A role for testosterone in menopausal sexual dysfunction
For many a woman, the mention of “testosterone” conjures up masculinity, “a male hormone”, unwanted body hair, perhaps voice changes – “will I turn into a man?”. What is often not realised is that women actually produce testosterone (but of course not to the same levels as men), and that this testosterone is just as vital as the other sex hormones (oestrogen, progesterone etc) that they produce. Indeed, women produce three times as much testosterone as oestrogen before the menopause.
The levels of testosterone in the female body gradually reduce with age, and fall precipitously / very abruptly if ovaries are removed at the time of hysterectomy, or for any other reason (because the majority of the testosterone is produced in the ovaries). The decline in testosterone may cause women to desire sex less often, and when they do have sex, it is often not as pleasurable as it used to be, even though they still desire their partner.
There is some evidence also that having lower testosterone levels also affects women’s mood, and increase their risk of becoming depressed. It therefore stands to reason that testosterone is likely a crucial component of HRT, and that current approaches that emphasize on the replacement of oestrogen without testosterone may be misguided and inadequate. A full discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this resume, and indeed a lot of research is required as many of these issues are yet to be fully understood.
Watch the video on testosterone here -
Read the latest International Menopause Society consensus on use of testosterone in women
Effects of testosterone given as HRT:
The general current practice is to offer testosterone to women in woman loss of libido and poor energy levels are major features of the symptoms of their menopause – the vast majority of women benefit immensely, with evidence showing that testosterone improves general well-being, emotions, mood, energy, concentration and of course libido. It can also provide benefits to the skin and hair.
It is an important hormone for muscle strength and stamina too. Many women report better quality sleep, and some even report changes to the type and quality of their dreams, while others report a sense of an improvement in their eye sight – some of these are of course anecdotal reports, and it is not suggested that every woman will experience these benefits.
How testosterone is given:
At the Menopause Clinic London testosterone (
) is usually given as an implant inserted in the fat layer under the skin on the buttock, abdomen or mons pubis. A local anaesthetic is given, and then a tiny cut made in the skin, through which a special instrument is used to insert the implant. All this takes less than 10 minutes, and the if a stitch is applied to the wound, it is usually one that dissolves and does not need removal at a later stage.
Each implant usually lasts 6 months. Testosterone can also be given as a gel to rub into the skin. This appears to be the route favoured on the continent, such as in France, but these gels are also available in the UK, and many menopause specialists prescribe them. There are pros and cons where implants versus gels are concerned – in the end the effectiveness of the treatment, and the woman’s preference, determines the manner in which the testosterone is administered.
Side effects from using testosterone: There are usually no side effects with testosterone treatment. Very occasionally some women notice some increased hair growth in the area in which they have rubbed the gel. This can be avoided by changing the area of skin on which the gel is rubbed. Testosterone gel is currently not licensed for use in women in the UK. However, it is prescribed by many menopause experts do prescribe it as it has proven benefits in many clinical trials. It is also very safe. When given as implants women occasionally report an increase in body hair, the most annoying for them being facial hair. However, there are interventions, such as electrolysis, which are very effective at dealing with the unwanted hair.
Having experienced the benefits of testosterone, many a woman would rather deal with the hair than stop using the testosterone. Finally, an extremely rare side effect is a change in voice – usually a deepening: if this happens testosterone should be discontinued, and the change in voice usually resolves over time.
More research is needed! It is arguably true to say that the beneficial effects of testosterone are under-estimated, but it is also true to say the potential for any deleterious effects may not be fully understood. There is therefore a clear need for well-designed studies to allow a better evidence base for this potentially important hormone in the treatment of women during the menopausal transition. Currently testosterone is not licensed for use in women in the UK – research my enable this situation to change.