Androgens are the group of sex hormones crucial for both male and female sexual and reproductive function. They effect secondary sexual characteristics such as body and facial hair, bone and muscular development, the latter is why this is a one of the most supplements hormones in sport and bodybuilding. The main androgens dealt with in this blog will be testosterone and estrogen.
Testosterone is a crucial hormone in both male and females. On average, men will produce around 6-8 milligrams daily (note: not all at once) whilst females around 0.5 mg, but with women 50% of which is produced directly in the ovaries and adrenal glands with the remaining being converted from adrenal androgens into testosterone. Testosterone production begins in the hypothalamus when the hypothalamus releases a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) which eventually results in testes signalling enzymes to convert cholesterol into testosterone. There are several steps in this but I’m trying to keep it relevantly simple…Similarly, In women androgens are produced in the ovaries, adrenal glands, and fat cells, with their primary role being the production of estrogen.
What is so important about testosterone? As I said, it’s probably the most supplemented hormone when it comes to athletic and physique development, but the problem arises when little consideration is given to the ratios of both androgens and estrogens. When supplementing (usually via IM injections, oral or skin creams) the main goal is to optimise the ratio to provide a health benefit or improve performance in sport. Look no further than MMA if you want to see the effect Testosterone replacement therapy can have on an athlete’s performance and physique, there’s an abundance of before and after photos showing the difference this hormone can make.
As I mentioned previously, the problem arises when little consideration is given to how the body eventually deals with the excess testosterone over a prolonged period. Our bodies are in a constant strives for balance. This process is called homeostasis and includes not just our hormones but muscle mass, and bodyweight. Over long periods of time, the objective is to initiate a change in this homeostasis which eventually brings about a positive change in physique and health. However, this becomes almost impossible when there is a suboptimal androgen:estrogen ratio which WILL result in a decline in overall health. Someone with a lowering of free testosterone (poor health, age, abuse) will also experience a higher ratio of estrogen and vice vera a increase in estrogen will concurrently see a decrease in testosterone.
What are the effects of low testosterone and high estrogen?
Increase in depression, Increased risk of diabetes, higher risk of prostate cancer, Increased muscle loss, higher risk of heart and vascular disease, increase in fat deposition and lowered libido
But what happens if the balance isn’t kept In men? the classic sign of an androgen imbalance are the increase in fatty tissue around the chest known as gynecomastia. the waist/hips it will also be evident through an increase in extra-cellular fluid. What can cause this imbalance? Here’s some causes:
Free Testosterone Deficiency
This particular factors depends can be caused by a variety of issues such as abuse or adrenal issues, but an excess or a deficiency in free testosterone increases SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin). This is hugely important as concentration of bound testosterone and lowering of circulating or “free” usable testosterone results in a huge imbalance. It should be noted that in women oral contraception (estrogen based) or estrogen therapy, for women, would increase SHBG and lower free testosterone.
Being in a long-term caloric deficit has been shown to lower free testosterone and increase SHBG. In almost every blog I write, I emphasis the importance of coming out of a deficit and not allowing yourself to jump from diet to diet without realisation of what it is actually doing to your body at a biochemical level. Coming up to maintenance levels has numerous benefits, especially psychologically.
Zinc is a hugely important mineral, and a deficiency inhibits the enzyme aromatase, which converts testosterone into estrogen. You can lower this conversion by ensuring zinc blood levels are adequate. The more aromatase you have in your body, the more of this conversion occurs.
An increase in estrogenic stimulation can lead to excessive levels of circulating estrogen. There are a few common factors affecting this…..
Excessive body fat
As estrogen increases, so does fat deposition. As fat cells make the hormone, this is a vicious cycle. The lowering of body fat will assist in stabilising levels of estrogen and is probably the most significant factor we can alter.
Progesterone is used to make cortisol. Stress, the adrenals, and increased demand drag total progesterone levels down; thus, the dynamic balance the body requires between estrogen and progesterone is lost. This is the same with both men and women. An elevated estrogen balance will potentially increase extracellular fluid, creating a softer and puffier look to the skin, often mistaken for an increase in body fat, particularly during the menstrual cycle (which is why a lot of women feel “fatter” during the menstrual cycle)
Chronic exposure to synthetic estrogens and progestins.
These synthetic substances have an effect similar to estrogen and progesterone. Most commonly found in contraceptive pills and used in hormone replacement therapy.
Increase in Aromatase
Aromatase converts testosterone into estrogen. The adrenal hormone androstenedione will be converted into testosterone unless aromatase is present, in which case, it will be converted to estrogen alongside testosterone.
Excessive alcohol intake
This is a big one….ANY alcohol intake will have an impact. Alcohol depresses the CNS and lowers levels of zinc, which as I mentioned above is a fundamental requirement for efficient testosterone production.
Decreasing the stress to the adrenal glands will also decrease cortisol, which will help balance estrogen and progesterone. This applies to both physical and mental stress. This is why you will often see that when people become stressed they tend to put on weight. Chronic use of stimulants (caffeine especially), caloric restriction and general life stress can all contribute. It is very important to find a balance to minimise stressors around diet, inclusive of excessive caloric restriction or surplus. I’ve spoken before about the mentality the surrounds “bad” foods and when trainers put clients on extremely strict diets it can have detrimental effects to psychology.
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