Men, Moods & Testosterone
The male hormone testosterone is frequently associated with aggression and, well, manliness. But testosterone has a wider role to play with moods and one that could well be implicated in depression.
It has been known for some time that depleted levels of testosterone is associated with a number of conditions. In a fairly recent study, featured in the Archives of General Psychiatry, men aged 70 and over with the lowest levels of testosterone were three times more likely to be depressed. Last month, Nicole Carrier and Mohamed Kabbaj, scientists at Florida State University, were reported to have discovered a specific brain pathway that influences the effects of testosterone on moods.
Testosterone, it appears, has a protective function against depression. Professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Harrison Pope, points out that ever since the 1940s, experiments with testosterone showed that depressive symptoms could be relieved. His own early experiment with the testosterone treatment AndroGel revealed that of the 56 men screened, 24 were found to be in low spirits and with low levels of testosterone. Pope’s observations are more striking if we consider this represents 40 percent of the sample. In the context of male depression, 8 percent of American males over the age of 30 will experience an episode of major depression. Of these only a few will benefit from antidepressants.
Who are the men who don’t benefit from antidepressants? Well, with the knowledge that 40 percent of Pope’s sample had low moods and low levels of testosterone, it begs the question why more research into testosterone levels isn’t underway. This may not answer all the questions relating to male depression, but to simply give up on the basis that conventional antidepressants aren’t working seems a huge oversight.
Results from the Florida study seem to support the idea of looking at depression in men more flexibly. Kabbaj states, "Interestingly, the beneficial effects of testosterone were not associated with changes in neurogenesis (generation of new neurons) in the hippocampus as it is the case with other classical antidepressants like imipramine (Tofranil) and fluoxetine (Prozac)."
As things stand testosterone therapy needs to be examined more carefully. According to Pope the continued use of testosterone therapy is not without its risks – prostate cancer being the most significant, particularly where younger men are concerned. “We don’t know exactly how testosterone reduces depression when antidepressants fail, nor do we know how high levels of the hormone might elevate cancer risk,” Pope says. He compares the use of testosterone to findings of estrogen therapy in women, which concluded that long-term use could outweigh the benefits and increases risk of heart disease, breast and ovarian cancer.
Any man who has benefitted from testosterone therapy probably needs to weigh up the pros and cons of long-term use with their doctor.
Cromie, W. J. (2007). Testosterone drives away the blues. Retrieved from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2003/01.09/01-testosterone.html
Elsevier (2012, April 2). Exploring the antidepressant effects of testosterone. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 14, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2012/04/120402093750.htm