The word testosterone rolls off the tongue as if it were smelly like a hunk of provolone. Maybe because it is associated with sweaty, pungent, raw maleness—a chi-chi perfumer would call it l'eau d'homme.
It is supposed to be juice that fuels a man's competitive drive for dominance and explains why men fancy football, cow tipping and books about war.
When soccer hooligans dump a pitcher of beer over a sports fan wearing the opposing team jersey, the newspapers blame testosterone. When a boy yanks a girl's ponytail or eggs a house at Halloween, again their raging "T" is considered the culprit.
Sure, testosterone could be a contributing factor to aggressive and malevolent behavior. Some research studies have found that trial lawyers and inmates who have committed violent crimes have greater-than-average testosterone levels, but these studies are far from conclusive. They establish merely a correlation, not cause and effect. One testosterone study showed that not only are men with high testosterone levels leaner and more confident, but they are also likely to favour tattoos and gold jewelry.
"Those things can be well correlated," explains Victor Viau, assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology at The University of British Columbia. "I can roll dice every day and every time it lands on five it may rain, but I'm living in Vancouver so it rains all the time. We know and feel that one cannot predict the other." He chalks up testosterone's bad rap as a by-product of our human tendency to erroneously label correlations as causes.
Dr. Jerald Bain, an endocrinologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, concurs that the image of the wild and crazy guy that testosterone has come to personify in the media is unfounded. "There is a popular misconception that aggressive, hostile, angry, violent men are that way because of testosterone, and the fact is that they are not," Bain says. "The relationship between testosterone and aggression is highly overrated. When you give testosterone to men who have a low levels, in general, their irritability diminishes and a calmness comes over them," he adds.
Much of the anti-testosterone rhetoric is based on anabolic steroid use. Synthetic- derivative testosterone like ephedrine, which was found in late Baltimore Orioles' pitcher Steve Bechler's locker, is a steroid (used to treat hay fever and other conditions) that can cause significant adverse effects. Of course, there is also that testosterone-infused jock rap or sports metal that came to the forefront in the mid-'90s and whose biggest group was, ironically, named Limp Bizkit.
So while behaviorally the testosterone debate rages on between pop science and the real McCoy, the physical effects of the hormone are less in doubt.
For example, the link between hair loss and higher levels of testosterone is widely accepted. So when chrome domes proudly boast that their lack of locks is from heightened levels of manly stuff, it is not exactly bald deceit. "In order to lose head hair, if you are genetically predisposed, you need to have an adequate amount of testosterone circulating in your blood," says Bain.
Testosterone is also responsible for the hirsute trinity of manhood—that is back, chest and butt hair.
Although women are born with one-tenth of the testosterone that men have, women with high levels get the same effect and more. "If you give testosterone in large doses to women, you will cause hair development in the male pattern and also enlargement of the clitoris," explains Bain.
But don't get the wrong idea, testosterone also does the body loads of good. Not only does it nourish libido and inspire confidence in men and women, but "in its natural form testosterone builds muscle mass," says Alan Booth, human development professor and testosterone researcher at Penn State University. And that, he says, is "very important to the health of the individual." Adds Booth: "People with high testosterone have stronger hearts so they are less likely to have a heart attack."
So that's the truth about testosterone; it is good, it is bad and it is ugly. But when you look at the hormone in isolation, neglecting its sister estrogen, which counteracts T's power and its feel-good buddy progesterone, you are not getting the total hormonal equation. Just as your body parts work in tandem so do your hormones; it is a team effort to operate you, and the big "T" is playing just one position.
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