There are very few topics as polarizing in the performance and athletic world as every discussion around testosterone, what causes low testosterone and how to treat it naturally. From the variety of supplements on the market that claim to increase it to the performance enhancing substances that dominate professional sports to new age medical treatments, there is no shortage of peaked interest in the topic. Which also means it is one of the most misunderstood topics.
Maybe you have many of the symptoms of low testosterone including a lack of energy, decreases sexual function and lose of muscle mass. When your testosterone panels come back, the majority of athletes reading this will present with lower than optimal levels. You want to know how to treat low testosterone naturally. There is a difference between what is medically “normal” and what is athletically “optimal”, after all, you don’t just want to survive, you want to thrive, correct?
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism published a study, in 2007, that concluded that men’s testosterone levels have progressively dropped by 17% in the timeframe between 1987 and 2004. Why did this drop happen? The study pointed out that it is not age alone that can be attributed to this drop in testosterone nor is it body fat, diabetes or mental health issues. While all of those factors contribute to lower testosterone, they aren’t the direct cause of this large drop. A 50 year old man in 1991 had more testosterone than a 50 year old man in 2003 (1).
At a given age testosterone was lower so you really can’t point to age as the cause. As a matter of fact, regardless of what is perpetually repeated, there is not one singly study that conclusively proves that aging causes testosterone levels to drop. While it’s certainly a factor, it’s not some irreversible consequence that dooms us to feeling lethargic, losing our libido and gaining body fat year over year. So even researchers have no idea what truly causes low testosterone in the first place.
Let’s look at a few factors that are proven to decreasing your testosterone and some practical steps that you can take today to change things.
You need to relax and eat more.
The master control for all of your hormones is your hypothalamus, a part of your brain which communicates with your testes to create testosterone (2). It also happens to be extremely sensitive to stress (3). Not only can any issue emotionally, financially and mentally cause stress but so can your diet or training.
Chronic, frequent training is actually more closely linked to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol than it is testosterone (4). While physique and bodybuilding athletes expose themselves to a few hours of volume during the week, Crossfit athletes are frequently engaging in two to three sessions of intense activity a week. Yes, the 15 minutes that you spend at the track multiple times per week is more intensive on your hormonal and metabolic systems than you would imagine. You're running yourself down and that's one of the reasons your testosterone is low.
Your nutrition can also decrease your testosterone. While many articles point to specific foods like brazil nuts or dietary fat or nutrients like selenium for testosterone production, the important factor is your total calories.
Under eating for your given activity level results in multiple hormonal and metabolic consequences including a reduction in calorie burning and dysregulation of your adrenal pathway which supplies the raw materials for your hormone production (5). The real kicker is that under eating depletes your hormonal reverse which are often tapped into in order to push you through all of your sessions. It really is a vicious cycle.
Over training, under eating and suboptimal recovery causes your brain to shut down your hormonal activity and increase your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system. When you are constantly in a sympathetic response or training, there are less nutrients, blood flow and fluids heading into your GI tract which results in multiple consequences since your gut is where the majority of your hormones are actually produced (6).
Eating a paleo diet and still being bloated is less about the processed foods you removed and more about the actual true strain that you are putting on your system.
Key take away: When you can, spend more time out of the gym. Take a look at your training volume and see what you can remove while still getting optimal results. Find daily activities that are not training related that cause you to relax.
Optimize Your Other Hormones
Unfortunately the talk in todays medical world focuses exclusively on testosterone replacement therapy. It would take your doctor way too long to discuss the relationship between estrogen, insulin, SHBG, DHT and other hormones. The scary part is that all of these hormones, and more, play a big roll in your actual testosterone production. If you want to naturally treat your low testosterone then it begins with the other hormones.
You have both total and free testosterone. Your total testosterone is the entire amount of testosterone that you have while your free testosterone is the actual amount of testosterone that your body can use for everything that we know testosterone does. Other hormones play a role in those numbers.
Estrogen: an opposing hormone to testosterone. There are situations where the total testosterone numbers are fine yet you may present with all the symptoms of low testosterone and this typically is a result of high estrogen. Even though athletes following a clean diet, the exposure to environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke or drinking out of plastic containers increases the overall estrogen load on your liver. These xenoestrogens, man mad estrogens, can not be detoxed through your liver efficiently (7).
What To Do: Minimize your exposure to plastics and choose to store your food in stainless steel or glass containers. Consider increasing your green vegetables and cauliflower intake and supplementing with licorice root, vitamin C, and dandelion.
Your Blood Sugar Is Problematic.
If you were serious enough to get your blood work done then you likely are serious enough to follow a pretty strict diet so you might think twice when I tell you that you may have a blood sugar problem. Stress, as we’ve covered above, can increase your blood glucose even while you are on a low carb diet or a keto diet as a result of deregulated cortisol. Cortisol is a glucose releasing hormone.
As insulin is released in response to this blood sugar spike, the aromatase enzyme converts testosterone to estrogen. Fat cells themselves are an estrogen producing machines since armatase lives in fat cells. Everything truly is linked.
There are a few ways which you can optimize your blood sugar problems. If you already are following a low carbohydrate diet, you can begin by adding in nutrient storage supplements such as r-alpha lipoic acid and fenugreek about 15 minutes before a meal with carbohydrates.
Another strategy is to actually increase your carbohydrate intake. This is beneficial for both the athlete training multiple times per day or the athlete suffering from high stress. The reduction of carbohydrates in your diet can be a stress signal by itself so increasing dietary carbohydrates may actually stabilize your blood sugar more efficiently than eating less carb.
You can also place at least 50% of your daily intake before and after your main workout of the day as that will be the most intense part of your day and having carbohydrates bookend that period will lead to better hormonal health.
Lastly, we go back to the above mentioned stress response. If you are stressing then you likely are impacting your blood sugar levels.
Alright I know I’ve thrown a lot at you so let’s finish with a recap and a few steps that you can follow today to start reclaiming your low testosterone.
1: Prioritize your sleep quantity and quality. Just one night of impaired sleep negatively impacts your blood sugar, raises your cortisol and causes hormonal chaos.
2: Aim to improve your gut health and digestion through less overall training volume, probiotic rich foods like kombucha and potential supplements such as digestive enzymes and probiotics. You should also consider removing gut inflaming foods such as gluten, corn, soy and dairy.
3:Focus on your carbohydrate intake. Start tracking your macronutrient intake and make small adjustments either higher or lower.
4: Have you been chronically under eating? Consume more of the good food that you currently eat to prevent the starvation signals that limit testosterone production.
5: Destress and find something to do daily that you enjoy that isn’t training. Adrenal health is vital for testosterone production.