TREATING MALE HYPOGONADISM: Compounding Options to Boost Low Testosterone in Men
TREATING MALE HYPOGONADISM: Compounding Options to Boost Low Testosterone in Men
Hypogonadism in men is primarily a state involving lower than expected levels of testosterone, and traditionally this condition has been treated almost exclusively with testosterone supplementation. However, low testosterone can be fairly complex, involving a myriad of factors including the inability of the testes to produce sufficient testosterone, improper brain signaling, and excess estrogen. (Primarily seen as female hormones, estrogens are also very important in men since declining testosterone can alter the androgen:estrogen relationship. While there is not an established target value for the androgen:estrogen ratio, changes in this relationship can result in complications such as declining prostate health). In some men, clear reasons behind low testosterone can be difficult to determine. The end result, though, can be the same: insufficient testosterone that results in an unhealthy life and is often characterized by symptoms such as loss of libido, erectile dysfunction, depressed mood, and lethargy. After proper diagnosis, including testing for testosterone, estrogen, and luteinizing hormone (LH), properly directed therapy can be dramatically effective in reversing these symptoms and providing a healthier, more robust lifestyle.
In this review we will consider the following ways to increase and/or maintain testosterone levels within at least the mid-physiologic levels, while also keeping the androgen:estrogen relationship in mind:
- Lifestyle changes
- Reduce estrogen levels
- Increase testicular output of testosterone
- Testosterone supplementation
Lifestyle modifications can boost testosterone production and keep the androgen/estrogen relationship healthy. Sedentary lifestyles, central adiposity, and unhealthy habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol use work against that goal. Whenever and to whatever extent possible, we should recommend an active exercise program that involves both aerobic and weight-resistant activities, along with a healthy eating plan that promotes loss of excess weight and fat. Many men who follow these tenets of healthy eating, appropriate dieting, and adequate exercise will find that their hormone levels correlate positively with their lifestyles. This, by far, is the simplest and soundest basis for hormonal health.
2) Reduce estrogen levels
Adverse effects have been reported with changes in the androgen:estrogen relationship; these changes can occur because of declining testosterone levels and increasing (or even constant) levels of estrogens. As mentioned previously, changes in this relationship are patient-specific and there is not a desired target value. Estradiol has been identified as a primary mediator in the hypothalamus/pituitary axis (HPA, Appendix A) for gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) and thus luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) in men. Thus, it becomes important to monitor estrogen levels (primarily estradiol, but also estrone) so that corrective action can be initiated when estrogen levels are high. Some studies have shown that, instead of actual testosterone supplementation, testosterone levels can be increased by using aromatase inhibitors to decrease the synthesis of estrogen. High estradiol levels, through the negative feedback mechanism, can shut down or slow down GnRH secretion, and thus decrease the levels of LH and FSH. LH is the primary messenger hormone to signal the Leydig cells in the testes to produce more testosterone. Therefore, decreasing the action of estradiol with an aromatase inhibitor increases the production of testosterone. Another reason to be aware of estrogen levels is the role that estrogen plays in the level of Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG). Estrogen elevation contributes to the elevation of SHBG, a protein that binds testosterone and decreases the level of free testosterone. This free form is the active form of testosterone; therefore agents that lower estrogen are proposed to increase the amount of active testosterone available.
For many men, the simplest and least invasive steps to reduce estrogen levels are to lose weight, practice good nutrition and engage in regular exercise. Because aromatase, the enzyme system that is responsible for converting testosterone to estradiol (as well as converting androstenedione to estrone) is more abundant in fatty rather than lean tissue, fat reduction through exercise can improve the relationship of androgen and estrogen levels. A potent aromatase inhibitor that has been studied for use in men with high estrogen levels is anastrozole, available commercially as a 1 mg tablet or as bulk powder. Some pharmacists and physicians have found that it can be very effective in oral doses ranging from 0.25mg three times a week to 0.5mg every other day. It also has been prepared in a sublingual form, with a suggested dose of 0.1mg daily. Another commercially available aromatase inhibitor is letrozole, which is available as a 2.5mg tablet and has been studied with good results in men. Suggested dosing ranges from 2.5mg three times per week to 2.5mg daily. As a means of gauging the effectiveness of these agents, one should obtain baseline levels of estradiol, and then compare them with levels 30 to 60 days after initiation of therapy. (Chrysin, Vitamin C and Zinc have been reported as aromatase inhibitors, but there is little literature supporting these agents). A very important consideration is that we do not lower estradiol so greatly that we induce hot flashes or contribute to osteoporosis. Another important reason to avoid drastic lowering of estradiol levels is that estradiol may possess libido-enhancing effects in men and these effects may decrease with declining estradiol levels. Some practitioners have suggested the combined use of testosterone with anastrozole, as either a sublingual or parenteral dosage, which may prove to be useful therapy in some patients.
3) Increase testicular output of testosterone
Increasing testicular output of testosterone may be the desired option in the case of secondary hypogonadism, a condition in which the testes may be fully intact but are not receiving proper or sufficient signals to produce testosterone. The signal hormones LH and FSH may be mimicked by Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG); an injection of hCG can often reactivate the testicular secretion of testosterone by binding at LH receptors. Dosage requirements vary from patient to patient, with some responding to injections of 500 units three times weekly and others requiring up to 1500 units three times weekly. For some men this may be a very effective way of restoring testosterone to physiologic levels while not suppressing the male’s ability to produce sperm. Testosterone supplementation can decrease sperm production by suppressing FSH thru the negative feedback system. It should be noted that treatment to stimulate testicular output of testosterone would not be useful in a man diagnosed with primary testicular failure, in which the testes are unable to produce testosterone (a condition referred to as primary hypogonadism).
Clomiphene also works to increase testosterone production. It has been known for many years that clomiphene could be used to test the integrity of the HPA, but several papers have been published in recent years that chronicle the use of this agent as a potentially important means of maintaining sufficient testosterone levels on an on-going basis. (Many are familiar with the use of clomiphene in female fertility; it can also be useful in male fertility). At doses ranging from 25mg every other day to as high as 100mg daily, clomiphene acts as a SERM, effectively blocking estradiol from binding to its receptor. With less estrogen binding, GNRH levels increase and lead to increases in LH and FSH secretion. Clomiphene has been compared in at least one head-to-head study with testosterone supplementation and has been shown to be very effective in both restoring hormone levels and reducing signs and symptoms of hypogonadism. Clomiphene overcomes the previously mentioned problem of decreased sperm production seen with testosterone supplementation. For this reasons, clomiphene is one of the best options for men interested in maintaining their fertility. As in the case with anastrozole, the combined use of clomiphene and testosterone seems to have merit; the principle is that the clomiphene would help maintain the level of LH, which usually declines with testosterone therapy. Thus, we have the body making testosterone, and that would combine with the testosterone supplementation. While not yet clinically tested, this combined therapy has generated interest.
4) Testosterone supplementation
Testosterone supplementation: that is the form of treatment most familiar to all. For many men, this will be the treatment of choice – it is easily understood and, when properly administered, can be very effective in boosting testosterone levels. (See discussion on “Male Hypogonadism/Low Testosterone in Men: Patient Screening and Monitoring Guidelines” document)
- Parenteral Dosing
Giving testosterone by intramuscular injection is probably the most common form of dosing over the past twenty-thirty years, and it seems to work well for many men. However, a serious and confusing drawback is the erratic release of testosterone; there is no way to provide a steady-state release over the 3 to 4 week intervals at which the injections were usually recommended. Many times the physician would measure levels after a three week interval and find them surprisingly low. Not understanding that effective dosing is a matter of finding the proper interval, physicians would increase the dose from, for example 200mg up to 300 or even 400mg. This would not lengthen the duration of action, but would rather sharpen the peaks and valleys associated with testosterone ester injections. The patient would experience supraphysiologic levels in the first week, then have declining levels after that; results of the supraphysiologic levels include increased conversion to estradiol and the previously mentioned polycythemia. Gynecomastia has also been associated with this kind of therapy. It has been proposed multiple times in recent years that a better method of dosing intramuscularly is to give a lower dose at weekly intervals; a suggestion of 75mg to 100mg is quite common. In this way, there is a more continuous release of the hormone without the peaks and valleys of the traditional dosing pattern. Our clinical pharmacists in Pavilion Compounding Pharmacy have developed a unique formula in which we compound our testosterone injections in MCT oil. MCT oil is much thinner versus other oils commonly used such as sesame oil or grapeseed oil. MCT oil used by Pavilion Compounding Pharmacy is NF grade, from an FDA registered manufacturer, and has been third party tested to meet all regulatory requirements. MCT oil is beneficial as it is less viscous (meaning potentially less pain upon injection) and is a natural and healthy fatty oil.
Subcutaneous dosing is being looked at as a potentially more favorably route of dosing, allowing the patient more freedom to dose himself than was possible with the intramuscular injections.
In a pilot study, testosterone enanthate in oil was given by subcutaneous injection on a weekly basis. All of the patients were within the normal range for testosterone following injection. Patients also reported the subcutaneous route was easy to use and well tolerated. In general, subcutaneous injections are preferred over intramuscular injections because they are less painful, more convenient, allow for smoother release of the drug, are patient-controlled, and are associated with better compliance. If testosterone can be incorporated into a pen delivery system, as mentioned in the study on subcutaneous injection of testosterone, patients will benefit even more with the improved convenience.
- Topical Administration.
At this time, topical administration appears to be the most effective way of dosing testosterone. While creams, solutions, and lotions have been used, over the past dozen years the greatest benefit seems to come from topical gels. We will focus on this type of vehicle as it has more clinical information available compared with other vehicles, and compliance has been shown to be relatively easy to achieve. In most gel formulations, testosterone is completely dissolved; until high concentrations (10% and greater) are used, the gel is easily absorbed and leaves no residue. It has been suggested that gels, unlike creams, do not depot in the skin dermis but rather proceed more directly to blood vessels. From various studies over the past 10-12 years, a topical dosing range when an efficient vehicle is used can be from 40mg -120mg daily. An approximate absorption of 10% of testosterone from gel vehicles has been established, suggesting that an application of 50mg in a topical gel will result in 5mg net absorption. (For comparison with a patch, 50mg of a gel equates to about 5mg from a patch) Some practitioners prefer a topical solution to a gel, using a propylene glycol/alcohol mixture as the base and a suggested concentration of 6% testosterone. At this time there is no known benefit to using a smaller volume of a higher concentration, as high concentrations have the downside of leaving a residue. A risk associated with topical dosing is the transfer to a child or female, and every precaution should be taken to mitigate that risk.
- Sublingual or Buccal Administration
From this type of dosing route, testosterone is best given 3 to 4 times a day to maintain something approaching steady-state release.
While absorption is efficient (higher than topical) and rapid (peak levels can be obtained after approximately 30 minutes), metabolism is also rapid due to the short half-life of testosterone, and levels return to baseline after 4 to 6 hours. Effective sublingual or buccal doses can range from 10mg to 25mg per dose, suggested to be dosed at 6-8 hour intervals. While this is a relatively inexpensive and non-invasive method of dosing, the patient must understand that daily compliance of multiple dosing is necessary to obtain maximum benefit of the hormone. The use of a high dose once daily, for example at 100mg – 200mg, will simply drive the levels very high into the supraphysiologic levels for several hours, making it an unfavorable route of administration. Sublingual dosing may be useful for a male who is already supplementing testosterone but needs an extra testosterone boost to enhance sexual function. Tablet triturates with a polyglycol base are a useful and likely more effective way to dose sublingually or bucally when compared with standard troches, due to the smaller volume and shorter time to full dissolution.
- Implantable Pellets
This is a method some physicians prefer, particularly due to the fact it gives them the ability to directly control patient dosing with an in-office surgical procedure. The advantage to the patient is that compliance is not an issue; the patient has the procedure done at a 3 to 5 month interval and does not have to be concerned with daily or weekly dosing. A disadvantage is that there is no way to adjust the dose during the life of the pellet in the body. For compounding pharmacists, pellets offer the challenge of providing the patient with a product that both releases the hormone consistently and is sterile, requiring compounding procedures that are very unique in methodology. Pavilion Compounding Pharmacy has been compounding hormone pellets for over 20 years. Please click here see our blog post for more information regarding hormone pellet therapy.
- Oral Dosing
Oral dosing of testosterone is inefficient unless one is speaking of ester forms which are not available in the United States or the synthetic forms of testosterone, such as methyltestosterone. The latter was widely used until 30 to 40 years ago when association with liver toxicities halted its use. Recent studies have attempted to produce more bioavailable forms or oral testosterone dosing, but doses up to and exceeding 500mg per day are required to overcome the extensive first-pass effect.
In summary, male hypogonadism is a common condition widely associated with the aging process. Understanding of this condition is continuing to grow as new information is available. Pharmacists are in a very unique position to work with patients and physicians in achieving better diagnosis and treatment plans for the hundreds of thousands of men in the U.S. who are hypogonadal. Improved management of this condition results in better health for each patient.
Please contact our team of clinical pharmacists at Pavilion Compounding Pharmacy to see how we can help treat male hypogonadism!