Male hypogonadism becomes more common with increasing age and is currently an under-treated condition. The diagnosis of hypogonadism in the aging male requires a combination of symptoms and low serum testosterone levels. The currently available testosterone preparations can produce consistent physiological testosterone levels and provide for patient preference.
In the hepatic 17-ketosteroid pathway of testosterone metabolism, testosterone is converted in the liver by 5α-reductase and 5β-reductase into 5α-DHT and the inactive 5β-DHT, respectively. Then, 5α-DHT and 5β-DHT are converted by 3α-HSD into 3α-androstanediol and 3α-etiocholanediol, respectively. Subsequently, 3α-androstanediol and 3α-etiocholanediol are converted by 17β-HSD into androsterone and etiocholanolone, which is followed by their conjugation and excretion. 3β-Androstanediol and 3β-etiocholanediol can also be formed in this pathway when 5α-DHT and 5β-DHT are acted upon by 3β-HSD instead of 3α-HSD, respectively, and they can then be transformed into epiandrosterone and epietiocholanolone, respectively. A small portion of approximately 3% of testosterone is reversibly converted in the liver into androstenedione by 17β-HSD.
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A blood test is the only way to diagnose a low testosterone level or a reduction in the bioavailability of testosterone. Some men have a lower than normal testosterone level without signs or symptoms. For most men, no treatment is needed. But for some others, very low testosterone levels lead to a condition in which bones become weak and brittle (osteoporosis). For others, low testosterone might cause changes in sexual function, sleep patterns, emotions and the body.
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There have been case reports of development of prostate cancer in patients during treatment with testosterone, including one case series of twenty patients (Gaylis et al 2005). It is not known whether this reflects an increase in incidence, as prostate cancer is very common and because the monitoring for cancer in patients treated with testosterone is greater. Randomized controlled trials of testosterone treatment have found a low incidence of prostate cancer and they do not provide evidence of a link between testosterone treatment and the development of prostate cancer (Rhoden and Morgentaler 2004). More large scale clinical trials of longer durations of testosterone replacement are required to confirm that testosterone treatment does not cause prostate cancer. Overall, it is not known whether testosterone treatment of aging males with hypogonadism increases the risk of prostate cancer, but monitoring for the condition is clearly vital. This should take the form of PSA blood test and rectal examination every three months for the first year of treatment and yearly thereafter (Nieschlag et al 2005). Age adjusted PSA reference ranges should be used to identify men who require further assessment. The concept of PSA velocity is also important and refers to the rate of increase in PSA per year. Patients with abnormal rectal examination suggestive of prostate cancer, PSA above the age specific reference range or a PSA velocity greater than 0.75 ng/ml/yr should be referred to a urologist for consideration of prostate biopsy.
A notable study out of Wayne State University in Indiana found that older men who had a mild zinc deficiency significantly increased their testosterone from 8.3 to 16.0 nmol/L—a 93 percent increase—following six months of zinc supplementation. Researchers of the study concluded that zinc may play an important role in modulating serum testosterone levels in normal healthy men.6
^ Butenandt A, Hanisch G (1935). "Umwandlung des Dehydroandrosterons in Androstendiol und Testosterone; ein Weg zur Darstellung des Testosterons aus Cholestrin" [About Testosterone. Conversion of Dehydro-androsterons into androstendiol and testosterone; a way for the structure assignment of testosterone from cholesterol]. Hoppe-Seyler's Z Physiol Chem (in German). 237 (2): 89–97. doi:10.1515/bchm2.1935.237.1-3.89.
One study found that men who took 3,332 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily for one year significantly increased their testosterone levels. But vitamin D supplements may only work for men who are severely deficient in this specific vitamin. Another study found that men without a vitamin D deficiency had no increase in testosterone levels after taking vitamin D.
If a young man's low testosterone is a problem for a couple trying to get pregnant, gonadotropin injections may be an option in some cases. These are hormones that signal the body to produce more testosterone. This may increase the sperm count. Hedges also describes implantable testosterone pellets, a relatively new form of treatment in which several pellets are placed under the skin of the buttocks, where they release testosterone over the course of about three to four months. Injections and nasal gels may be other options for some men.