Androgens are hormones which control the development and function of masculine tissues and characteristics. This term can refer to both natural and synthetic androgen hormones. There are several different types of androgens, the most important of which is testosterone. Each androgen controls one or more aspects of masculine development or function. Note that while androgen hormones are defined as controlling “male” characteristics, these hormones are present and active in females as well as in males.
One of the first aspects controlled by androgen hormones is the growth of the gonads of a developing fetus. At around four weeks of age, the gonads of a human fetus have begun to develop, and may become either ovaries or testicles. In the presence of androgen hormones, the gonads are induced to develop into testes. Once the gonads have differentiated into testes, they will themselves begin producing androgens. As these hormones become active in the developing fetus, they control the development of the penis, scrotum, and other structures of the male reproductive system.
Androgens play a major role in development during puberty, supporting the production of sperm, and the final stages of maturity of sex organs. The function of androgen hormones in sperm production continues throughout adulthood. These hormones also inhibit the deposition of excess fat, and promote the deposition of muscle tissue. As a result, males tend to have less body fat and more muscle than females.
In addition to regulating the development of physical masculine characteristics, androgen hormones are also thought to play a role in psychological characteristics. For example, it has been suggested that aggression and libido are linked to androgen levels. Masculine hormones alone do not control psychological characteristics such as these; rather the answer lies in a much more complex interplay between female and male hormones, and other factors.
Androgen hormones produced in the testicles are strongly implicated in prostate cancer, and have been shown to promote the growth of prostate cancer cells. Because of this, a common treatment for prostate cancer is androgen therapy, used to reduce androgen levels and lower the growth rate of prostate tumors. This treatment cannot cure the cancer but can slow down its progression.
In other situations, androgen therapy may also be used to treat women. Around menopause, many women have symptoms such as fatigue, low libido, reduced sense of well-being, reduced motivation, and other symptoms which can signify reduced androgen levels. Taking prescribed androgens as a means of therapy can help reduce the severity of these symptoms.