Testosterone has often been associated as the hormone that “makes a man a man.”
Think back to junior high: Remember those one to two,12-year-olds who already had back and chest hair, an Adam’s Apple in their throat, could grow a beard overnight, and were strong as an ox?
They were the kids (or ‘men’) you wanted on your dodge ball at recess; the first string linebackers in JV football; and the dudes who always seemed to have a girl on their arm—no matter what other ‘nice boys’ lined the walls at middle school dances.
They “have high testosterone” is what all the moms and teachers said.
Fast forward to adulthood. You hear the word “testosterone” and chest hair, big muscles, protein shakes, hunting guns and bachelor pads come to mind.
But what is testosterone really?
Testosterone is the primary anabolic and sex hormone in humans, responsible for sexual desire and function, muscular hypertrophy, densification of bones, and hair growth (hello puberty).
Throughout our lifetime, testosterone is associated with all sorts of great things:
- Sex drive and connection to significant others;
- Promoting lean body mass and strong bones;
- Enhanced recovery time (from workouts, to stress, sleep, etc.)
- And it gives us a psychological edge of confidence, concentration, cognitive function and determination.
Low testosterone on the other hand is associated with all sorts of not great things:
For one, low testosterone is commonly blamed for low libido problems. It also affects your mood, cortisol levels (i.e. stress), your ability to lose fat and/or gain muscle. In addition, some lesser known symptoms also include: osteoporosis/low bone mineral density; poor memory and brain fog; poor pain tolerance; lack of motivation, goals and competitive spirit.
And, contrary to popular belief, testosterone is not just confined to men.
Even though men produce 10-times as much testosterone as women, testosterone is also necessary for the female body for, if anything, promoting hormonal balance. Adequate testosterone levels also enable females to increase lean body mass and power, support bone health, balance mood and mental clarity, and increase sex drive.
Unfortunately, this day in age, with the chronic stress epidemic impacting practically everyone on the planet (caused from a variety of things: poor sleep habits, overstimulation by light and electronics, overtraining and under-recovery, not training at all/sedentary lifestyles, poor quality diets, work stress), low testosterone levels have become a ‘norm’ amongst people.
In the United States, approximately 43 percent of women and 31 percent of men experience sexual dysfunction—much of this often related to low testosterone levels. (1)
In fact, according to ABC News, 1 in 4 men over age 30 have reportedly low testosterone resulting not only in sexual dysfunction, but a host of other symptoms mentioned above (i.e. difficulty gaining strength, recovering and/or losing body fat).
It is not surprising then that synthetic testosterone is being prescribed more often than in the past; a 500 percent increase in sales has been documented from 1993 to 2001. (2).
“Healthy testosterone” is defined as:
A range of about 270 to 1070 ng/dL,
And a range of 15-70 ng/dl for women.
While this IS a broad range, optimally, for both men and women, levels are somewhere in the middle of that range—not too high or too low.
And although blood testing is the most clinically sound way to see your numbers on paper…your body’s signs and symptoms (ultimately how you feel)—can be the greatest indicators for whether or not this hormone is in optimal balance for YOU.
If you’ve been told you have low testosterone, or several of the symptoms above seem to ring a bell for you, what are the next steps?
Let’s break it down:
You need to take a good look at your lifestyle to first get to the root of where your hormonal imbalance or low testosterone is coming from.
It sounds so simple—but is so true.
The unsexy reality is that our diet, sleep and exercise patterns play a HUGE role in testosterone production.
Hence, increasing testosterone naturally, first and foremost, simply comes down to taking a good hard look at your current nutrition and lifestyle (preferably under the guidance of a knowledgeable coach or healthcare practitioner) and potentially making some long-term adjustments in these areas.
Common nutrition and lifestyle triggers that naturally lower testosterone include:
- Fat restriction
- Weight loss
- Overtraining and under-recovering
- Pushing it too hard, too often
- Lack of sleep, or quality sleep
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Poor nutrient density (grains, soy, sugar, alcohol, processed dairy, processed foods)
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Medications (Oral contraceptives, mood stabilizers, etc.)
- Stimulant consumption (energy drinks, caffeine, etc.)
Once you identify the potential culprits of your low testosterone, here are a handful of natural methods to turn those levels back up:
Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods.
Protein shakes and bars. Bulletproof coffee. Ice cream before bed in the name of weight gain. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Instant oatmeal. Gatorade. Bowls of pasta. 99-cent eggs by the dozen. Calling cucumbers or that little bit of lettuce and tomato on a sandwich your only vegetables.
All seemingly “harmless” foods with bigger consequences.
When we lack nutrition (think nutrient-rich colorful vegetables, pasture-raised and grass-fed meats, some fresh fruits and whole-food sourced starches, healthy fats like coconut oil, grassfed butter, raw nuts and seeds, avocados), or consume ‘dead foods’ (powders, synthetic man-made foods, low-nutrient dense foods like pasta, bread or cereal), we illicit both malnutrition and an inflammatory response in our bodies—our guts. And when our guts are unhappy…the rest of our bodies are unhappy (especially our hormones). Here are some foods to incorporate in your diet:
- Probiotic foods (aim to get probiotics in daily through either a supplement like Prescript Assist OR probiotic rich foods, such as fermented veggies, 2-4 oz. Kombucha, raw grassfed plain yogurt, even homemade bone broth).
- Color! The more color the better—golden summer squash and bright yellow spaghetti squash; rich green zucchini, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and asparagus; rainbow chard; bright orange sweet potatoes, carrots and juicy oranges; ruby red strawberries and apples; off-white cauliflower; maroon beets; and on and on.
- Hydrating water—nothing beats it. Flavor with cucumber, lemon and mint, or even citrus fruits like grapefruit and oranges, or berries, like strawberries and raspberries. Half your bodyweight in ounces at the very least—and nope, coffee, tea, energy drinks, Diet drinks, juices, protein shakes and smoothies don’t count.
- Vitamin-D & Other Mineral boosting foods, like wild caught salmon, halibut, trout, shrimp, egg yolks, tuna canned in water, sardines caned in oil, raw organic milk or yogurt, organic pork, beef/calf liver, egg yolk, mushrooms and cod liver oil. In addition to these foods, organic beef, lamb, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, quinoa and lentils (properly prepared grains and brands—pre-soaked before cooking) are known for higher zinc levels which can positively influence testosterone.
- Don’t OVER DO the protein. In our ‘more is better mentality’, more protein=more muscle in the gym right? Nope not quite. Too much protein can actually have the reverse effect—lowering testosterone. One study around whey/soy protein supplementation saw a direct correlation between supplement consumption and decreased levels. In addition, on the natural foods (protein )front, aim to eat clean, pastured animal products. Mark Sisson sheds light on this in one of his posts, stating, “Toxic substances called dioxins have been shown to interfere with the male reproductive system, including production of testosterone. While concentrated sources of dioxins include Agent Orange (which I’m sure you’re already avoiding), we obtain most of our dietary dioxins through conventionally-raised animal products, especially animal fats and dairy (dioxins accumulate in fat). If you’re going to be eating fatty cuts of meat or using dairy, try to go for pastured, grass-fed animals to reduce your exposure and lessen the negative impact on your testosterone levels.” Don’t get us wrong—YOU NEED PROTEIN for both training and non-training purposes alike…it’s just not all you need (i.e. don’t go overboard). Moderate amounts of protein, based on activity levels and adjusted accordingly of course, is vital.
- Fuel up with healthy fats (see below)
Fuel Up with Fat.
Fat is NOT a 4-Letter Word. Hormones are comprised mostly of fats. And in order to ‘nourish’ those hormones, they in turn, need (and thrive upon) fat—healthy fats. Eat fat—and lots of it (At least one to two sources with every main meal). Eggs, unsweetened coconut flakes and coconut butter, grassfed butter, coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, nuts, seeds, full fat raw organic dairy, nitrate free bacon, organic fattier cuts of meat (chicken thighs, beef, bison, etc.). wild caught salmon, flax and chia seeds, fish oil…the fuel of champions.
Actively Lower Cortisol.
High cortisol reduces free testosterone levels. Cortisol, known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, increases when we are stressed—inside and out. Common stressors include:
- Excessive training with under-recovery;
- Pounding the weights day in and day out—without a break between days of more ‘recovery’ or maintenance-based workouts in the gym;
- Regular coffee consumption (several cups throughout the day);
- As little sleep as possible;
- Working 12-hour days;
- Never saying ‘NO’ (Always saying ‘yes’); Overcommitting;
- Burning a candle at both ends;
- Low vegetable intake;
- Over-reliance on convenience foods (packaged bars, shakes, boxed foods, eating out more often than eating in);
- Overstimulation by screens and lights;
- Forgetting to…breathe…
…Just to name a few. Tone the cortisol down by targeting those key stressors head on and…doing the opposite.
Soak Up the Sun.
Assess Nutritional Deficiencies.
Zinc and magnesium in particular are two key minerals that are often connected with lower testosterone. A study conducted in 1996 for instance found a direct correlation of moderate-severe zinc deficiency and low testosterone in men, ages 20-80 years of age (4.). Supplementation with zinc for some can yield positive impacts on the restoration of testosterone. Magnesium is very similar to zinc when it comes to increasing testosterone levels. Nearly 70% of the adults in the United States eat below the recommended RDA of magnesium, 19% eating less than half of the recommended daily value. A 2014 study revealed that supplementation with magnesium positively impacted anabolic hormonal status (i.e. testosterone). (5.) Get your levels checked today under the guidance of a nutrition therapist or healthcare professional.
Follow a Program.
Aim to implement smart training into your regime. Quit the random routines you find online or in a magazine, or the need to be ‘flat on your back’ after every workout; pushing it harder and harder day in and day out. You can actually get better, push past plateaus, and do your body great favor by following (and sticking to) a smart program, individualized to you and designed by a coach who is going to push you with the ‘just right challenge’—without sending your overly enthusiastic inner beast over the edge. In fact, if you’ve been training too hard, and consequently causing an imbalance in your hormones, then you are completely defeating your own ability to get anabolic in the first place. Since testosterone is responsible for muscle gains and growth, if you are low in it due to constant pounding, then you are not getting anywhere. In times of serious overtraining, sometimes, less is more…and by backing off just a bit and/or changing some things up—even just a hair (one less met-con, and more mobility; shortening sessions but keeping your intensity the same; intermixing intensity with MAP 10 (more sustainable recovery style effors) and strategically planned active recovery days; etc.) can dramatically impact your body’s hormones.
Timing, Frequency, Volume.
Perhaps you are already ‘on a program’ for training and not necessarily ‘overdoing it’. Instead, you are training for gains, and training hard, no doubt, but still ensuring recovery and rest, BUT for some reason, you are still experiencing hormonal imbalance(s). For this person, hormone balancing or restoration may mean changing up some things around your training timing, frequency, and/or stimulus.. Your body may have adapted to an unhealthy norm, or not reaching its peak simply because one, or all of these factors, is out of balance as well. For instance: 4:30 a.m. wakeup times in order to get an early morning session in could be disrupting your body’s cortisol levels, waking at a non-preferential time day in and day out, and setting your body into ‘stress mode’ from an early start; consequently, messing with your other hormone levels. Or stimulus: training your ‘engine’ in overdrive to improve your met-con? Perhaps your bod is not able to catch up—your mind is strong, but your hormones are weakened, simply because they are more stressed than when you were on your strength cycle. Balance, above all, is key for getting your hormones back to where they want to be. A shift around training time, or the ratio of conditioning and strength in your program could make all the difference.
Supplementation and Herbals.
Herbals and vitamin supplements, for the most part, will not do anything more than help if you need them for things like low testosterone. For instance, an herb like Tribulus is one of the most popular and effective herbs for supporting testosterone. In addition, something as basic as a probiotic and digestive enzymes (to help heal the gut) can work wonders for restoring wonky hormones. Hormone replacements themselves on the other hand (like taking DHEA or testosterone), are probably not the best thing to do on your own without consulting a professional. Taking hormones can end up throwing your body out of balance even more so or screwing with your bio-chemistry—not a good thing.
Consult the Professional.
All things considered, it’s always best to never assume you have this or that; or to self-diagnose yourself with low testosterone or hormonal imbalance. See a healthcare practitioner, such as a nutrition therapist or naturopath, who specializes in these things. As part of your assessment, get some labwork done—preferably every 6-months if you are an athlete. If anything, a good look at your hormones will help you see if you are even getting the most out of your training. Salivary, blood and urine tests are the most commonly conducted hormone panels, by testing all three, you will get a clear picture of how your hormones are working.
Here’s to healthy hormones…on the way!
Have a question that was unanswered? Post to comments or don’t hesitate to reach out: [email protected].
1, 2. Margo, K. (2006). Testosterone Treatments: Why, When, and How? American Academy of Family Physicians. http://home/laurynlax/public_html.aafp.org/afp/2006/0501/p1591.html
- Wehr E1, Pilz S, Boehm BO, März W, Obermayer-Pietsch B. (2010). Association of vitamin D status with serum androgen levels in men. Clinical Endocrinology. http://home/laurynlax/public_html.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20050857
- Prasad AS1, Mantzoros CS, Beck FW, Hess JW, Brewer GJ. (1996). Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. Nutrition. 12(5):344-8. http://home/laurynlax/public_html.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8875519.
- Maggio M, De Vita F, Lauretani F, Nouvenne A, Meschi T, Ticinesi A, Dominguez LJ, Barbagallo M, Dall’aglio E,, Ceda GP. (2014). The Interplay between Magnesium and Testosterone in Modulating Physical Function in Men. International Journal of Endocrinology. http://home/laurynlax/public_html.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24723948