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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Who Can Afford Testosterone? Everyone -- At Game-Time

Posted By on Tue, May 15, 2012 at 8:30 AM

The testosterone molecule - BENJAH-BMM27
  • Benjah-bmm27
  • The testosterone molecule

You can blame it on my gender or my graduate degree from Sarah Lawrence, but I never really got testosterone. Lately, however, the idea has been hard to avoid, what with so many professional athletes using anabolic steroids and other drugs that mimic testosterone's effects. The bigger controversies involving Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens aside, Giants relief pitcher Guillermo Mota was recently suspended for a second time for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, while Manny Ramirez of the Oakland A's (another two-time offender) is due to reach the end of a 100-game suspension later this month.

Digging deep into the recesses of my memory, I remembered that an adult male produces seven to eight times more testosterone than does an adult female. It's associated with a wide spectrum of physical development and aggression, including the kind baseball players would need. I would assume, then, that Mota and the always colorful Ramirez produce plenty during a competitive game.

All these suspensions pose a rather basic question: Don't most men -- particularly professional athletes -- naturally produce bountiful levels of testosterone on their own?

Not necessarily.

Tsimane men experience spikes in testosterone production. - UC SANTA BARBARA
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • Tsimane men experience spikes in testosterone production.

Thus concluded anthropologist Michael Gurven, who studied a group of men in central Bolivia known as the Tsimane (pronounced "chi-MAH-nay"). The UC Santa Barbara professor spent time amongst the isolated indigenous group, and he found its days were spent hunting, foraging, fishing, and clearing land by hand to grow crops.

The group's high level of daily physical activity is necessary for survival, but Gurven's study, completed in conjunction with the University of Washington, reached surprising conclusions.

According to the study, "the baseline testosterone level of Tsmimane men is 33 percent lower than that of men living in the United States, where life is physically less demanding."

How's that? Well, you have to understand that high levels of testosterone compromise the body's immune system. So Gurven believes those who enjoy the post-industrialization ease of First World countries -- including all those convenient modern amenities we depend on -- can afford to maintain high levels of testosterone, while men who hunt and fish as part of their daily survival cannot.

"Higher levels," Gurven explains, "can be maintained in well-nourished, relatively pathogen-free men."

The Tsimane, however, simply can't afford it. In an environment rife with parasites and pathogens, they need to keep their testosterone levels as low as possible.

In the United States, men show a decline in testosterone as they age, but Tsimane men maintain a stable testosterone level across their lifespan. They show little incidence of illnesses we normally associate with age, including heart disease.

Men living in the First World and Tsimane men do share similar circumstances under which they experience short-term spikes in testosterone: competition. Stereotypes aside, researchers discovered this during an organized soccer tournament. Eight teams competed from different villages, Tsimane vs. Tsimane.

The men experienced a 30 percent increase in testosterone immediately after the game, and it declined by only 15 percent an hour later. Similarly, men in the U.S. and other industrialized countries have shown analogous patterns. Gurven concluded that the competition-linked bursts of testosterone are a fundamental components of our biology, even if it increases the likelihood of sickness.

"It's likely that those who can 'afford' testosterone spikes are more likely to have them," Gurven says. "But you might be willing to pay a price -- potentially downregulating certain aspects of the immune function -- if it's worth it, [such as] being challenged by other men [or] engaging in direct mating effort."

But who would win in a soccer match, the U.S. men who maintain higher levels of testosterone at all times, or the testosterone-spiked Tsimane men?

As Gurven points out, "U.S. men are bigger, are more robust, have nice shoes." In addition to the advantage of height and heft, exposure to fewer parasites and pathogens would provide the competitive advantage necessary for success.

We know Mota and Ramirez are certainly robust - but so are their teammates and competitors. Juicing allows Mota, age 38, and Ramirez, 39, to play better to a later age. When players will do anything to maintain a slight advantage, cheating becomes that much more attractive.

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The work in Gurven's study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health & Development and the National Institute on Aging and conducted in the UW Biological Anthropology and Biodemography Lab.

Co-authors are Kathleen O'Connor and Eric Smith, both professors in UW's anthropology department and UW's Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology; Ben Trumble, a UW anthropology graduate student; Daniel Cummings, University of New Mexico; and Christopher von Rueden, UC Santa Barbara.

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Alexis Coe

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