Testosterone levels fluctuate throughout the day, and are usually highest in the morning. They peak in the late teens to early twenties, after which they decline slowly, but steadily, as men age. Although there is no standard definition of "low" testosterone, a healthy range spans between 250 to 1,100 nanograms per deciliter of blood.
Questions inevitably arise: If even scientists don't agree on what, exactly, "low T" means, how can anyone diagnose it? At what point is it problematic? And, most importantly, how can you know whether you are a candidate for TRT?
"I am very cautious about committing someone for life to medication," said Dr. Kathleen L. Wyne, who directs research on diabetes and metabolism at Houston's Methodist Hospital Research Institute and serves on the Sex Hormone and Reproductive Endocrinology Scientific Committee for the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. "That does frustrate patients because they have heard about [Low T] from TV and friends."
Although her male patients may or may not get the low testosterone diagnosis they believe Dr. Wyne should give them, they will get a comprehensive examination. Besides their testosterone level, she will look at their triglycerides, glucose (blood sugar) tolerance, liver enzymes, and other counts as well as the condition of their testicles. "I need to know if they're normal going into it," she explained.
Dr. Wyne told me that although she has seen an increase in male patients asking about low testosterone, she hasn't seen an actual increase in the condition itself. "I do see an increase in guys who are fatter," she said. "The question is whether, if you lose 15 or 20 pounds, your testosterone would revert [to normal]. We know that even 15 pounds makes a huge difference to their level. Most of these guys actually have 50 pounds to lose."
In Seattle, Dr. Bradley D. Anawalt, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at the University of Washington, said it's challenging for physicians to tease out the actual causes of a man's low energy, drop in sexual interest, and other potential symptoms of low testosterone that may as likely be caused by something else.
"The hard part," said Dr. Anawalt, "is the man who is 50 pounds overweight and sedentary, who sees a TV ad and goes to see his doctor. Let's say he has a thoughtful doctor who does the right test, at the right time of day (morning), and the test comes back low. Many of these guys will have low or slightly low testosterone. We have no evidence for whether or not it's a benefit to give these guys testosterone." He added that concern about their testosterone level could be a good thing if it spurs men to lose weight and exercise. "A low testosterone level can be a marker of poor health," he said.
Dr. Anawalt called the diagnosis and treatment of low testosterone a careful balancing act. "You don't want to leave the impression that no one is at risk for low testosterone," he said. He explained that physicians need to be aware that men coming in with low libido, sexual function, osteoporosis, or new breast sensitivity might well have low testosterone. Besides measuring testosterone— usually two or even three times—confirmatory tests will also measure other hormones that regulate testosterone and sperm production in the testicle. "If they don't have that evidence," said Dr. Anawalt, "we will tell a man we don't think you're suffering from the effects of low testosterone."