Everything you need to know about testosterone in women including signs of low and high testosterone, how to test testosterone levels, how it affects libido and sex drive and the link to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
What is testosterone?
Testosterone is a male sex hormone (also known as an androgen) that in women is produced in small amounts in the ovaries, fat cells and adrenal glands.
Testosterone is secreted in bursts (pulses) throughout your cycle and is vital for many of the body’s functions including brain health, bone health and libido.
What role does testosterone play in women's health?
Testosterone, along with estrogen, is vital for maintaining healthy ovarian function. This means that when testosterone levels are out of balance it can create imbalances in your menstrual cycle such as suppressed ovulation.
Not only is testosterone important for ovarian health, but also vaginal health, menstrual health, breast health and fertility. Therefore having balanced levels of testosterone in the body is vital for your overall wellbeing.
How does testosterone affect libido?
Testosterone fluctuates during your cycle. It is low just before menstruation and peaks at ovulation (this is due to luteinising hormone stimulating testosterone release from the ovaries). Therefore this is one of the reasons why you may feel a little more ‘in the mood’ at ovulation!
Healthy testosterone levels are also associated with increased arousal and orgasm which can greatly affect your libido and sex life too.
What happens when testosterone is too high?
One of the most common causes of high testosterone in women is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and insulin resistance, as well as having SNPs in genes such as SRD5A2.
If testosterone is too high (which can be caused by dietary factors, stress, insulin resistance, genetic tendencies towards 5-DHT pathways and more) you are likely to experience the following symptoms:
- Weight gain
- Loss of libido
- Mood changes
- Head hair loss
- Increased facial hair.
What happens when testosterone is too LOW?
Testosterone levels naturally begin to decline with age, due to the decreased production of testosterone from the ovaries. Even though ovarian testosterone declines in perimenopause and menopause, the adrenal glands continue to produce some.
This natural decline in testosterone is often correlated with the following symptoms:
- Vaginal dryness
- Decreased sex drive
- Mood changes.
During a woman’s reproductive years, if testosterone levels are low it may manifest as the following symptoms:
- Increased belly fat
- Low energy
- Low libido
- Mood issues
- Decreased muscle mass.
Low testosterone can be due to a number of reasons including poor adrenal health, low DHEA levels, poor ovarian function, nutrient deficiency and stress.
The link between PCOS and testosterone
PCOS can manifest in many ways including increased facial hair, weight gain, acne, high blood pressure, irregular periods and infertility, which are also all signs of high testosterone.
Related article: signs and symptoms of PCOS.
One of the most common types of PCOS is insulin resistant PCOS, which is responsible for up to 70% of PCOS cases in women. High insulin levels in the body encourages the ovaries to produce testosterone, this testosterone then continues to contribute to symptoms such as acne, weight gain and increased facial hair.
What about testosterone metabolism?
Roughly around 10% of your testosterone produced is converted into what is called DHT (dihydrotestosterone) through a pathway called 5-alpha reductase. DHT is considered a potent androgen (more potent than testosterone), and if levels are too high it will result in symptoms such as increased body and facial hair, acne and irregular or absent periods.
The 5-alpha reductive pathway is influenced by diet, stress and a gene called SRD5A2 which converts testosterone into DHT. When this gene is upregulated it can result in increased and excess testosterone production.
How can you test testosterone levels?
Testosterone can be tested in a number of ways, including blood testing and urine testing. We prefer urine testing at FUTURE WOMAN because it’s been shown to be more accurate for testing hormones.
Our hormone tests offer a comprehensive look at testosterone production and metabolism. This allows for the understanding of which pathways testosterone is favouring in the body and what is happening at the level of hormone production too.