Testosterone is the major androgenic hormone. It is responsible for the development of the male external genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics. In females, its main role is as an estrogen precursor. In both genders, it also exerts anabolic effects and influences behavior.
In men, testosterone is secreted by the testicular Leydig cells and, to a minor extent, by the adrenal cortex. In premenopausal women, the ovaries are the main source of testosterone with minor contributions by the adrenals and peripheral tissues. After menopause, ovarian testosterone production is significantly diminished. Testosterone production in testes and ovaries is regulated via pituitary-gonadal feedback involving luteinizing hormone (LH) and, to a lesser degree, inhibins and activins.
Most circulating testosterone is bound to sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which in men also is called testosterone-binding globulin. A lesser fraction is albumin bound and a small proportion exists as free hormone. Historically, only the free testosterone was thought to be the biologically active component. However, testosterone is weakly bound to serum albumin and dissociates freely in the capillary bed, thereby becoming readily available for tissue uptake. All non-SHBG-bound testosterone is therefore considered bioavailable.
During childhood, excessive production of testosterone induces premature puberty in boys and masculinization in girls. In adult women, excess testosterone production results in varying degrees of virilization, including hirsutism, acne, oligo-amenorrhea, or infertility. Mild-to-moderate testosterone elevations are usually asymptomatic in males, but can cause distressing symptoms in females. The exact causes for mild-to-moderate elevations in testosterone often remain obscure. Common causes of pronounced elevations of testosterone include genetic conditions (eg, congenital adrenal hyperplasia); adrenal, testicular, and ovarian tumors; and abuse of testosterone or gonadotrophins by athletes.
Decreased testosterone in females causes subtle symptoms. These may include some decline in libido and nonspecific mood changes. In males, it results in partial or complete degrees of hypogonadism. This is characterized by changes in male secondary sexual characteristics and reproductive function. The cause is either primary or secondary/tertiary (pituitary/hypothalamic) testicular failure. In adult men, there also is a gradual modest, but progressive, decline in testosterone production starting between the fourth and sixth decades of life. Since this is associated with a simultaneous increase of SHBG levels, bioavailable testosterone may decline more significantly than apparent total testosterone, causing nonspecific symptoms similar to those observed in testosterone deficient females. However, severe hypogonadism, consequent to aging alone, is rare.
Measurement of total testosterone (TTST / Testosterone, Total, Serum) is often sufficient for diagnosis, particularly if it is combined with measurements of LH and follicle-stimulation hormone (FSH) (LH / Luteinizing Hormone [LH], Serum and FSH / Follicle-Stimulating Hormone [FSH], Serum). However, these tests may be insufficient for diagnosis of mild abnormalities of testosterone homeostasis, particularly if abnormalities in SHBG (SHBG / Sex Hormone Binding Globulin [SHBG], Serum) function or levels are present. Additional measurements of free testosterone or bioavailable testosterone are recommended in this situation; bioavailable testosterone (see TTBS / Testosterone, Total and Bioavailable, Serum) is the preferred assay.