What are androgens? Their key role in normal testosterone levels

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What are androgens and how do they support normal testosterone production?

Healthylife Pharmacy28 March 2018|3 min read

What are androgens?

Androgens are a group of hormones that play a key role in the production of testosterone, the primary male sex hormone. Testosterone is essential for developing male characteristics, supporting muscle growth, bone density and sexual health.

What is testosterone? 

Testosterone is known as an anabolic hormone, and it's not just in male bodies. This potent hormone is found in varying amounts in all bodies.

Its role is to regulate key anabolic (g​rowth) functions:

  • Regulating reproductive functions
  • Boosting resting metabolic rate
  • Promoting muscle mass and strength
  • Increasing bone density and strength
  • Stimulating growth and maturation of bones
  • Promoting growth of body hair and facial hair
  • Encouraging sexual arousal and libido
  • Regulating mood by modulating GABA receptors

Symptoms of low testosterone activity in the body may include fatigue, low mood, apathy, and loss of strength.

How does testosterone work in the body

For testosterone to exert any effect on the body, it must first bind to an androgen receptor inside a cell.

When testosterone enters a target cell, three things can happen:

  1. Testosterone attaches to an androgen receptor and causes a moderate androgenic effect on the cell.
  2. An enzyme called 5-a-reductase converts testosterone into DHT, an androgen hormone that is 10x more powerful than testosterone. DHT then attaches to the androgen receptor and causes a huge androgenic effect on the cell.
  3. An enzyme called aromatase converts testosterone into oestrogen, which then attaches to a different receptor and exerts oestrogen effects on the cell – kind of the opposite of androgen effects.

No matter how high the circulating testosterone levels are, if the body's androgen receptors are sleeping on the job, then number 3 is the most likely to happen. This results in a relative androgen insufficiency – a much higher level of oestrogenic activity than androgenic activity in the body. In other words, you may feel like you’re experiencing low testosterone symptoms but these symptoms may also be present if your androgen receptors are insufficient. 

What are the symptoms of low testosterone and androgen insufficiency?

There might be plenty of testosterone in the blood but without active receptors, the symptoms of an androgen insufficiency may still occur:

  • Increased body fat around abdomen
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced libido
  • Loss of body hair
  • Hot flushes and sweating
  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Increased risk of insulin deficiency
  • Weaker bones and increased risk of osteoporosis

There's good news! You can take care of your androgen receptors and even encourage your body to create more of them!

The sensitivity and number of androgen receptors can be affected by nutrition, exercise and healthy habits – as well as pollutants, poor health, and the wrong food choices.

How to increase androgen sensitivity 

Here are key natural strategies to boost your androgen receptors and get the most out of your circulating testosterone

Consider Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting is growing in popularity as a diet strategy that is (relatively) easy for most people to maintain. The instructions for the “16/8 fast” are easy: eat during 8 hours in a 24 hour period, and “fast” for the remaining 16 hours. For example, if you begin breakfast at 8am, you should finish dinner at 4pm. It doesn't matter which hours you choose; eating between 12pm and 8pm appears to be just as effective [1] – good news for people who skip breakfast! This style of eating gives the body plenty of time digest, metabolise and reset during the fasting hours.

It has been shown to:

  • Lower inflammation
  • Reduce cardiovascular risk factors
  • Boost the sensitivity of androgen receptors

A 2016 study on healthy men showed that eight weeks of the 16/8 diet decreased the amount of circulating testosterone and increased the sensitivity of androgen receptors [1]. 

This came with added benefits of lower fat mass, maintained muscle mass and strength, suggesting that circulating testosterone was being used more efficiently and exerting a stronger androgenic effect.

Get your vitamin D levels checked

Vitamin D has been reclassified as a steroid hormone and a vitamin because it works directly with the endocrine system. It has its own receptors throughout the body and they are often in close proximity to androgen receptors – a hint that they may be linked. A deficiency in vitamin D is associated with a stunting of testosterone's effects on androgen receptors, and a decline in testosterone levels.


If you are suffering from symptoms that you think may be an androgen insufficiency or low testosterone levels, get your vitamin D levels checked and speak to a healthcare professional about your ideal supplemental dosage.

Create a practice of resistance training

Of all types of exercise, research suggests that resistance training is the most likely to support the number of active androgen receptors in the body , making them more efficient at supporting normal testosterone levels. 

While sprinting and other aerobic exercises can also cause an upswing in testosterone's effects on the body, doing short bouts of lifting heavy weights appears to be the most potent of all.

Does training legs help support healthy testosterone levels?

Research suggests it might. Quick exercises that take a lot of exertion stimulate a release of testosterone, along with an increase in androgen receptor synthesis and function.

In contrast, endurance activities run the risk of elevating cortisol – a stress hormone that blocks the activity of androgens. While any exercise is better than none, opt for heavy resistance training if you want to support the sensitivity of your androgen receptors.

Does L-carnitine increase androgen receptors? 

L-Carnitine is an amino acid that is essential for burning fat into cellular energy. Without L-Carnitine, fatty acids are unable to cross the membrane of the mitochondria where they are used for ATP synthesis. Recent research has shown it has a host of roles outside of the mitochondria, including increasing the sensitivity of androgen receptors. Studies have shown that taking 2g of an L-Carnitine supplement can increase the sensitivity of androgen receptors within 3 weeks, and may promote recovery from exercise (which is great considering all the resistance training you’ll be doing). 

NOTE: Be sure to supplement with a fat-soluble antioxidant like alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) when taking an L-Carnitine supplement. The increase of energy production caused by L-Carnitine will also cause an increase of free radicals being released from the mitochondria – a natural result of ATP production. ALA may help to inactivate free radicals so they don’t go on to cause oxidative stress in the body. 

Reduce anti-androgenic food and contaminants

There are some food compounds and environmental contaminants that have been shown to block the activity and sensitivity of androgen receptors, and therefore the testosterone impacts on the body:

  • BPAs and phthalates found in plastics
  • Pesticides
  • High doses of quercetin
  • Soy isoflavones, particularly genistein
  • High doses of lycopene and other carotenoids 

Quercetin, genistein and lycopene are often used as complementary therapies in cases of prostate cancer, where androgen receptors are too sensitive. But in cases of androgen insufficiency, it’s best to avoid these nutrients in high doses.

Related reads: 

References

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