Causes for Decline
As men age, testosterone levels naturally decline. There are several reasons for this, but one of them is an increase in something called SHBG (Sex Hormone Binding Globulin) – this binds testosterone and keeps it from being active. (If you’ve ever had your testosterone levels tested, this is the difference between Total and Free Testosterone – the free number is the one to watch.)
Another reason involves the obesity epidemic. (Men, if you need still more motivation to lose weight, here it is!) Your fat cells (adipose tissue) contain an enzyme called aromitase. Aromitase converts testosterone into its cousin steroid hormone: estrogen. Not only does having a beer belly lower testosterone levels, then; it actually increases estrogen levels at the same time (which can also cause breast tissue to develop in men – the technical term for this is gynecomastia.)
Low Testosterone in Young Men
But these days, it’s not uncommon for even younger men to have low testosterone levels. Controlling for age and other factors, testosterone levels have declined across the population over the past two decades by about 20%. This means that a 50 year old man now will have 20% less testosterone than a similarly healthy 50 year old did in 1993.
There as been much speculation regarding the cause of this decline. One of them involves environmental toxins. Many commonly used chemicals have an endocrine-disrupting effect (i.e. they screw up your hormones), including phthalates, parabens, diethanolamine, triethanolamine, monoethanolamine, and toluene, to name a few.
Another possibility is the obsession with lowering cholesterol. Testosterone is a cholesterol-based hormone; you must have sufficient cholesterol in order to make it. Conventional wisdom tells us to avoid cholesterol, and very common cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) stop the liver from producing cholesterol altogether, which means that everything downstream doesn’t get produced either. This includes bile salts (which help us digest fat – where we also get our fat soluble vitamins), vitamin D (the darling of the nutritional world at the moment), healthy cell membranes (VITAL for your health), and steroid hormones (such as testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and DHEA, among others). An estimated 32 million Americans are on statins – so this could certainly account for part of the testosterone decline.
There’s also a great deal of debate surrounding phytoestrogens, such as soy. This is too big a topic to cover here – stay tuned for more info. But the bottom line is, while there are numerous health benefits from the isoflavones in soy, probably everyone (not just men) should avoid GMO soy – which most of it is – just to be on the safe side.
What does testosterone do for you, anyway?
The two most commonly known effects of testosterone are sexual virility and increased muscle mass – so this means that lower testosterone can also lead to sexual dysfunction and/or lowered muscle mass (with a corresponding increase in body fat). But low testosterone can also manifest as depression, low bone mineral density, low energy, and anemia.
How do you increase testosterone levels?
There are some simple things you can do. They’re the same things I try to get my patients to do for other reasons, but I’ve discovered that when I couch it in terms of testosterone levels, my male patients are a lot more likely to comply. 🙂
- Get enough sleep. If you read my article last week, sleep helps you lose weight (see #2), decreases your stress levels (see #5), and increases the secretion of testosterone as well as Growth Hormone, both of which help to build and repair muscle mass.
- Lose Weight. This doesn’t mean what you probably think it means though – losing weight does NOT mean eating a low fat diet, it means eating a low sugar diet. (See here for more details on this.) On the contrary: as a cholesterol-based hormone, eating animal products (where cholesterol is found) actually boosts your testosterone levels. (Perhaps there’s a reason why men stereotypically love steak! The caveat to this, though: make sure you’re eating clean, grass-fed meat when at all possible. And increase your intake of healthy fats.)
- Don’t eat crap. This goes along with the previous point, but it’s a slightly different angle. Your liver has several jobs, but the most important is to detoxify foreign chemicals. If you eat a bunch of processed crap, your liver doesn’t recognize those chemicals any more than you do. This means it’s too busy detoxing to perform its other jobs effectively – such as breaking down complex molecules (like estrogen) so they can be eliminated from your body, or breaking down fat (where aromitase is stored, converting testosterone to estrogen). …Along these lines, it’s also important to eat your serving of veggies, especially cruciferous veggies: these are great for helping your liver perform more efficiently.
- Stop smoking. Nicotine and other additives in cigarettes actually decrease testosterone production.
- EXERCISE! Cardio is good, but resistance training (to build muscle) is better; training large muscles like your quadriceps and hamstrings is best of all for boosting testosterone. IF you’re already in pretty good shape, you should focus on muscle building (as opposed to toning), which involves higher weight and lower repetitions. If you’re not already in good shape, start where you are and go from there.
- Chill out. Stress (particularly feeling trapped or helpless) decreases your testosterone levels. I suggest you check out this article, pick a few stress management techniques that appeal to you, and give them a try.
- Avoid the toxins on the list above, especially in your toiletry items. Anything that comes in contact with your skin will hit your bloodstream in about 28 seconds!
Still having trouble, or need more personalized guidance? Some men may have lower testosterone for medical reasons, and these need a complete workup. Click here for more information.