A painful stab in my right buttock marks the first time I’ve ever injected testosterone. It’s also the first time I’ve knowingly broken the law (teenage alcohol notwithstanding) or done anything so cavalier with my health. But testosterone – a class C drug, illegal without a prescription – is no longer just a banned muscle shortcut. It’s a shot of manliness that millions of guys feel they need.
Research shows testosterone levels are falling; one estimate suggests they’re 15% lower than in the late ’80s. And men are topping up. A study of 11 million men in JAMA Internal Medicine Journal found the number of men using ‘T’ has tripled since the turn of the century. I’ve always been suspicious – scornful even – of people who take it. But for the first time, I get it.
Let me introduce myself: I’m the skinny guy. I hover around 80kg despite being a gangly 6ft 4. And I’m fine with that... only, at 31, there’s a creeping awareness that I’ll lose testosterone and muscle as the decades go by. I don’t want to be a frail old man – and testosterone promises more than just a bicep or two. If you believe the hype, it’s the elixir of youth, lowering your risk of diabetes and boosting your brain.
No wonder the big 'T' is big business. Online ads sing of an anti-ageing cure-all that restores energy and fights heart disease. It made me wonder whether testosterone is simply a top-up modern men need, like vitamin D pills or tinted moisturiser. Thousands of us are at least curious: a report in the British Medical Journal last year concluded that “many men in the UK are receiving unnecessary testosterone replacement.”
A health prescription
Some men definitely need it. For guys with low T-levels (somewhere between 1-12% of the population), testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) is available on the NHS. “Usually, the symptoms are loss of libido, erectile dysfunction, fatigue, depression, anxiety, loss of wellbeing and a decline in cognitive functions,” says Dr. Christopher Parry, of the WellMan Clinic, which offers TRT to testosterone-deficient men. But let me be clear: I don’t think my levels are low. My interest is pricked by the anti-ageing claims, so I turn to an accommodating black market. It takes two text messages before a friend of a friend offers me a vial for £40.
A fault in production
Twenty-four hours after my first injection, I feel hot. But that’s the only change. In my week’s gym sessions I feel strong, but don’t break any PBs. My sex drive doesn’t fly off the chart, I’m still knackered after work and, thankfully, not consumed with rage. So far... so what? Then I speak to Dr. Richard Quinton, an endocrinologist, who tells me something that makes my balls shrink – which they will do anyway if I continue with my injections. “The man who’s most likely to have low testosterone is the one who’s taken it,” he says. “When you inject, your brain senses a high level and your own production is switched off.” Parry confirms it: “In our clinic, we see ex-bodybuilders who have taken so much testosterone that they’ve switched off their natural production. Ten years later, they’re testosterone deficient.”
I stop immediately. I don’t want 40 years of weekly injections for the sake of a tempting but unproven anti-ageing treatment, where side effects include a thickening of my blood and a thinning of my wallet. For me, there isn’t enough evidence to justify the risk. While some clinics complain NHS guidelines are too conservative in defining low testosterone, the medical establishment fires back that clinics are feeding false fears. Maybe they’re right. I’m still worried about being a frail old man, but I decide to have my testosterone tested when I truly hit middle age; if I feel like I need it then, I’ll take it. Until that day comes, there are other ways I – and you – can pre-empt low 'T'. The tips below provide a shot in the arm you can trust.
Natural 'T' boosters
Zinc from venison, oysters and pumpkin seeds – these 7 foods will instantly boost testosterone
Sprint training: going all-out with periods of rest – try our leg day testosterone-boosting workout
Resting 90 seconds between heavy sets at the gym – these four moves will help up yout T-levels
Saturated fats from butter coconut oil and beef – how to boost your testosterone in 24 hours
Vitamin D from sunshine – here's why you need even more