Men and women produce exactly the same hormones, but in different amounts: as a rule, men produce 20 times more testosterone than women, while women produce more estrogen and progesterone. As with most things in nature, this "norm" can become imbalanced, and some women may have higher levels of testosterone, causing a unique set of symptoms.
Testosterone is widely thought of as the male sex hormone, but women also produce it: in the ovaries, adrenal glands, body fat and in some other body tissues, according to the Women's Health Program at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Without testosterone, a woman cannot synthesize estrogen. Your level of testosterone affects much of your body's physiology, including the adrenal glands, the thyroid gland, your reproductive system, your skin, hair, voice and even your desire to win at a board game, also known as competitiveness.
High testosterone levels in women can result in acne, increased facial and body hair, increased insulin production and a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS. According to the Center for Young Women's Health, PCOS results in many tiny cysts or bumps inside the ovaries, which can result in abdominal pain and irregular periods. PCOS is caused by hormones in your brain and ovaries, which act as chemical messengers that tell your body when to ovulate, menstruate and grow hair among other activities. The Center also reports that skin cells and hair follicles are extremely sensitive to the slightest increase in female testosterone levels, and this can cause acne and facial hair.
The cysts in PCOS are seldom harmful and usually don't need removal. Instead, they are generally treated with oral contraceptives, or "the pill", which can correct hormone imbalances by reducing testosterone and therefore decreasing acne and unwanted growth of facial and body hair, regulating your periods and even lowering your risk for endometrial cancer. The pill, in combination with an oral diabetic medicine called metformin, may decrease the level of insulin in the bloodstream in insulin-resistant pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. In type 2 diabetes, you may have high levels of glucose and insulin in your blood at the same time, due to your body being unable to use insulin properly. The Center for Young Women's Health recommends that women with elevated testosterone levels should have their blood sugar, or glucose levels, checked often. Many women with PCOS have trouble getting pregnant, and medicines that reduce your insulin can help you ovulate and may decrease the pain that accompanies it.
Other potential complications of high testosterone levels in women are significant depression and increased aggression, according to Dr. Gabe Mirkin, a practicing physician for over 40 years and a graduate of Harvard and the Baylor University College of Medicine. "Women and pre-puberty girls with high levels of testosterone are at an increased risk of depression," states Mirkin. To understand the significance of testosterone, Mirkin points out that within 24 hours of a total hysterectomy—including removal of the ovaries—a woman's blood level of testosterone can drop 70 percent. This lowered level can result in osteoporosis, decreased libido, painful intercourse and increased total body fat.
If you suspect that you may have a high level of testosterone, the Women's Health Program recommends that you get tested. This blood test is more accurate if the sample is taken in the morning, between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., when testosterone is usually at its highest level. This sex hormone fluctuates throughout the day. You should not have the test during menstruation and should wait at least eight days after the start of your period. The program also reports that "women in their 40's have approximately 50 percent of the testosterone levels they had in their 20's." ABC.net also confirms that testosterone levels vary according to stress levels. In terms of aggression, the chicken or the egg question comes into play: "Does testosterone elevate aggression or does aggression elevate testosterone?" Researchers continue to study this relationship and its powerful implications.