Kesh, a Hormonology newsletter subscriber, asks: “I have a question regarding testosterone. Is it possible you could tell us girls its effects (highs/lows) for all 4 weeks of our cycle. I would love to know if it’s high or low.”
My answer: You bring up a very good question about testosterone. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth about how to write about testosterone levels because how testosterone works in women is sort of tricky to explain. But, here’s how it goes:
In a healthy, regularly cycling woman, the body generally produces a level amount of testosterone all cycle long except for the days right around ovulation when it produces a bit more.
However, the amount of testosterone your body actually uses follows the up-and-down pattern of your estrogen. That’s because estrogen is like a key that helps “open” certain hormone receptors that allow your brain and body to use testosterone.
So, when estrogen goes up, your brain and body respond more to testosterone, which in a way is as though your testosterone level is also rising.
The same thing goes for when estrogen levels decline: Your brain and body respond less to testosterone, so it’s like testosterone declines, too.
Testosterone is a hormone that revs confidence, makes us impulsive, sharpens spatial abilities and other brain skills and boosts libido. This means that, in general, as estrogen levels rise, enhancing testosterone’s effects, you’ll feel these effects more intensely.
But, this isn’t the whole story–testosterone can get a bit complicated:
For instance, research shows that your spatial skills actually peak during your menstrual week because the low amount of estrogen allows your testosterone to shine through. Yet, the same low estrogen in your premenstrual week doesn’t have the same effect.
It may be because during your menstrual week, estrogen is low though rising, which helps the brain take in more testosterone, yet it isn’t high enough to eclipse testosterone’s effects. In your premenstrual week, estrogen is plunging, which limits access to these hormone receptors, which may blunt testosterone’s spatial skill-sharpening effects.
Some activities can cause a temporary rise in testosterone, too. For example, some research shows that adopting a “power pose” (such as standing up straight with your hands on your hips) for two minutes prompts your body to churn out more of this hormone. So does watching your favorite sports team and competing in an athletic event yourself.
Aside from a few exceptions like these, I recommend that, in general, when you think about how high or low your body’s level of testosterone is, you match it with your estrogen level, which you can see in the chart above.
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