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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
Over the past decade or so, men have realized how important healthy testosterone levels are to their overall health, resulting in an increase in testosterone boosters and testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). An increase in these products has helped guys struggling with things such as poor body composition, low sexual drive, and decreased energy.
And considering it helps with everything from building bone and muscle mass to helping clear mental fog, you'd think it'd have the best reputation on the planet. However, there are some common misnomers about testosterone that have tainted the idea of T boosters and replacement therapy.
It can often be thought of as a steroid, and as soon as the "s" word is spoken, visions of athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs to excel in sports or anabolic steroids to increase muscle mass and strength likely come to mind.
But, that's not what testosterone, in the form of boosters or replacement therapy, is, and those outcomes we just described are not the outcomes those with low T take testosterone to achieve.
So, what exactly is testosterone? Is testosterone a steroid? And if so, what does that mean if you take it? We're about to clear the air on what testosterone is and the role it plays in men's health. Let's get into it!
Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone. Synthesized in the male's testes, it's what makes men "men," resulting in them developing typical male characteristics, such as facial hair and a deep voice.
In addition, many people don't realize that women also have testosterone in their bodies, just at smaller levels. In women, testosterone is synthesized in the ovaries, provides improved muscle strength and bone strength, and supports libido.
Before puberty, the testosterone levels in men and women are relatively the same. However, during puberty, the testosterone levels in men shoot up dramatically while a woman's will increase slightly.
In men, the minimum healthy testosterone levels are at 300 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL), but maximum levels can be as high as 1080ng/dL. The testosterone levels will peak from 18-20 and then decline over the years, assuming no intervention takes place.
Just for comparison, healthy testosterone levels for women are just 15 to 70 ng/dL. So even the low testosterone levels for men are still more than four times that of a woman.
All this is to say that testosterone is an essential and vital hormone that plays a significant role in our overall health.
Now, because of its structure, it's classified as a steroid. In physiological use, a steroid is a compound that contains a carbon skeleton with four carbon rings that are joined and consist of a total of 17 carbons.
Testosterone belongs to a class of hormones known as androgens. These are a group of steroid hormones that act on the body's androgen receptors to activate protein synthesis, among other processes.
A person's testosterone levels rise significantly during puberty, especially in men. Testosterone will initiate puberty in men as well as regulate the development and maintenance of male characteristics.
Therefore, its primary job is to drive and produce traits in the male body. Some examples include:
Yes, testosterone is very much a steroid. As mentioned above, a steroid refers to a compound containing four rings of carbon atoms. This includes many natural hormones, including estrogen, the female sex hormone.
Therefore, testosterone is a steroid. But, it is not an illegal anabolic steroid. We'll talk more about this below.
You can also learn more about it and how it compares to natural testosterone-boosting ingredients in our article: Testosterone Booster vs TRT: Which Is Best For You?
The term "anabolic" refers to a compound or process that increases the growth of tissue, including muscle. Compare this to the term "catabolic," which refers to the breakdown of tissue.
Fat loss is an example of a catabolic process. If interested in learning more about this, we have a great article that discusses anabolic vs catabolic.
Therefore, testosterone is definitely anabolic. And since testosterone is a steroid, it's an anabolic steroid.
That said, the term "anabolic steroid" in everyday conversation generally refers to illegal steroids (which testosterone is not) and anabolic steroid abuse. This can make things confusing, so we’ll talk about nomenclature more below.
Now that we know what testosterone is, we need to define what steroids are. If we were to make a list of the words in the fitness industry that are improperly used, the term "steroid" would be up there.
In the general population, the term "steroids" or "anabolic steroids" is used to describe any illicit compound used by steroid abusers trying to improve athletic performance and body composition. While the idea may work for general banter, this is not an accurate description of a steroid or anabolic steroids, or steroid users using them for legal health purposes.
First, a steroid is the name given to certain compounds with specific architecture. As mentioned above, it's a compound that contains a carbon skeleton with four carbon rings that are joined and consist of a total of 17 carbons.
Now the term "anabolic" refers to a process or compound that builds up tissue. Therefore, the compounds HGH and testosterone are anabolic due to their role in growth.
Now this is where it can get confusing. One problem is that these terms are used incorrectly so much so that incorrect use has become the norm. With this in mind, it's important to distinguish between true medical definitions and what the average person means when they use these terms.
In the medical world, testosterone is an anabolic steroid as it's a steroid and promotes muscle growth. However, when people generally use the term "anabolic steroids," they're referring to illegal steroids that are used to improve body composition, build muscle, and enhance performance. This includes compounds that when examining the medical definition, aren't truly steroids.
For example, HGH is often said to be an anabolic steroid. However, while it's anabolic, it's not a steroid. It's a peptide hormone. Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone that increases red blood cells but is also lumped into "anabolic steroids."
Now, at the same time, testosterone is natural, but it can also be produced synthetically. Synthetically, it can be used as medical therapy or purchased off the streets. Therefore, its category (medical definition or general pop definition) depends on where it's coming from and how it's being used.
This leaves the question: Is testosterone a steroid or a hormone?
And we know you're anxiously waiting for an answer, but hang on, as this isn't the right question to ask. What we need to ask is: Is testosterone an anabolic steroid or a hormone?
And that depends on where it was synthesized.
When synthesized naturally within the body, testosterone is a steroid hormone. When it's synthesized outside the body synthetically to be used as medication, it's an anabolic steroid.
But again, remember, just because we're labeling it as an anabolic steroid does not mean testosterone therapy is illegal.
As mentioned, your testosterone levels peak at the ripe age of 18-20 years old¹. This is just after puberty when your body is flooded with hormones. However, enjoy those T levels while they last, because after 18 to your early 20s, your naturally produced testosterone will begin slowly declining.
You can read more about this in our article: Is It Bad To Take Testosterone Boosters At 20?
A drop in testosterone can occur through two mechanisms: as a natural part of aging and through lifestyle choices. When it comes to aging, there's really nothing you can do about it. As we age, our bodies begin to slowly break down, and life takes its course.
Unfortunately, though, many people point to "aging" as a cause for their low testosterone levels when it is their lifestyle choices most significantly impacting their T levels.
If you fail to maintain healthy testosterone levels, you can experience several health risks, some serious. This can include:
As mentioned above, lifestyle choices and environmental issues are the predominant reason men today are seeing lower testosterone levels².
While there are many, some of the most common issues include:
Therefore, if this is what's causing your testosterone levels to drop, it makes sense to reverse these behaviors, leading to normal testosterone levels.
For example, a study from 2014 found that a group of sedentary men's testosterone levels increased significantly after 12 weeks of exercise³. Another study found that men who were obese and overweight saw the greatest improvements in testosterone levels after diet and exercise.
The same was proven with improvements in sleep and the cessation of smoking. So, a few lifestyle changes you can make to help your T levels include finding a good workout split, following a meal plan for weight loss, giving up bad habits like smoking and drinking, and getting lots of good sleep4,5.
In addition to lifestyle habits, you can also increase T levels using testosterone boosters and testosterone replacement therapy. Testosterone boosters are dietary supplements that naturally boost your testosterone through the use of vitamins, minerals, and herbs. No prescription is required to begin taking a T booster.
TRT is a medical treatment in which a patient with low testosterone levels receives low doses of synthetic testosterone, with the goal of increasing their overall testosterone levels, on a weekly basis. You must see a doctor for TRT, but these 8 Best Online TRT Clinics certainly make it more convenient than heading to a doctor's office each week.
You can also learn more about TRT in our Ultimate Guide to Using TRT For Bodybuilding.
It's important to note that testosterone boosters are not the same thing as TRT and are not anabolic steroids. The best testosterone boosters only contain vitamins, herbs, and minerals that will increase T levels but not above what is naturally possible for your body.
In addition, T boosters can be purchased over the counter, as they only contain natural ingredients. No prescription is required for T boosters.
Let's go over the key differences between testosterone and steroids.
Now that we've cleared up what testosterone is and why it should be taken, it leads us to the question: Who should take testosterone?
Anyone who is 25 or older and has low T should consider increasing their testosterone either through testosterone boosters or TRT. If you suspect you have low T, first speak to a doctor and get your testosterone levels tested.
Once you determine you have low T, you can then figure out if you'd like to start by trying a testosterone booster, which requires taking a pill to naturally increase testosterone, or consult with a doctor about beginning TRT.
In addition to one of these, you should adjust your lifestyle habits, making sure you're dropping bad habits (like smoking and getting little sleep) with good ones, such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, and quality sleep.
Interested in trying a testosterone booster? Check out these 7 Best Testosterone Booster Supplements!
Additional questions regarding testosterone, illegal anabolic steroid use, or anything else in between? Let's answer them here.
It depends on the context in which someone is using these terms. Natural testosterone is a steroid hormone. On the other hand, anabolic steroids are synthetic and are meant to mimic natural testosterone.
Illegal steroids have been used in bodybuilding for decades. When it comes to TRT, while there may be some recreational lifters who use it, elite lifters are going to want to use significantly more than what TRT provides.
Testosterone can come in several modified forms. For TRT, the most common forms are testosterone enanthate or testosterone cypionate. These forms have been modified to have longer half-lives and are absorbed at a slower rate. Your doctor or the TRT clinic you're using will discuss your best options with you at your appointment.
TRT comes with many different options. One of those is pills or tablets. You can also take testosterone boosters, which is a natural way to increase your T levels, as the pills you'll take typically contain vitamins, herbs, and minerals.
The debate between testosterone and steroids gets murky due to all of the negative attention that has been placed on illegal steroid use. Words are used as pejoratives, and everything can get conflated.
Yes, testosterone is a steroid that is synthesized naturally, acting as the primary male sex hormone. It can also be synthesized artificially and used with the proper medical oversight from a medical professional.
The key takeaway here? Thanks to illegal steroid abuse and things like roid rage, the term "steroids" has been given a bad rap. But when talking about it in terms of something produced naturally within our body, or as something that you're working to increase through the help of a doctor, it should not be associated with a negative connotation.
Now that we've cleared the air regarding what testosterone boosters are, if you have low T, you have options! Consult with one of these Online TRT Clinics, or check out these 7 Best Testosterone Boosters to increase your T levels.
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