A friend recently sent me a link to this article Why Testosterone Is Your Friend. My first question was: is testosterone deficiency a common problem. This study puts the prevalence at roughly 10% in males aged 20-79. However, deficiency was much more common among the older males. Testosterone deficiency may also be a problem for women. Naturally, the research in this area lags far behind that of the research on men so it’s impossible for me to comment on the need for testosterone boosting efforts in women.
The article is correct in stating that testosterone plays an important role in the body. It plays a role in sex development and libido, bone mineralization, weight and body mass composition, and energy levels (1). That being said, it’s relatively unlikely that a fit young person suffers from testosterone deficiency. If you do suspect that you suffer from testosterone deficiency, then you should visit your doctor. She or he will be able to measure you testosterone levels through blood tests. Pending the results, appropriate treatment efforts can be determined. Please don’t self-diagnose or take the advice of a fitness blog written by a personal trainer (or anyone, regardless of credentials as gospel).
Much of the advice in the post is solid advice for anyone regardless of testosterone levels. Indeed, obtaining an adequate nights sleep and reducing stress could benefit most of us. Let’s just quickly go through each of the suggestions…
1. Get deep sleep. Everyone can benefit from getting a solid nights sleep. Yes, this may help to increase testosterone.
2. Lift heavy things. Strength training is important for everyone to maintain muscle mass and bone density as we age. This may help to increase testosterone levels in people who are slightly low, but it’s unlikely to make much of a difference for anyone who’s deficient (2).
3. Don’t run too much. As someone who loves to run, I have a bit of a personal bias against this one. Run too much? Does not compute. Apparently, those who over-train, or elite athletes, may actually see a drop in testosterone levels. However, it would certainly take more than running a few times a week to have such an effect. If you enjoy running, don’t stop.
4. Eat fat, especially saturated fat. This is quite a vague recommendation. I certainly thing that fat has been unfairly vilified in the past (and sometimes, in the present). It is also possible that consumption of fat, and saturated fat may impact testosterone levels (3). However, these findings are based on a very small correlational study which makes it impossible to draw widespread recommendations from them. That being said, fat is an essential nutrient and (aside from man-made trans-fats) should not be avoided. There’s a good review of the research here. The AMDR for dietary fat is 20-35% of total calories for adults. Of course, our needs vary so you may fall on the low or high end of that scale depending on your genes and activity levels. Ignore the recommendation in the article to eschew plant oils. Use a variety of oils and fats.
5. Eat enough protein. Most of the research on protein and testosterone focuses on the inverse relationship. Again, a very small study found that ingestion of whey protein following a workout increased testosterone and androgen receptors in men (aged 57-72) while a placebo had no effect. Interesting. However, I would caution against extrapolating such a small study to younger men and women and even to all middle-aged men. While most of us consume more protein than we need, we may be well-served by consuming more consistent amounts at meals and snacks. Focus on getting more than 15 grams of protein at breakfast, protein at all meals and snacks, and meet with a registered dietitian if you have questions about adequate consumption of protein.
6. Keep stress levels low. Low testosterone and symptoms of stress may manifest in the same manner but there’s little evidence to support the assertion that stress will lower testosterone (4). Of course, stress is not good for us so taking steps to reduce stress in your life will likely serve you well regardless of your testosterone levels.
7. Don’t binge drink. Duh. Binge drinking is bad for your liver, your brain, and every other organ in your body. Animal studies suggest that chronic alcohol consumption may lower testosterone levels. It makes sense that if heavy alcohol consumption impairs bodily functions that it would also impair testosterone production. Despite the lack of human evidence, I’m not going to argue with this one. Don’t drink to excess, regardless of your testosterone status.
8. Get enough zinc and magnesium. There may be benefits to getting more zinc if you’re not getting enough in your diet. If you’re already getting enough, more is not going to help (5). Many of us don’t get enough magnesium in our diets so aiming to consume more magnesium-rich foods (e.g. nuts, seeds, beans, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate) is worthwhile. I wouldn’t recommend supplementing with zinc without first discussing with your doctor as zinc can interfere with the absorption of other minerals, like copper, and unnecessary supplementation could lead to deficiency in another mineral.
9. Make sure to get enough carbs. Personally, I love carbs. I’d never suggest anyone cut carbs from their diets. However, there’s no reason to believe that insufficient carb consumption will lead to testosterone deficiency.
10. Get enough vitamin D. Research on vitamin D has been mixed. Most of us can get enough from the sun in the summer months. We may benefit from supplementation of 1000 IU during winter months. Vitamin D may slightly increase testosterone in deficient males (6). As with most things, just because some is good, doesn’t mean that more is better. While uncommon, it is possible to consume toxic levels of vitamin D so don’t go mega-dosing.
11. Stay away from soy. Research looking at testosterone levels and soy consumption has focused on soy protein supplements. Results have been mixed. It’s quite unlikely that consuming soy in “natural” states (such as tofu, edamame, soy beans/nuts, or tempeh) is going to have any impact on your testosterone levels.
12. Eliminate wheat and gluten grains. Now we’re really going off the rails. There is no link between wheat and gluten and testosterone deficiency. There is no reason to eliminate gluten from your diet unless you have celiac disease or an allergy.
13. Limit all medications/birth control pills. Some medications may affect hormone levels. Some will not. Don’t stop taking essential medications and don’t take unnecessary medications. If you have any concerns about any medications that you’re on discuss them with your doctor.
There are also potential risks associated with high testosterone levels. Let’s not get carried away with focusing on low testosterone without first learning that our testosterone is indeed low.