drop.
That’s a wrap on today’s guide that walks you through facts about women and testosterone.
As you can tell by now, testosterone is essential for women’s health and well-being. It plays an important role in various body functions including gaining muscle mass, boosting bone strength, improving sexual function, and even elevating mood.
Too much or too little testosterone can lead to health issues ranging from mild to severe. As such, it’s crucial to monitor testosterone levels in the blood and consult your doctor if you notice any of the symptoms discussed.