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1 September 2007
The Male Period
by Paul Aitken

Recently, when I complained to a co-worker that I was "overwhelmed by lassitude" she suggested that perhaps I was on my period. I thought she was joking at first but she claimed to have read somewhere that men have hormonal swings just like woman (although they were slightly longer). She couldn't remember exactly where she'd read this but felt confident in nevertheless asserting that it was an established scientific fact.

I, of course, had my doubts. The female hormonal cycle is a function of a highly evolved chemical feedback loop between the pituitary gland and various girly body parts such as follicles, ocytes and the uterus, that we don't share. This feedback loop initiates a series of bodily changes, beginning with the release of the egg and its eventual expulsion along with the lining of the uterus if pregnancy doesn't occur. The process is the sin qua non of humanity's continued existence but it's also a debilitating process that has ancillary effects such as cramping, bloating and telling men to put the "Goddamned lid back on the goddamned peanut butter. Christ! WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU!" It's not something nature would permit if it wasn't absolutely necessary and science says it's only necessary for women.

But after the conversation with my co-worker I began to consider the possibility. Human beings, male and female are cut from the same cloth. Our default blueprint is female. In fact, were it not for the expression of a single gene on the Y chromosome sometime in the second month of gestation, men would be morphologically female. Would-be testes would become ovaries, the would-be penis would become a clitoris and the brain would become 10 percent smaller. So if we have analogous nipples, pubic hair and sexual organs, why can't we have analogous hormonal cycles? No one is suggesting that the cycles are equally as dramatic. The hormone fluctuations in women are vertiginous. Plotted on a graph they resemble a roller coaster. But that doesn't mean cycles of lower amplitude don't exist. It also seems credible when one remembers that the hormone system is dynamic. The components of the system feed back on themselves. As they do, patterns emerge, often manifested as regular fluctuations in the relative blood concentrations of a particular hormone.

For instance, testosterone in men fluctuates in a circadian rhythm highest in the morning, lowest at bedtime (hence our propensity for morning sex a propensity unfortunately not shared by most women). The process breaks down like this: The pituitary gland in men releases gonadotropin-stimulating hormone (GSH) in response to low levels of serum testosterone. This hormone then stimulates the testes to start pumping out testosterone. When the testosterone inventories are high enough, the GSH factory shuts down and serum concentration gradually decreases until the whole process begins again, sometime in the early hours. The circadian testosterone cycle has been well studied and verified and is exploited by steroid users to determine when best to intake their hormones. If you take steroids too late in the day, the GSH switch is never tripped, the balls never receive their production signal and eventually they shrivel up (literally).

The idea that men experience a monthly cycle is not new. As early as the 17th century, the Italian physician Santorio Sanctorius, after carefully measuring the weight of his body, along with it's various excretions (Santorio was nothing if not thorough), discovered a monthly cycle in body weight of approximately two pounds. He noted that the peak of the cycle was accompanied by feelings of heaviness and lassitude.

In later centuries there were various attempts to establish the existence of a male cycle. The late decades of the 19th century were a particularly fruitful period for some reason, with a number of authors (Gall, Stephenson and Campbell, if you must know) finding evidence for monthly fluctuations in mood, energy and sex drive. Later in 1929, a study found that men have emotional cycles of about one-month to six-weeks in length (as my friend had suggested). During the low period of the cycle, men were reported to feel apathetic and indifferent. During the high period they reported more energy, a greater sense of well-being, and lower body weight. Hmmm.

It is probably not coincidental that all these symptoms have been associated with serum levels of testosterone. During periods of low serum testosterone men report feeling apathetic and indifferent. During periods of high serum testosterone they report more energy, a greater sense of well-being, and lower body weight. In fact a whole market in testosterone supplements has emerged to service aging men whose levels of serum testosterone have fallen.

But the experts who weigh ponderously on such matters say that a monthly hormonal cycle in men has not been established. Part of the reason has been the lamentably thin body of research devoted to the topic (I couldn't find a single modern study). But it's also a function of testosterone itself. Testosterone levels are notoriously difficult to calibrate because they're often dependent on one's psychological state, which in turn is largely a function of circumstance. Leaders of every kind (tribal, political, business) have higher relative levels of serum testosterone. Levels drop sharply in men who lose there jobs or watch their teams lose. And that's not just in men. Women in high level corporate positions have higher levels of testosterone than their sisters in less driven professions.

Given the sensitivity of testosterone to life's ups and downs, it's easy to see how a discernable and very real cyclical pattern might get lost in the background noise. Perhaps the best evidence available to us is anecdotal. I know that I go through periods of high energy, high sex drive and periods of the opposite. I'm familiar enough with these cycles to know that any particular state will not last. While I can't say with any confidence that these cycles revolve in a regular pattern, I can safely predict that if I'm feeling crappy on Monday, I'll be feeling better by the weekend. Whether that constitutes a "Male Period" I can't say. All I know for certain is that if science ever establishes its non-existence, I'll never be able to use it as an excuse for bad behavior.

Related articles:
Testosterone The Key To Embryo Sex Selection?
A Penis Doesn't Always Make A Man
Testosterone And Baldness
XYY - One Chromosome Too Many
Dress Sense An Indicator Of Fertility In Women
Influences On Sexuality

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