By Christopher Cudworth
Is less testosterone really such a bad thing?
Every time one of those commercials for male testosterone comes on the radio it strikes me that guys of a certain age may be worrying about all the wrong things.
Read between the lines and you can guess that male sexual performance is hidden somewhere in the messaging. But “energy” and “drive” are such nebulous terms they could apply to just about anything. Business. Creativity. Hell, taking out the garbage.
The problem with obsessing over testosterone levels is that you don’t know what the net effect of your testosterone boost might be. Will it genuinely improve your energy or turn out to be a distracting yank on your system?
A somewhat medical perspective…
An episode of the TV show “House” focused on what happened when a normally driven character lost some of his creative and professional drive when his testosterone levels suddenly dropped due to some organ failure. He was professionally brilliant but a total jerk before his testosterone levels dropped. Then he became a nice person during his testosterone dip and his partner was forced to consider the meaning of what she would gain or lose if she choose either the jerky genius or the milder, kinder man she discovered sans testosterone.
I won’t spoil the ending in case you’re surfing cable channels some night and happen upon that episode of House. It’s an interesting conclusion that makes you think about the relative merits of too much or too little testosterone.
Competitive athletes and testosterone
For competitive athletes testosterone in men obviously plays some sort of role in the desire to compete and win. Nature outfitted the male gender with a sometimes overloaded capacity for testosterone production so that men could rise up and compete for mates. Take a look at what ram bighorn sheep go through, clopping heads together high in the mountains. Or those ugly elephant seals snorfing and stabbing at each other with tusks until they are quivering heaps of bloody flab. The male animal can get crass and dangerous with too much testosterone running through their veins.
NFL proves the point of testosterone madness
We have the NFL as testimony to the dangers of testosterone. It is rapidly becoming evident that thousands of former NFL players have suffered brain damage from competing in a sport that quite closely resembles those male bighorn sheep, clattering heads together in a ritualized way. Now that we know the truth about what helmets can and cannot do to shield ourselves from the drives of testosterone, we face the question of whether football can even survive as a social institution. Is a ritual of male human beings crashing into each other important enough to put the lives and minds of thousands of youngsters at risk beginning as early as 6 years old?
Some parents have begun to question the merits of football. My own father forbid his four boys from playing the game. We were all good athletes who could have found a place on the field. My oldest brother could have been a murderously good tailback or fullback. He was strong, agile and unafraid. My next oldest brother and I might have made decent receivers with good hands, and my youngest brother at 6’6” turned out to be an All State basketball player, but with a 36” vertical leap he might have made a fearsomely good tight end. Who’s going to outjump that type of receiver?
Wisdom of a father
But dad didn’t want us playing what he considered a brutal, dumb sport. In my case he literally took me to high school on the first day of fall sports at little Kaneland High School in the cornfields and shoved me in the cross country locker room saying, “You’re going to run cross country and if you come back out of there, I’ll break your neck. Because that’s what would happen to you in football.”
He was right. I stood 5’11” at the time and weighed just under 130 lbs. Skinny didn’t describe me. I was scrawny. But tough. And I’d won the local Punt, Pass and Kick competition and thought football sounded kind of cool. But deep down, not really. I knew nothing of the real game and did not really want to learn. Schoolyard football had resulted in one brutal concussion when I hit a cement ditch after a tackle sent me flying.
A running career begins
So I became a runner, and a year later the cross country team went 9-0 while the football team was 0-9.
Running proved the ideal antidote to my personal overload of testosterone and the resulting anxiety and sometimes even depression that came with it. Running soothed my soul and poured out the excess energy. Sure, like any teenager lust and distraction were an all-around issue, but running kept me as level-headed as could be, and for a skinny kid it provided feedback on self worth and the sense that if you worked hard at something you could achieve it, and even win at times.
The frantic battle with testosterone lasted through college when serious dating led to serious sex and my closest buddies and I learned that getting laid did not hurt your performance as some proposed, but actually helped. The feeling of being relaxed and loved is far better than being anxiously driven and manic. I set PRs for the mile and 5000 following bouts of sex. Testosterone is plentiful enough in the young to fuel both drives. That’s one of the tarsnakes of testosterone. It isn’t too choosey about what it drives us to do. It can make us heroes but it can also trip us up. Just ask Bill Clinton or any of a number of Republican politicians who rail against the lusts of society only to be caught in their own web of lies about sex, adultery and human failure. Testosterone can kick your own ass.
Growing into ourselves
But as men age, and some women too, the body’s natural hormones mellow a bit. Some men lose muscle tone and don’t feel themselves as a result of low testosterone levels. Some doctors thus prescribe testosterone to help these functions. Steroids are known to produce the same result, pumping up muscles and creating a feeling of euphoria that makes you feel like you can conquer anything.
Yet some of us recognize that a little less testosterone can be a good thing. The ability to concentrate, have patience and not feel like you have to prove yourself every second can be a bit liberating.
It may mean that you don’t care that much if you get dropped on the Saturday ride. Your pace per mile running slips from an 8:00 average to something closer to 9:00 per mile. It all raises the issue of what really matters in a life, a career and our avocations.
Does it matter if you’re the fastest? While I won many races during my running career and people remember that to some degrees, that is not how most people judge you as a human being. Instead they look for steady commitment to meeting obligations, completing work enthusiastically and on time, and showing respect and concern for others. Those are qualities that take development in many respects. They also happen to be qualities that a testosterone-driven man can overlook under the influence of one of nature’s most powerful substances.
Competition for our souls
We run and ride for fitness and health. Some choose to compete and some do not. The lesson in this analysis of testosterone is that it matters more how you compete and why than it does how often or hard you compete, and whether you win or not all the time.
Winning is always relative, you see. Even in nature we find that the cost of defending a harem is sometimes death. The bull elk gets his ass kicked sooner or later. That type of domination doesn’t last forever. But if you believe our souls are eternal in some ways, it matters just as much is how you’ve lived as how much you’ve competed and won.
It’s not that competing and the cost of competition are bad things by nature. When my college cross country coach was limping across campus next to me at a reunion, I asked about his recent back surgery, the result of years of bashing around on the football field. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” he told me. “Not on your life.”
One suspects a lot of male warriors feel the same way. To compete is to feel alive, and being horny and crazy and drinking too much and maybe shooting your mouth off and getting into fights are all a part of life that some people would never trade.
But if you’ve passed your genes along a few times and don’t mind a new role in life other than bashing heads with other males, there just might be meaning for men beyond testosterone.
As for me, I’ll run and ride to that.