The Truth About Low Testosterone

Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author, founder of Born Fitness, and an award-winning fitness and nutrition writer and editor. Bornstein was previously the editorial director for LIVESTRONG.COM and before that the fitness editor for Men’s Health. He is the author of six health and fitness books, including The Women’s Health Big Book of Abs and Man 2.0 Engineering the Alpha: A Real World Guide to an Unreal Life.

Photo: Pond5

If you’re a man, I suggest you stop what you’re doing, ignore the rambling on your Twitter feed, and instead use that time to read this article.

Because if you’re a man  any man — there’s a high likelihood that you’re either suffering from low levels of testosterone or you’re setting the stage for a variety of problems you don’t want.

You might think you understand testosterone, so let’s just wipe a few myths from the table. The truth is:

  • Low testosterone is not relegated for the 40- or 50-plus crowd. It can strike as early as your 20s and spiral out of control fast.
  • Doing heavy squats might increase testosterone after your workout, but that increase does not lead to more muscle growth.
  • Your post-workout shake? Yup, it can lower testosterone, too.

Confused? You’re not alone. Now that the clock is ticking and your attention is where it needs to be, let’s establish what you need to know, and how you can have your male hormones back in functioning order.

Testosterone: The Man-Maker

In the past 20 years, the average level of testosterone has dropped anywhere from 20 to 30 percent.

The rules of testosterone are quickly changing. It’s no longer just an older man’s game or a problem saved by pharmaceuticals. The basic facts are still the same.

Testosterone is what makes you a man. It’s what allows you to build muscle and melt fat. In fact, the more testosterone you have, the more likely you are to have more muscle.

If that isn’t convincing enough, it’s what makes you attractive to women, what powers your sex drive, and it also plays an important role in keeping you healthy, fighting off depression, and preventing diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Testosterone naturally begins to decline after the age of 30. (It dips about one percent per year for the rest of your life, and can jump to two percent after the age of 40.) But here’s where the shift is occurring. In the past 20 years, the average level of testosterone has dropped anywhere from 20 to 30 percent. So not only are men fighting to keep T levels high, they’re also working from a deficit compared to their forefathers.

Low T: It’s Real, and It’s Scary

There’s no question that there’s a shortage of testosterone. More than five million men have been diagnosed with low testosterone. And if you believe research published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice, more than 12 million men suffer from hormone issues but have no idea that the problem exists in their own body.

The natural question is: Why are men suffering from lower testosterone? The easy answer is fat. The heavier you are, the lower your testosterone. Or maybe more appropriately: The more fat you carry, the more aromatase you produce, an enzyme that converts your testosterone (the good stuff) into the female hormone estrogen. This is what will make you look softer, harms arousal, and even makes you more emotional. By cutting down on your fat, you’ll have the greatest impact on ensuring that you continue to produce more testosterone and stay young as long as possible.

While your testosterone has been shown to increase by lifting weights, that bump up is not responsible for your muscle growth.

For your fitness goals, it can be a reason why your hard work is oftentimes met with resistance. Until fat levels are lower, gaining muscle is a harder process. Think of your muscles as a car and testosterone as the engine. You can put in great fuel (good workouts, high quality food), but if the engine is broken, the car won’t run as efficiently as you want.

But that’s just the beginning of your problem. An increasing amount of research suggests testosterone issues are closely linked to your lack of a particular nighttime habit; and no, it’s not sex.

High stress and low amounts of sleep can cause damage to testosterone levels that is almost instant. The problem is a hormonal domino effect. Stress triggers an increase in cortisol, a hormone in the body associated with interruptions in sleep patterns. And poor rest elevates cortisol even more, which will ensure that your sleep will only continue to get worse. What’s more, less sleep also robs you of your testosterone, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And we’re not talking a tiny drop; the researchers indicated that poor quality sleep could cause up to a 15 percent decrease in testosterone, giving you one more reason to focus on your rest.

What’s most amazing — and scary — is that the changes happen faster than you’d think. After just one week, the researchers noted the drop in testosterone, as well as self-reported changes to in the men: feeling more moody, having less vigor, and struggling with concentration.

If a combination of excess fat and sleep deprivation wasn’t commonplace enough, your testosterone has another Achilles heel that men know all too well: Alcohol. Dutch researchers found that any regular alcohol consumption lowered subjects’ testosterone levels by nearly 10 percent, and that the associated drop was also linked to a decrease in sex drive.

What’s worse, we’re not talking about the impact of drinking over an extended period of time. The scientists found the drop to occur in just three weeks’ time, meaning prolonged drinking could have an even more dramatic impact. And then there’s the impact you can’t even see.

The Testosterone Solution

Imagine a world where a score of 30 percent was the same as 90 percent? Awesome if you’re an underachiever, but not so awesome if you’re trying to determine if you’re suffering from low testosterone. The scale for “normal” is so wide that anything from 300 ng/dl (nanongrams per decaliter) to 1,000 ng/dl is considered in a healthy range.

The bottom line isn’t about focusing on one particular exercise or post-workout snack. It’s the bigger picture.


But testosterone in the 300 range (or even 400s or 500s) is not ideal for optimal functioning, even if it is a “normal” level. And that misleading range is a big reason why testosterone problems are so under-diagnosed — not to mention the uncommon nature of the test itself. If you want your testosterone checked, you’ll be hard pressed to have it done before you’re in your 40s — unless you ask. Even then, it’s possible that you’ll be charged an extra fee for the blood work.

If you believe commercials, the only way to improve a hormone issue is with drugs. And while it can work, it’s not without some controversy. Testosterone therapy has been linked to potential cardiac issues, problems with lowered good cholesterol, and even a decrease in sperm production.

On the flip side, research shows that boosting testosterone naturally — at least in the moment (known as an “acute change”) — isn’t all that difficult. If you’d conduct a quick research review on what boosts testosterone, you’d quickly find that any of the following could help.

  • Lift heavy weights.
  • Do intervals.
  • Practice sprints and work your lower body.
  • Supplement with vitamin D (at least 3000 IU/day).
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Take zinc and fish oil.
  • Sleep more than six hours each night.
  • Eat more protein, including eggs.
  • Include fat from animals and dairy in your diet.
  • Do squats and deadlifts.
  • Take shorter rest periods in the gym.
  • Don’t overtrain.

But these tips are only part of the story. You know you should exercise and eat well. What you don’t know is how the right formula might make or break your hormonal environment.

Improving your testosterone is as complex as it is simple. In general, some guidelines can help.

1. Prioritize rest.

As mentioned above, sleep should be emphasized as much as any behavior. Aim for 7 to 8 hours per night, and if you do have a couple of bad nights, make it a priority to avoid pushing your sleep debt for more than a week. That’s when the biggest problems rear their head.

2. Embrace dietary fat.

Saturated fat is one of the best sources of energy for your body. It’s why your body naturally stores carbohydrates as saturated fat. How can you argue with one of the most basic structures of how your body was intended to work? Saturated fats are also some of the most satiating foods, meaning they keep you fuller longer. Research even shows diets that are higher in saturated fats are oftentimes lower in total calories. And, as we alluded to already, saturated fats boost testosterone, which as we’ve already mentioned about a hundred times, is what makes you a man.

3. Train hard (with weights).

Resistance training bumps up your testosterone in the hours after your workout. But there’s only one small problem. Research also shows that any meal over 300 calories can cause your testosterone to decrease. So that big post-workout shake you enjoy? Yeah, it’s not part of the T party.

Even more bizarre? While your testosterone has been shown to increase by lifting weights, that bump up is not responsible for your muscle growth.

Confused once again? Don’t be.

The bottom line isn’t about focusing on one particular exercise or post-workout snack. It’s the bigger picture. Your overall testosterone levels are more important to your health and total muscle mass than small changes from a single meal or workout. The goal is to piece together the entire puzzle in a way that will leave you on the high end of the testosterone scale. Think about it like this:

  • The more fat you have on your belly, the lower your testosterone.
  • The less you sleep, the lower your testosterone.
  • The more you stress, the lower your testosterone.

Rather than focusing on what type of incremental jump you can create from one action (lifting a particular way, eating a specific food), focus on fixing the engine with the right tools and fuel. Addressing the big picture aspects of your health, and making those a true priority, is what will lead to the great rise in testosterone.

It won’t just lead to better results in the gym — it could improve your entire life.

Want to read more about hormones? Check out Engineering the Alpha. Or to connect with Adam, follow him on Twitter (@BornFitness) or sign up for his online coaching program.

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