09/20/2023 | Press release | Archived content
If you're concerned about your T, here's some solid, evidence-based information on testosterone and what you can do to raise the hormone. Given the risks of supplementation, lifestyle changes are a great place to start if you are feeling depressed, have difficulty concentrating, or have a loss of libido, all of which can be signs of low testosterone. After all, many of the realities of modern life - lack of exercise, poor nutrition, too much stress, and exposure to environmental toxins - that contribute to other health conditions can also cause low testosterone. No one says these changes are easy, says Anawalt, but the benefits are real and meaningful, not just to testosterone levels but to overall health.
The science is clear: As body fat goes up, testosterone levels go down. We're not talking pinchable back fat or squishable love handles. We're talking visceral fat, which nestles deep in the abdomen amid the organs. It's tenacious, dangerous, and hormonally active.
Visceral fat makes aromatase, an enzyme that turns testosterone into estrogen. "I tell men who want to know that if they don't address their belly fat, their testicles will shrink, they'll lose their erections, and their libido will disappear," says John La Puma, MD, author of Refuel: A 24-Day Eating Plan to Shed Fat, Boost Testosterone, and Pump Up Strength and Stamina.
Although body mass index, or BMI, is a common metric for obesity, many experts believe it's problematic because it does not differentiate between muscle and body fat and does not distinguish among the various types of fat - including visceral fat - in the body.
"I tell men who want to know that if they don't address their belly fat, their testicles will shrink, they'll lose their erections, and their libido will disappear," says John La Puma, MD.
Instead of focusing on BMI, Anawalt asks his patients to focus on small successes that make a real difference, like setting a goal of tightening their belts by a notch or keeping an eye on their phone's pedometer to break out of sedentary habits. "If you are overweight, you typically need to lose 5 to 7 percent of your body weight to significantly increase testosterone levels," he says.
But Anawalt also notes that weight loss doesn't have to be that dramatic to improve well-being. "I just saw a man who lost 6.5 pounds over six months and raised his T levels from just below normal to within normal range, and he feels fantastic."
Studies show that short bursts of timed intense activity - known as high-intensity interval training, or HIIT - nudge the body to make more testosterone than a less-than-intense aerobic or endurance exercise. Spurts of HIIT-like activity stimulate the testes and also lead to the release of hormones produced by the adrenal glands, says La Puma, both of which tell the body to make more testosterone.
In a small, oft-cited study, researchers recruited 30 active men: Half did an hour of HIIT training three times per week, and the other half did non-HIIT physical activity. After eight weeks, the men in the HIIT group saw a 37 percent increase in testosterone, while their non-HIIT training peers saw a 6 percent increase.
"If you already work out and can throw in HIIT a couple of times a week, you'll see a significant benefit," says Anawalt. "And if you are sedentary, doing any kind of exercise is going to be good for your testosterone."
Most likely, you know that some fats are bad for your heart, but did you know they also affect your testes? Turns out that both trans-fatty acids and refined omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids - think soybean, corn, and sunflower oils - build up in the testes.
Researchers have also found that trans-fatty-acid content in semen is associated with poorer sperm quality and lower sperm concentration. Regularly indulging in trans- and omega-6 fatty acids, in combination with a reduction in omega-3 intake, is also linked to lower testosterone levels and lower testicular volume, an indicator of Leydig cell damage. Leydig cells are those in the testes that are vital for making testosterone.
When researchers in 2017 examined the diets of 209 healthy, young male university students in Spain, they found that the more trans fats the young men ate, the lower their testosterone levels dipped. So, to maintain T health, choose healthy fats. Excellent sources include fatty fish (think salmon, sardines, and trout), olives, nut butters, chia seeds, and avocados.
Think of your testosterone like a toddler - to be healthy, it needs a structured sleep routine with as few disruptions as possible. Most of a person's daily testosterone release happens during sleep. Studies show a strong link between sleep loss or disruption and low testosterone.
Think of your testosterone like a toddler - to be healthy, it needs a structured sleep routine with as few disruptions as possible.
Yet one in three American adults says they don't get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Some common reasons include too much time spent on screens at night, feeling stressed or anxious, or a bedroom that is too hot or too cold.
In a small study published in 2011, 10 young, healthy men underwent one week of sleep deprivation, sleeping only five hours a night (the average amount of sleep that 15 percent of working U.S. adults were getting at the time of the study); they saw their daytime testosterone levels drop by 10 to 15 percent. In essence, skimping on sleep reduced the men's T levels by an amount that is equivalent to a drop caused by aging about 10 years.
"Sleep loss, poor sleep, and even sleep apnea will suppress your testosterone," says Anawalt. "Sleep is a big deal."
Good sleep and learning how to relax go hand in hand - and both boost testosterone levels. The body's control centers for testosterone and cortisol, a stress hormone, are deeply intertwined. Cortisol acts like kryptonite to testosterone. Physiological stressors, such as overexercising, can lead to increased cortisol and decreased testosterone.
So, the more stress you're under, the lower your testosterone. Prioritize doing at least one activity per day that can help you unwind, whether that's listening to your favorite comedy podcast during your commute, practicing deep-breathing techniques, or getting out to spend time in nature.
Science shows that alcohol damages Leydig cells (those cells in the testes vital for testosterone production). Alcohol does this by derailing the conversion of progesterone into testosterone. It also introduces free radicals into the system, which can gum up the gears of hormone production.
Last but not least, excess alcohol consumption can jump-start the conversion of testosterone to estrogen. "Alcohol has a toxic effect on the testes and on testosterone production," says Anawalt. He advises limiting alcohol to no more than two units a day. (The National Institutes of Health defines one unit as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.)
The connection between testosterone and a diet heavy in processed meats, such as sausage, bacon, and hot dogs, is indirect, but the connection to sperm health is direct. And what's good for sperm is often good for testosterone.
Processed meats are problematic on several fronts. For starters, studies show that men who eat higher quantities of processed meats have abnormally shaped sperm compared with their peers who eat higher quantities of fish. A small study in Spain found that among men with abnormal sperm, intake of processed meats was 31 percent higher than in the control group of men whose sperm was considered normal.
Studies show that men who eat higher quantities of processed meats have abnormally shaped sperm compared with their peers who eat higher quantities of fish.
Processed red meats are also known to have higher concentrations of hormone residues compared with other meats. In the United States, most cattle receive a cocktail of anabolic sex steroids, including estrogen and testosterone, for two to three months prior to slaughter. The science is inconclusive on whether those hormones affect the health of the people who consume the beef. It's worth noting that the European Union banned the practice decades ago out of concern for human health.
La Puma advises skipping highly processed meats in favor of whole cuts from regeneratively, organically raised cattle and bison, and eating more wild-caught fish, such as Pacific salmon.
Not only is zinc vital for testosterone production, but it also blocks aromatase, the enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen. And in a recent meta-analysis, zinc supplementation was shown to increase the quality of sperm in infertile men.
Unlike most minerals, zinc doesn't have its own storage spot in the body, meaning you must eat foods with zinc every day to keep things thrumming. Zinc is found in many foods but is more bioavailable when it comes from animal tissue. Ounce for ounce, oysters are by far the best source, with eight times more of the mineral than beef, the next-best source (that's 32 mg versus 3.8 mg per 3-ounce serving). But a heck of a lot more people eat beef on the regular, which is why beef is responsible for 20 percent of the zinc in the American diet.
Other zinc-rich foods include whole-grain cereals, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and legumes. Adults should get between 8 and 11 mg of zinc daily.
Leydig cells inside the testes have receptors for vitamin D, which hints at the vitamin's importance in making testosterone. That relationship bears out in studies showing that men with low vitamin D have significantly lower testosterone levels than men with adequate vitamin D.
A healthy vitamin D concentration is at least 20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL), according to the National Institutes of Health. Many functional-medicine practitioners recommend more: between 50 and 80 ng/mL. Below 12 ng/mL is the danger zone. The best way to find out where you stand is to have your doctor order a blood test.
Vitamin D comes from sunshine, food, and supplements. Fair-skinned people can up their vitamin D by exposing their bare skin to sun for 10 to 15 minutes, and those with darker complexions might need anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours more.
You can also get vitamin D by eating whole-food sources, including cod-liver oil and fatty fish, like sardines and canned salmon; choosing foods fortified with the vitamin, like dairy products; or by taking a daily supplement.
Turns out, eating a diet very high in protein and low in carbohydrates may trash your testosterone. A 2022 meta-analysis found that men on such high-protein diets had as much as a 37 percent drop in testosterone levels.
Researchers are still noodling over the exact mechanisms at work. What they do know is that amino acids (the components of protein) contain nitrogen, and that excess nitrogen must be converted by the body before it can be excreted. The rate of that conversion may be influenced by hormones such as cortisol and testosterone, according to Joe Whittaker, MSc, lead study author and a nutritionist.
Whittaker notes that the eye-popping drop happened when participants were on very high-protein diets - 1.59 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. In other words, 40 percent of the men's calories came from protein.
"Realistically," he says, "no one would eat that amount of protein for a substantial length of time." Still, if you're a fan of high-protein diets, Whittaker adds, keeping protein at or below 1.36 grams per pound of body weight or 30 percent of your calories is ideal.
Many factors can disrupt our endocrine systems and lower testosterone levels. Among them are air pollution, pesticide exposure, certain medications and cancer treatments, and personal care products that contain phthalates and parabens. Although it may be challenging to avoid air pollution or chemotherapy, for example, try to steer clear of shampoos, aftershave lotions, and other personal care products that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
This article was excerpted from "How to Increase Your Testosterone - Naturally."