According to popular wisdom, decreased sex drive comes with aging, just like rotten teeth and a newfound interest in golf communities. But last week, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that aging doesn’t have to mean decreased libido for women. By taking testosterone supplements, older women can restore their sexual desire to pre-menopausal levels.
Well, it’s not exactly revelation — for the past 20 years I’ve been saying that both men and women need to boost testosterone as they age in order to enjoy continued sexual drive, as well as to maintain energy levels and good circulation and to build muscle while burning fat. And predictably, although the researchers started on the right track, they went a bit askew in designing their study and so some problems arose — like an increased incidence of cancer among the subjects. But more on that in a minute. First let’s look at what the scientists did discover.
The year-long study, conducted by a consortium of researchers in Australia, Canada, Sweden, and the US and sponsored by Proctor & Gamble, gave testosterone patches (manufactured by Proctor & Gamble — but you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) to 814 women. The patches came in two different doses: 150 or 300 mcg. At the higher dose, subjects reported a 2.1 times increase in “satisfying sexual experiences.” Originally, this group reported an average of two satisfying experiences a month, but with the patch, that rate increased to one a week. Even those on the lower dose patch reported significantly increased desire.
But as mentioned, the renewed sexual zest appeared to be marred by some unfortunate side effects. Four of the subjects developed breast cancer early on in the study, and though the researchers considered this a “statistical blip,” it raises concerns.
As Dr. Leslie R. Schover, of the University of Texas Anderson Cancer Center, says, “A valid safety study needs at least a five-year follow-up period in a large, randomized trial. If women use Intrinsa [the testosterone patch] without such a trial, I believe they are risking their lives to gain a very modest increase in sexual desire.”
Study director, Dr. Susan Davis, dismissed such worries. She said four cases of cancer in a study of this size “is not unexpected…and it is probably a chance finding that they were in the two treatment groups.”
Call it what you will — dangerous risk, or a mere “chance finding”–in addition to the cancer cases, the patch also caused some subjects to report excess hair growth and androgenic side effects — and those undesirable side effects point exactly to where the study went wrong. As I’ve written before, women do indeed need to boost their testosterone levels starting after age 30 in order to keep sexual drive level and to maintain energy and muscle mass. But, by pumping subjects full of testosterone, the researchers showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. Instead of delivering large amounts of “extra” testosterone (a practice that might, in fact, increase cancer risk) women need to “free up” the testosterone already residing in their bodies (a much, much safer proposition).
The fact is that women don’t stop producing testosterone as they age. In fact, the overall testosterone level for both men and women remains essentially the same throughout their lives, but the amount of bio-available testosterone decreases with age. What happens is that over time, the free circulating testosterone in the body gets bound to both albumin and a natural substance called SHBG (sex-hormone-binding-globulin), so although the older body still has plenty of testosterone, it can’t use it. Because SHGB levels tend to increase as we age, more and more of the body’s available testosterone becomes bound up with advancing years. And also, as I’ve reported previously, the oral contraceptive pill tends to inflate SHBG levels even after women stop taking the pill. So older women who were on the pill at any point in their lives may have particularly low levels of available testosterone.
To restore testosterone levels, the challenge is to free up the bound testosterone already residing in the body — not to artificially overload the body with excess amounts of additional hormone. And the wondrous thing is that testosterone can indeed be freed in an absolutely natural and safe way, simply by taking the right herbs. A formula combining such components as saw palmetto, nettles, and wild oats can increase free testosterone levels by more than 100 percent — without the disturbing and possibly deadly side effects.
But as usual, medical science (not to mention Proctor & Gamble) has little interest in the obvious and safe solution, and so the push is on to get FDA approval for the testosterone patch. Procter & Gamble spokesperson, Tom Milliken says, “Based on these data and other studies we’ve conducted, we are continuing our talks with [the] FDA to explore new opportunities and pathways forward.”
May the force be with any women who decide to opt for the patch, should it show up on the market soon. And indeed, it just might, with support from such luminaries as Dr. JoAnn V. Pinkerton, M.D., a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia and president of the American Menopause Society.
“We don’t have enough safety data to say it’s safe for long-term use,” she admits, “but I think short-term, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.” Tell that to one of the four subjects now suffering from breast cancer.