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Risks and Realities of OTC Testosterone Supplements

Mike wasn’t feeling like himself. He was gaining weight, losing some muscle mass, and feeling somewhat tired and moody. Even worse, he noticed that his sex drive and his erections weren’t as robust as they used to be. He was fifty-five now and recognized that he was aging. But, like many of us, he wasn’t happy about it.

He had heard about “low T” – low testosterone – and wondered whether taking supplements might help him get back on track. Some of his friends were taking them and advertisements for supplements were all over the internet and late-night TV. He saw older men lifting weights, playing vigorous sports, and drinking cocktails with beautiful women, acting “young” again.

Should he try supplements, too?

It was a tough question. He considered going to his doctor, but felt embarrassed about discussing his sex life. He looked at some online retailers, but felt nervous about ordering from a site he’d never heard of.

There are lots of men like Mike, wondering whether they should try over-the-counter (non-prescription) testosterone supplements. In today’s post, we’ll examine some of the risks and realities of such products.


Declines in Testosterone

Produced by the testes, the hormone testosterone is responsible for a number of masculine characteristics, including facial hair, increased muscle mass, and sex drive.

Once a man reaches 40, his testosterone levels start to decline about 1% each year. This decline is a normal part of aging. Sometimes it’s referred to as “andropause” or “male menopause” although the hormonal drop that women experience during menopause is much more rapid and substantial.

Still, testosterone decline is not to be taken lightly. Diminished sex drive and stamina are certainly bothersome. Other symptoms include difficulty concentrating, depression, fatigue, and breast enlargement. Some men have hot flashes.

Low testosterone is sometimes difficult to determine. Normal levels are generally over 300 nanograms per deciliter. But all men are different and what’s normal for one man may be low for another.


Are Over-the-Counter Supplements the Answer?

Over-the-counter testosterone supplements are widely advertised. But there are some important things to consider:

  • Controlled substance. Testosterone is a controlled substance in the United States. This means it can only be obtained by prescription. It is illegal for over-the-counter supplements to contain testosterone.
  • Other ingredients. It’s not always clear what supplements are made of. As in the case of male enhancement products, they may claim to be “all natural” or “herbal” but still illegally include prescription drugs or similar substances which aren’t specified on the label. Drugs and herbs can interact with medications a man is already taking, sometimes with dangerous consequences.
  • Not regulated. Supplements are not always regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Also, they may not be extensively studied or subject to quality control. They may be manufactured in factories with substandard conditions.
  • Questionable effectiveness. Because many supplements have not been widely studied in clinical trials, it’s not clear how effective they are or what side effects they may have. Marketers may state that the supplements “boost testosterone” but these claims may not be proven.

Taking Testosterone

Does a man need to take testosterone? That question is best answered by his doctor.

Some men do have unusually low testosterone, a condition called hypogonadism. This may occur if the testes cannot produce the necessary amounts of testosterone. Or, a problem in the brain may interfere with testosterone production. For these men, testosterone replacement therapy may work well.

Testosterone therapy may be an option for men who are aging, too. However, before starting therapy, it’s best to have a checkup with the doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions. Many factors can cause the symptoms of low testosterone. For example, side effects of medications may impair a man’s libido. Erectile dysfunction may be a sign of diabetes. Some men find that their symptoms improve by making lifestyle changes, such as eating healthier foods and exercising more.

In other words, testosterone therapy may be the answer. But it’s best to have a doctor make that determination.


Chicago Tribune

Deardorff, Julie

“The reality of ‘low T’”

(March 1, 2012)

Wilson, Jacque

“Baby boomers find youth in testosterone”

(November 17, 2012)


(April 1, 2009)

Los Angeles Times

Woolston, Chris

“The Healthy Skeptic: Products make testosterone claims”

(September 12, 2011)


Briggs, Bill

“Men seek testosterone quick fix, with risks”

(June 5, 2012)

Sexual Medicine Society of North America

“Andropause, or low testosterone”

“Conditions – Low Testosterone”

“The Dangers of Over-the-Counter Male Enhancement”

(October 9, 2012)

“Overview – Low Testosterone”

WebMD Answers

Hanes, Elizabeth

“Are over the counter testosterone supplements effective?”

(December 5, 2012)