Drug companies say synthetic testosterone gives you energy, helps you lose weight and boosts your sex drive. It’s the biggest thing to happen to male vanity since Viagra
Gary Rodger resembles the actor John Goodman—he’s voluble, heavy-set, quick to grin and has a head of thick, brown hair. At age 50, he lives in Hamilton and works at a company that supplies services and equipment to the telecom industry.
Three years ago, Rodger started noticing that he was fatigued all the time. His joints hurt, he was moderately depressed, his weight had risen to over 300 pounds, and his sex life with his wife was badly faltering. He began to see a relationship counsellor, who, after treating him for several sessions, suggested that his condition might be caused by low levels of testosterone in his system.
Rodger visited his GP, who administered a blood test for testosterone. Whereas a healthy patient will have anywhere between eight and 38 nanomoles of testosterone per litre of blood, Rodger scored 7.5, a level so close to the normal range that his doctor told him he was fine. When Rodger insisted that he see a specialist, he was referred to a urologist, who conducted a blood test as well. Rodger again scored 7.5, and was again told to go home.
Though his symptoms persisted, Rodger forgot about testosterone until one afternoon a few months later. After a game of golf, he started chatting with another player in the clubhouse. The topic of health came up, and Rodger found himself describing his symptoms to this relative stranger. (“We’re older guys,” Rodger says. “We weren’t talking about chasing broads, you know?”) The other golfer told Rodger he’d suffered from exactly the same symptoms and that he too had been unable to get relief until he found someone willing to prescribe testosterone supplements. That someone was Larry Komer, a heavy-lidded, somewhat taciturn 69-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist from Burlington, who also happens to be one of the team doctors for the Toronto Rock. In concert with his OB/GYN practice, Komer runs an operation called the Masters Men’s Clinic, where he treats men for a syndrome variously known as testosterone deficiency, hypogonadism, andropause, male menopause and, perhaps most commonly, low T.
Owing to Komer’s exhausting schedule—he often sees patients during the day after delivering a baby in the middle of the night—Rodger had to wait six months and only got an appointment when another patient cancelled. He took the blood test again and again scored 7.5. This time, however, Rodger was also given a lengthy questionnaire about the aspects of health most commonly impaired by low testosterone, namely energy level, libido, mood, weight and flexibility. Upon considering Rodger’s answers and his low-normal scores, Komer concluded that Rodger really was suffering from a testosterone deficiency and prescribed a testosterone replacement.
Rodger had several products to choose from. Synthetic testosterone pills are the easiest to take, though the level of absorption is low. Patches have mostly fallen out of favour, as a rash tends to form in the contact area. Injections are the cheapest and most effective, though some men feel squeamish about getting a shot in a roll of belly fat every week or two. Gels are as effective as injections but messy and expensive—a month’s supply will cost between $120 and $240, while injections average $25. On a more precarious note, gels can cause hair growth and voice deepening if they accidentally come in contact with a woman’s skin, and can spur sexual development in young children; Abbott Laboratories, the makers of the market-leading AndroGel, advise that after applying the product, users wash their hands, their sink and, just to be prudent, their faucet.
Undeterred, Gary Rodger chose AndroGel. The morning after picking up his prescription, he rubbed two dabs into each forearm and one into each of his biceps. The next day, after showering, he did so again. After three months, Rodger’s testosterone levels hit 16, and Komer upped his dosage. After six months, his levels had risen to 23, and he was starting to feel a little better. After nine months, he was at 35, or high-normal. “I felt fantastic,” he told me. “There’s no other word for it. Before, I was spending all my spare time lying on my couch eating potato chips, and suddenly I was up and doing things!”
He started going to the gym and seeing friends. He even credits AndroGel with resolving his marital difficulties, though not in the way he thought it would: “Before, I had no libido, and so I never went near my wife. When my sex drive came back, I could see my health wasn’t the issue and that we had fundamental relationship problems.” Rodger and his wife separated, he lost 60 pounds, and he moved into a new house, all of which he credits to the vitality gained from AndroGel.
Listening to Rodger’s story, it’s easy to imagine a world of hormonally deficient men all storming back to life thanks to testosterone replacement therapy. Both Mount Sinai and the executive health clinic Medcan now offer programs for the treatment of low T, as do a handful of smaller clinics—the Masters Men’s Clinic alone has seen about 3,500 men since Komer started treating low T a dozen years ago. In Canada, Eli Lilly is now producing an underarm supplement called Axiron, and Trimel will soon release a gel taken nasally. (Both, say the makers, reduce the risk of cross-contamination.) The Internet is awash with for-purchase supplements, the ingredients ranging from the federally approved to the foolhardy. Not to be outdone, American television channels and websites catering to male interests are now home to ads promoting a life free from testosterone diminishment, the visual content repeated across brands: that virile 55-year-old riding a mountain bike, his beautiful (and suggestively grinning) wife in tow.
IMS Health, a data provider for doctors and medical researchers, reports that testosterone supplementation has grown into a $2-billion-a-year global industry, a figure that doesn’t factor in the shadowy world of direct-to-consumer marketing. While this is a piddling number compared to, say, pharmaceuticals treating high cholesterol or erectile dysfunction—two other albatrosses of the fading male—it’s the trajectory that’s most compelling. In the past five years, Canadian sales have risen by a formidable 47 per cent. If this continues, soon enough AndroGel will be as common in medicine cabinets as Lipitor and Viagra.