Will Testosterone Help Your Sports Performance?

The argument for testosterone sounds irresistible: It’s a naturally occurring substance that can boost your strength and energy, possibly fire up your libido and might even lengthen your life.

Weight lifter. Photo by  Rennett Stowe. Some rights reserved.
Weight lifter. Photo by Rennett Stowe. Some rights reserved.

Drug companies have churned out advertising around these claims in recent years, sparking a 65 percent boost in sales in testosterone-boosting drugs from 2009 to 2011. But a committee of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stepped in last week to recommend against prescribing these drugs for men whose symptoms can only be attributed to normal aging.

So where does that leave those of us who might like to add a little jet fuel to our sports performance?

Several studies have shown that testosterone makes both men and women leaner and stronger as well as more aggressive. Any of these effects could help you dunk a basketball or score on a free kick in soccer.

Because of this, most professional sports ban the use of testosterone along with other anabolic steroids. Most of us amateurs don’t have to submit to drug testing. And we might even be able to persuade our family doctors to write us a legal prescription.

So what could be the harm?

Testosterone can cause acne in younger men and baldness in older ones. It can temporarily decrease your own body’s ability to produce testosterone and sperm.

But what caught the eyes of the FDA panel were some studies suggesting that testosterone supplements could increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. The evidence isn’t very strong so far. But the FDA panel and other experts say they want to be very cautious.

They cite the example of estrogen replacement therapy in women. It worked to relieve some unpleasant symptoms of menopause, so doctors prescribed it freely for decades. Only much later did evidence emerge that it could increase the risk of cancer.

A surefire athletic boost from testosterone might make these hypothetical risks seem worthwhile. But the effects on your prowess aren’t so certain either.

Most of the research has focused on men who have low testosterone because of illness, not normal aging.

“Testosterone is currently enjoying a rep for being the elixir of youth and there is a whole group of men who have low testosterone because of aging and we just don’t know if they can benefit from it,” Bradley Anawalt told me when I interviewed him for an article in Medscape.

Chief of medicine at the University of Washington and chair of the Endocrine Society’s Hormone Health Network, Anawalt has spent a lot of time analyzing testosterone.

He pointed out men can have low levels of the hormone  for a lot of reasons that might be better addressed by a different treatment. For example, poor nutrition can lead to low testosterone levels, he said, and some athletes even have low testosterone because of over training.

On the other hand, at least one study in older men showed that they could achieve the same increases in strength by lifting weights as by taking testosterone. (In fact, moderate weight-lifting itself appears to increase testosterone levels.)

Personally I plan to stick to my exercise routines for now. Hitting a ball a little bit harder doesn’t seem quite worth the risk of messing with my endocrine system.

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