Androgens – What the heck are they and what do they do?
Androgens are a group of sex hormones that strongly affect your liveliness, libido, mood and self-confidence. They include testosterone, dehyroepiandrosterone (DHEA), Androstenedoine and Dihydrotestosterone (DHT), and yes, they are a mouthful.
Testosterone is the most widely known of the androgen family. It’s the hormone that inspires motocross, wrestling and bar fights in men. Although testosterone is best known for its characteristics in men, women also need this hormone, although in much smaller quantities (0.25 milligrams for women … men produce 10 to 40 times more than that). In women, testosterone makes us feel confident and sexy, is responsible for over 200 actions in a woman’s body and is in higher amounts than estrogens.
Of all the androgens circulating in your blood and tissues, testosterone is the superstar. It promotes muscles, bigger bones and immune function, including the bone-marrow manufacture of red blood cells.
Women reach their peak testosterone levels in the mid-twenties, after which comes a slow but steady decline, about 1 to 2 percent per year. Fifty percent of testosterone in a woman’s body comes from conversion of two other types of androgens – DHEA and androstenedoine – in the skin and fat tissues; 25 percent from the adrenal glands and 25 percent from the ovaries. By menopause, testosterone levels are at half the peak level, mostly due to a decline in adrenal production. Even after your ovaries stop producing estradiol (the most common estrogen during a woman’s reproductive years) the ovaries continue to make testosterone.
DHEA is a prehormone to testosterone and can convert into testosterone when needed. Androstenedione is a steroid sex hormone that is an intermediate in the production of testosterone and estrogen from cholesterol and has both androgen and estrogen activity. DHT can be converted from testosterone and is three times more potent than testosterone.
Of all the circulating androgens, only testosterone and DHT can bind to androgen receptors. In other words, other members of the family can’t trigger the androgen sequence of events, whether good (building muscle and bone, boosting confidence and libido) or not so good (hair loss, rogue hair growth). What the ancillary androgens offer is the intermediate prehormones needed for production of testosterone and estrogen.
Next week we’ll talk about what happens when androgens are out of balance.
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