Testosterone can boost libido in women
When singer Robbie Williams revealed that he injects himself with testosterone to boost his sex drive, few women would have realised they could benefit from the hormone, too.
The 37-year-old Take That star told last week how he has jabs of the hormone twice a week after doctors told him he had the libido of a 100-year-old man.
But testosterone is also important for female sex drive and other functions.
Low libido: Robbie Williams, pictured with his wife Ayda, has revealed that he injects himself with testosterone
Testosterone is best known as the male sex hormone that helps in the development of male reproductive organs and adult male characteristics, such as facial hair, a deeper voice and muscles. It’s also needed for sperm production.
However, researchers have discovered the hormone is also vital for women’s health, even though they have just a tenth of the levels found in men.
In women, the hormone is produced in the adrenal glands and ovaries (in men, it is produced in the adrenal glands and testes). It is thought to help maintain women’s muscle strength and contribute to their sex drive, though doctors don’t fully understand how.
‘The link between testosterone and male sex drive is well-known,’ says Dr David Price, a consultant endocrinologist at the Morriston Hospital, Swansea.
‘However, evidence has emerged over the past ten years to suggest the hormone also plays a key role in the wellbeing of women and their sexual health.’
Production of testosterone in women normally starts around puberty. In healthy women, this continues until the menopause and then their levels start to fall gradually, causing reduced libido and wellbeing.
Certain medical conditions also lower women’s testosterone levels — these include an early menopause (as a result of, for example, a hysterectomy or removal of the ovaries), adrenal problems and pituitary disease.
As a result of the growing understanding about the role of testosterone in women, those going through the menopause may be offered the hormone in addition to standard Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), which contains the two female hormones, oestrogen and progestogen.
That’s because while HRT can alleviate symptoms of the menopause, such as hot flushes and irritability, trials have shown little impact on libido, says Dr Price.
‘HRT doesn’t improve libido,’ he says. ‘A number of studies show that if you give the hormone to women with low testosterone levels, they feel generally better, their skin and hair improves and their libido increases.’
One U.S. study of 200 menopausal women with sexual desire problems, published in the medical journal Fertility And Sterility, found that those taking a low-dose oestrogen-testosterone combination treatment reported a two-fold improvement in sexual interest, compared with women treated with oestrogen alone.
Testosterone is normally given to women through a patch on the skin twice a week, but can also be given as a cream, gel or implant
Boost in the bedroom: Testosterone can also help women who have a low sex drive (posed by models)
Jabs at the lower dose required by women are currently not available.
‘The key is that it is given through the skin so it can get into the bloodstream,’ says Professor John Studd, former professor of gynaecology at London’s Imperial College and now a private consultant gynaecologist.
‘But testosterone pills are not advised, because studies in men have shown they can cause damage to the liver.’
Professor Studd, who has been prescribing testosterone to women for 30 years, adds: ‘For 80 per cent of the patients I see on HRT, I add testosterone because it makes women feel really well. It improves their mood, they have more energy and it improves their sexual relationships and self-confidence.
‘Many women report they have the sex drive they had in their 20s and 30s.’
However, these testosterone supplements are not standard treatment.
Currently, testosterone patches are licensed only for women who go through the menopause early after having their womb or ovaries surgically removed.
All other women have to be prescribed the patches ‘off-licence’ and the doctor takes responsibility for the drug. Hence, for many doctors, testosterone treatment remains controversial.
Furthermore, as with any treatment, there are possible side-effects of taking the hormone, such as acne, anger problems, shrinking breast size, a deeper voice and excess hair.
These problems can occur in anyone taking testosterone, but research shows side-effects reduce if the dose of testosterone is lowered.
Furthermore, if taken orally, testosterone raises cholesterol — which can lead to heart attacks and strokes — and it may increase the risk of breast cancer, heart disease or blood clots (because some testosterone in the body is made into oestrogen and higher-than-normal oestrogen in the body is linked to these conditions).
Another issue is that use of testosterone in women has not been studied long-term, so doctors don’t know whether it is safe, prompting some to urge a cautious approach. The latest guidelines from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecolo-gists state: ‘The place of testosterone in ovary-intact women with low libido requires further evaluation.
‘Testosterone replacement may be associated with adverse clinical and metabolic side-effects and the long-term consequences are still unknown.’
Nevertheless, some experts claim that in women for whom loss of sex drive after the menopause is an issue, testosterone patches are a solution.
‘I haven’t the slightest doubt that testosterone patches are a good thing for women,’ says Professor Studd.
And with more women enjoying an active sex life and having new sexual relationships in their 50s and 60s, we are likely to see greater use of the hormone in the future.
Dr Price agrees: ‘With many women having an active sex life later in life, I am sure we will see more and more women taking testosterone in the future.
‘However, falling testosterone levels are not the only reason for lack of libido.
‘Relationship problems, depression and money worries can also be the cause.’