Dear Mr. Dad: My 13-year old son doesn’t seem to be maturing as quickly as his peers. His voice has barely changed, he’s not sprouting much facial or body hair, and he’s below average in height. He’s also overweight and seems tired a lot of the time. Lately he’s become obsessed with the idea that his problem is Low-T. He’s been bringing me magazine ads, pointing to TV commercials and Internet ads, and is trying to convince me that he needs testosterone supplements. Could he be right? I though low testosterone was only something that affects older men.
A: The answer to your question is Yes and No. Yes, he could indeed have low testosterone (frequently–and annoyingly–referred to as Low-T). But No (no, no, no) he should absolutely not start taking supplements or doing anything to “treat” the problem until he’s been properly diagnosed by a professional. And by professional, I mean a trained healthcare provider who will run blood tests (the only accurate way to measure testosterone levels) and who is committed to identifying the underlying issues and how to overcome them, rather than to selling you a bunch of pills. Stay far, far away from anyone (including advice columnists) who claims to be able to diagnose and treat low testosterone or other medical conditions without actually seeing the patient.
Testosterone is a naturally occurring hormone that in boys helps regulate many of the markers of sexual maturity, including hair growth, muscle mass, and voice changes. (Girls also produce testosterone and it influences their sexual maturity as well, but to a lesser extent.) Testosterone also plays a role in mood, fat distribution, and energy levels.
The symptoms you’ve described may—or may not—be caused by low testosterone. For example, your son’s weight issues could be related to testosterone or other hormone levels; several studies have found that testosterone levels in obese teenage boys are half of what they are in normal-weight boys. But is obesity causing the low testosterone or is it the other way ‘round? And as far as your son’s energy levels, if he’s got a weight problem, chances are he’s not getting enough exercise. Lack of exercise contributes to lack of energy. But low energy can have many other causes, including Vitamin D deficiency. Body hair, height, and voice changes? Could be testosterone—or it could be that your son is just maturing slowly. Puberty is hitting kids at younger ages these days, but not everyone is fully mature by 14.
If it turns out that your son’s testosterone is low, the biggest concern is to find out why. In boys, testosterone is produced in the testicles (hence the similar names) and an abnormality could affect levels. A number of genetic conditions and prescription medications can lower testosterone. And then there’s antibacterial soap. Yep, soap
“Over the past few decades there has been a dramatic increase in the use of anti-bacterial chemical additives in personal care products, including soaps, shampoos, dishwashing liquids, deodorants, and even some toothpastes,” says Dr. Stephen Giorgianni, an advisor to Men’s Health Network, a DC-based non-profit. “Unfortunately, some of these anti-bacterial agents have a chemical structure that looks like testosterone and functions as a sort of Trojan Horse. When the faux-testosterone gets into the bloodstream, our body thinks it’s the real thing and stops producing natural testosterone. As a result, the boy or man can develop a true decline in testosterone levels and start showing symptoms.”
Bottom line? Have your son see his pediatrician, and do more research on low testosterone at http://www.menshealthnetwork.org