Low T: Real illness or pharma scheme?

Recommended by Dr. Michael White, Updated on November 25th, 2020
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Low levels of the sex hormone testosterone commonly referred to as "low T" have been blamed for a host of health conditions, ranging from depression to increased breast size in men.

And because low T can be treated with prescription medication, it has become the health problem du jour for aggressive pharmaceutical marketing: The airwaves are now flooded with ads showing doughy, middle-age men turning into vigorous athletes and confident lovers.

Is low T a real condition that needs medical treatment despite the potential risks associated with testosterone therapy or is it just a pharma sales rep's dream come true? The answer may lie in determining what exactly constitutes a low testosterone level. [Macho Man: 10 Wild Facts About His Body]

What causes low T?

Testosterone is produced by a man's testicles and is key to the development of male sex organs, bone density, muscle mass and secondary sex characteristics such as facial and body hair. Women's ovaries also produce small amounts of testosterone, as do the adrenal glands, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Low levels of testosterone referred to as hypogonadism by hormone specialists can result from injury to the testicles, diseases including testicular cancer and mumps, certain drugs or therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

The single greatest cause of low T, however, is the simple act of aging: Testosterone levels peak during adolescence and early adulthood. As a man ages, his testosterone levels drop about 1 percent each year after age 30, according to the Mayo Clinic. [7 Ways the Mind and Body Change With Age]

Given that fact, it's not surprising that the "normal" range for testosterone levels is quite broad: Doctors generally consider any level between 300 and 1,000 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dl) an acceptable blood level of testosterone for an adult male.

But there's disagreement over how low is too low, and how much importance to place on testosterone levels versus other symptoms. Meanwhile, health experts are alarmed at the rapid increase in hormone therapy among men: Between 2001 and 2011, the use of hormones among men over 40 increased by almost 360 percent, according to a 2013 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Low T: Real illness or pharma scheme?

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