Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/14/2020
Androgens are a group of steroid hormones that are responsible for the development of male traits.
The best known androgen is testosterone — a hormone that’s responsible for the development of your penis and testes, the deepening of your voice, the growth of your health muscle tissue and bone, and a range of other male secondary sex characteristics.
Although androgens are often referred to as “male” hormones, they’re actually present in both men and women. Men generally produce significantly larger amounts of androgens, including testosterone, than women.
Androgens like testosterone play a key role in your health and wellbeing. If you’re deficient in testosterone or other androgens, you may notice a variety of symptoms, including a reduced sex drive and issues such as decreased muscle mass.
Below, we’ve explained exactly what androgens are and how they work in your body. We’ve also explained what you should do if you’re concerned that you may suffer from an androgen deficiency such as low testosterone.
Androgens are a group of steroid hormones responsible for a large, diverse range of actions in your body.
Although testosterone is the most well known androgen, there are numerous androgens in both the male and female body. These include:
Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S)
In men, most testosterone (the primary androgen) is produced by the testes. A small amount of testosterone is also produced in the adrenal glands — a set of glands that are located on the top of the kidneys.
In women, androgens are generally produced in the ovaries, the adrenal glands and in fat cells that are spread throughout the body.
Some androgens are produced as a byproduct of others. For example, DHT — the most potent and powerful androgen — is a byproduct of testosterone.
Through the action of an enzyme called 5 alpha-reductase, your body converts a small amount of your testosterone into dihydrotestosterone, or DHT. DHT has its own functions in your body, which we’ve explained below.
Similarly, in women, a significant amount of testosterone is converted into the female hormone estradiol.
The male body has a complex, precise system for producing testosterone and other androgen hormones.
Every day, your hypothalamus — the part of your brain that’s responsible for linking your nervous system with your endocrine system — produces a hormone that’s called gonadotropin-releasing hormone, or GnRH.
GnRH is responsible for controlling the release of other hormones, primarily luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone.
These hormones are released from the pituitary gland and are responsible for controlling your testes’ production of testosterone.
At the same time, your body’s production of testosterone plays a role in regulating its production of GnRH and luteinizing hormone.
This complex, balanced system helps to keep your levels of androgen hormones within a normal range, without any sudden fluctuations.
As a man, androgens are essential for your health and wellbeing. Early in your life, androgens such as testosterone and dihydrotestosterone play key roles in the development of your penis and testicles.
Testosterone and other androgens also play a major role in your physical development during adolescence and adulthood. For example, during puberty, androgens are responsible for your development of male secondary sex characteristics, such as:
Your facial, pubic and body hair
Your muscles and bone structure
After adolescence, testosterone and other androgens also control your body’s ability to produce sperm and remain fertile.
Testosterone also plays a significant role in your sex drive, helping to regulate your sexual performance and level of interest in sex.
Each androgen hormone is slightly different. As such, the specific function of each androgen in your body can vary:
Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone in the body. It’s responsible for producing the male genitals, as well as many male secondary sex chracteristics. It also plays a key role in regulating sex drive, muscle mass and bone health in men and women. In men, testosterone is an important precursor hormone that’s used to produce estrogen and dihydrotestosterone (DHT).
Dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is the most potent androgen hormone and is considered a pure androgen, as it can’t be converted into estrogen. Before birth, DHT plays a key role in the development of the male genitals. In adolescence, DHT is responsible for male secondary sex characteristics, such as a deep voice and body, facial and pubic hair growth. In adulthood, it’s the main hormone responsible for male pattern baldness.
Androstenedione is a weak androgen that has relatively few effects by itself. However, it’s converted by the body into stronger hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, both of which have significant effects.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a type of precursor androgen. Although it doesn’t have much of an effect on its own, it’s an important hormone that’s converted into the male sex hormone testosterone and the female sex hormone estradiol.
Androgen deficiency, or low testosterone, is a condition that can occur when your body fails to produce a normal amount of testosterone.
For men, a testosterone level approximately between 300 and 1,000 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL) or 10 and 35 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) of blood is generally considered as normal.
It’s normal for your testosterone to gradually decrease over time. However, If your testosterone is consistently below this range, it could be a signal that you may have a testosterone deficiency that requires treatment.
Low testosterone can cause a range of symptoms. Some men don’t experience any noticeable symptoms. Others may experience:
Difficulty getting or maintaining an erection (erectile dysfunction, or ED)
Increase in body fat and/or loss of muscle size and strength
Weak or reduced sex drive
Reduced sperm count
Loss of bone mass and strength
Sleep difficulties, such as insomnia
If you have low testosterone, you may notice one or several of the symptoms listed above. They may vary in severity or come and go over time. Some of these symptoms may only be a normal effect of aging and not a sign that you’re deficient in testosterone.
If you’re worried that you may have a testosterone deficiency, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider. You can check your testosterone levels with a quick, simple blood test. If you’re below the normal range, your healthcare provider may recommend treatment.
One common method of treatment for low testosterone is testosterone replacement therapy, or TRT. This involves supplementing your body’s natural testosterone with artificial testosterone in the form of injections, patches, gels, pills or implants.
Testosterone replacement therapy is effective, but it can cause certain side effects and may be associated with health risks. We’ve discussed these more in our detailed guide to testosterone replacement therapy.
If your testosterone levels are only mildly low, or on the low end of the normal range, you may be able to increase them with certain dietary and lifestyle changes.
Simple things like working out, eating well and getting more sleep may help to increase testosterone production.
We’ve talked more about the techniques that you can use and supplements that you can take to boost testosterone in our guide to increasing your testosterone levels.
As a man, androgens play an important role in your health and wellbeing. Early in your life, they help to develop your male genitals and secondary sex characteristics, such as your voice, bone structure and facial hair.
Throughout your life, androgens help to control and regulate your sex drive, sexual performance and fertility.
If you’ve experienced symptoms of low androgen levels, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider.
They may suggest taking a testosterone test and, if you’re deficient, taking a variety of steps to increase your androgen levels and maintain a high quality of life.