Estrogen and testosterone are present in both men and women. However, the levels and concentrations of each hormone differ from one sex to the other: testosterone is high in men and low in women, and it’s the other way around for estrogen.
Hormones have an impact on tissue and organs, so their levels are closely regulated through bodily processes. A slight rise in one hormone's level can have an impact on the levels of other hormones, which can ultimately result in illnesses and aberrant organ function.
Let's explore what both these hormones do in men and women, pinpoint their differences, and highlight what abnormal concentrations can result in.
Testosterone: The male hormone
Known as the male hormone, testosterone is an anabolic steroid that is also the main sex hormone in men. It is produced by the testes, specifically by the Leydig cells. Testosterone can also be indirectly produced, in small amounts, by the adrenal glands — the glands responsible for secreting cortisol, the stress hormone, and adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone.
This anabolic steroid is responsible for the growth of the testes and prostate, as well as for the development of secondary sexual traits. These secondary sexual traits include deepening of the voice, growth of body and facial hair, increased muscle mass compared to females, and other morphological changes.
Testosterone affects mood and behavior. It also plays a role in osteoporosis prevention by maintaining the levels of bone mineral density in men. The male hormone also controls body fat distribution by affecting the proteins that trap fat.
Estrogen: The female hormone
Estrogen, a category of sex hormones (other than progesterone and testosterone), develop and regulate the female reproductive system and secondary sex traits.
It is present in 4 different forms, each serving different roles in the female reproductive life and bodily functions. These forms include:
The most potent and common form is estradiol; estetrol is only generated during pregnancy, and estrone is present in the highest concentrations among the other estrogens during menopause.
During pregnancy, estriol is the primary estrogen, secreted in higher concentrations than estetrol, while in postmenopause, it provides significant benefits for women and lowers the risks associated with traditional hormone therapies. Better control of menopausal symptoms and improved urogenital health are some of these benefits.
Estradiol serves several purposes in the female body. Its primary role is to mature and then sustain the reproductive system. During the female monthly cycle, estradiol levels rise. This causes the egg to mature and then release. The increased levels of estradiol also signal for the uterus lining to thicken to allow a fertilized egg to implant.
While estrone levels are high after menopause, it is present in smaller concentrations among other estrogen types before that. It also promotes female sexual development and function.
The female adrenal glands produce some measure of estrogen (much like testosterone) along with fat cells. The overwhelming majority of estrogen comes from the ovaries, specifically the granulosa cells.
What makes them different
The very obvious difference is that one is called the male hormone and the other the female hormone. That is due to the different concentrations of both hormones present in each sex. Testosterone in men can reach up to 20 times more than what is secreted by women. It’s the other way around for estrogen.
Another difference happens with the conversion of one hormone to the other. In the male brain, testosterone binds to specific androgen receptors via aromatase (an enzyme). This reaction transforms the anabolic steroid into estrogen, specifically estradiol.
Furthermore, when we look at the functions of both hormones, we notice that testosterone is responsible for the primary and secondary sexual traits in men among the tertiary functions mentioned above, while estrogen in women is responsible for the primary and secondary sexual characteristics along with DNA repair and neuroprotection (protection of neurons).
How do they impact men?
Male sexual features and function are dependent on the levels of circulating estrogen and testosterone in the system. In case of unbalanced concentrations, one might experience some odd symptoms.
Hypergonadism, which refers to abnormally high testosterone levels, is a rare disorder that affects men. The use of anabolic-androgenic drugs and testosterone replacement treatment are the two most typical causes of elevated testosterone levels.
Based on stereotypical beliefs, many individuals develop a one-dimensional image of a male with too much testosterone: big muscles, a quick temper, and off-the-chart libido. What they might ignore are problems with infertility, acne, blood clots, sleeplessness, and high blood pressure.
Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH) are three essential hormones in the production of testosterone. High testosterone levels may cause infertility by inhibiting the action of these hormones.
Through a mechanism known as negative feedback, testosterone levels in the testes decrease as these hormones' synthesis decreases.
Other symptoms and side effects of high testosterone levels include:
For a man to be considered healthy estrogen-wise, his estradiol levels should range around 10–40 picograms per milliliter (pg/ml), while estrone levels should be between 10–50 pg/ml.
Although estrogen is necessary for the male body to operate normally, excessive estrogen levels can result in gynecomastia, erectile dysfunction, or infertility.
Gynecomastia, pedestrianly called man boobs, is a condition where a man’s breasts grow and swell abnormally. Teenage boys and older males are most likely to develop it.
A retrospective case-control study included 1,076 males between the ages of 19 and 60; roughly half were assigned to the control group, while the other half were men with erectile dysfunction, delayed ejaculation, and ejaculatory dysfunction. The study discovered that the estradiol level in the erectile dysfunction group was considerably higher than in the control group.
As for infertility, a 2017 study investigating the effects of estradiol on the functional morphology of the testis reported that spermatogenesis (sperm production) was impaired after estradiol treatment.
How do they impact women?
Testosterone in females is a different story than in men, but only slightly. In both sexes, testosterone is the same structure-wise. In women, it is produced in the ovaries in tiny proportions compared to men.
Testosterone has both a direct and indirect impact on women. Through its receptors, testosterone directly impacts sexual function, muscle mass and strength, fat distribution, and cognition among other things.
Indirectly, testosterone is converted to estrogen through aromatase which impacts bone density and the risk of developing depression.
When the male hormone is combined with estrogen, it aids in the growth, maintenance, and repair of a woman's reproductive tissues and behavior.
There are instances where women produce abnormally high levels of testosterone. This abnormality can result in negative health conditions such as:
As already established, estrogen is a vital hormone that controls the female reproductive system and is a major player in other bodily systems. Estrogen levels fluctuate throughout life, often in tandem with other hormones that regulate important bodily functions. During puberty, estrogen levels rise, promoting sexual development. Along with another sex hormone, progesterone, estrogen prepares the female body for pregnancy.
Too much estrogen causes an imbalance of hormones, which leads to health complications. High estrogen levels can interfere with reproductive processes, cause unpleasant symptoms, and increase the risk of developing certain diseases and cancers.
For example, estrogen dominance is a condition where progesterone isn't produced enough to oppose the actions of estrogen during the monthly cycle. This can result in the growth of tumors in the uterus.
Usually, medication like birth control pills is the culprit behind elevated estrogen levels. PCOS can be another cause prior to menopause, while obesity might be to blame postmenopause.
Irregular menstruation cycles, thick breast tissues, bloating, mood swings, and a decline in sexual appetite are some of the symptoms of high estrogen in females.
Testosterone deficiency issues
The American Urology Association has set 30 ng/l for adult males as the lower threshold for normal testosterone levels. Anything below that is a cause for worry. There are two classifications for testosterone:
Studies show that there's a drop in testosterone levels per year as men get older. It's a 2%-3% fall for bioavailable (free) testosterone and about 1.6% for total testosterone.
Sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) are proteins that bind to free testosterone, not allowing it to be used by the tissues. Because aging is also associated with increases in SHBG levels, the reduction in free testosterone levels is greater.
Other medical conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, can lower testosterone levels. Lack of sleep and stress can also have an effect on your hormone levels by causing you to produce more cortisol which blocks the production of testosterone.
Testosterone deficiency can cause a number of different problems, from an increased risk of cardiovascular disease to erectile dysfunction to a decrease/loss of libido.
Natural aging is the primary cause of low testosterone in women. Over time — especially during menopause, women's testosterone levels decline. This makes sense since testosterone is partially produced in the ovaries.
Other causes of low testosterone in women include damage to the ovaries, surgical procedures in which the ovaries are removed, birth control pills, pituitary and/or adrenal gland malfunctions, and some eating disorders (e.g., anorexia).
Testosterone deficiency is not usually an issue in women. But there are a number of issues that can arise due to low testosterone levels, including mood swings, depression, anxiety, and infertility-related problems. Moreover, testosterone deficiency in women has been linked to several health problems, including hot flashes, vaginal dryness, weight gain or loss, and changes in body hair distribution or texture.
Estrogen deficiency issues
Estrogen deficiency can be a major issue in men, especially as they age and testosterone levels decrease. The most common symptoms of estrogen deficiency in men include low libido or reduced sex drive, erectile dysfunction or inability to maintain an erection, decreased energy and fatigue, and poor mood or irritability.
These symptoms and side effects are similar to those men face with abnormal testosterone levels because different sex hormones are related in their production cycles in one way or another.
In fact, low testosterone is one of the primary causes of low estrogen in men.
In the male body, an enzyme called aromatase breaks down testosterone and releases estradiol as a byproduct. Aromatase is found in estrogen-producing tissues like the adrenal glands, brain, fatty tissue, and even the testicles.
Estrogen deficiency is becoming an increasingly common problem in women, with many of these cases being undiagnosed and untreated. The most common causes of estrogen deficiency in women include menopause, breastfeeding, and pregnancy; however, it can also be caused by other things, such as stress, illness, or surgery.
If left untreated, estrogen deficiency can lead to a variety of different issues for women, including infertility and symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, weight gain or loss, and headaches.
Estrogens and their receptors are responsible for some aspects of glucose and lipid metabolism. Disruptions in these processes and their signals cause the development of Metabolic Syndrome and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in women.
Hormone replacement therapy, Estrogen therapy, and Estrogen progesterone/progestin hormone therapy (EPT) are the most common options to treat low estrogen levels.
Testosterone and estrogen are two vital hormones in men and women. Their roles are so valuable that with an imbalance of either of the two in any sex would result in multiple inconvenient side effects and a higher risk of developing unwanted diseases.
When it comes to deficiencies, a doctor's go-to recommendation is to try hormone replacement therapy. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is a treatment used to treat menopausal symptoms in women and hypogonadism in men. It replaces hormones that are depleted.
As for abnormally high levels of both hormones, medication and diet seem to be the winning formula to treat the irregularity.
Whichever condition you have, you should always consult with your doctor and discuss your options to choose what’s the best course of action for you.