Everything you need to know about testosterone and how to boost it if you need to.
Testosterone is the hormone lots of men worry about – in fact, it’s probably the only hormone many can name. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. Because it’s linked with sex drive and building muscle, the internet is littered with natural and, as far as the general medical profession is concerned, ineffectual ways to boost it, along with exaggerated promises of what having high levels of testosterone could achieve.
To get the inside scoop on what the average man needs to know about testosterone, we spoke to Dr Timothy Woodman, medical director of Bupa UK, and then the experts at Men’s Fitness weigh in on what may help your T levels and actually effective supplementation.
What is testosterone and why do we need it?
Before you start looking for ways to up your testosterone levels, it’s probably worth knowing exactly what it does in the body.
“Testosterone is a hormone responsible for the development of male sexual characteristics,” says Woodman.
“It regulates sex drive and plays a vital role in sperm production. It also regulates bone and muscle mass, affects the way men store body fat and helps with the production of red blood cells – the blood cells that move oxygen throughout your body.
“Women also have this hormone, but in much smaller amounts. In fact, testosterone has some effects that mimic oestrogen – the female sex hormone – in women, including protecting your bones and keeping them strong.”
What are the risks of low levels of testosterone?
Testosterone is a vital hormone so it’s no surprise that when you do have low levels of it, many bodily functions start to suffer.
“Signs of low testosterone levels in men include low sex drive, muscle mass, mood and energy,” says Woodman.
“Because testosterone helps regulate your muscles and bones, men with low levels may also notice muscle and strength loss. They are also at increased risk of osteoporosis (weak bones).
“Although there is no evidence to say that low testosterone levels directly increase your chances of developing cardiovascular disease, men with low levels are more at risk of having higher cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure levels.”
Does the average man need to worry about his testosterone levels?
Having low levels of testosterone is undeniably bad news. Fortunately, you don’t really need to worry about it unless you’re displaying the above symptoms.
“A man’s body naturally produces testosterone, especially during puberty and in your early 20s,” says Woodman.
“The older you get, though, the less testosterone you produce. Twenty per cent of men over the age of 60 have low levels and this number increases as you age.”
If you are concerned about your testosterone levels your best bet is to have them checked by your doctor, rather than self-diagnosing.
“During a Bupa Health Assessment or general visit to your GP, you can ask to have your testosterone levels checked,” says Woodman.
Are there natural ways to boost testosterone?
A cursory search of the internet will throw up all manner of natural ways to boost your testosterone naturally. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to be backed up by a reliable body of evidence.
“There are many theories of how to increase your testosterone levels. However, there is no proper scientific evidence that these things work in the long term,” says Woodman.
“The good news is that treatment options are available to boost your levels. They include supplements, testosterone injections, patches or gels, or a pellet which is inserted under the skin and slowly releases testosterone into the body.
“If you’re concerned, speak to your GP or an endocrinologist or andrologist, who will be able to develop a safe treatment plan for you.”
One thing that could help with the symptoms of low testosterone is a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle is always a solid choice, to be honest.
“Although there is no solid evidence to suggest that exercise and a healthy diet can increase your testosterone levels, it can help alleviate the symptoms, such as tiredness, mood and muscle loss,” says Woodman.
Men’s Fitness Recommends Ways To Increase Your Testosterone
Try strongman training
According to a study in the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, when subjects did sets of strongman exercises to failure, they experienced a higher post-exercise testosterone spike than a control group who did a mixture of strongman and hypertrophy-style training. The exercises included a tire flip, chain drag, keg carry, Atlas stone lift and farmer’s walk.
Unless you’re training at a strongman facility, you may struggle to do some of these – but the farmer’s walk is accessible to all and it’s one of the most effective exercises you can do. Back health expert Dr Stuart McGill refers to it as a “walking plank” because it’s so good at developing core strength and stability. And if you still want a hypertrophy benefit from your strength work, try the Zercher carry, where you walk with a barbell in the crook of your arms.
Eat more seeds
Zinc and magnesium are crucial to testosterone production, and nuts and seeds will help you load up. Brazils and cashews are solid options, but pumpkin seeds offer the highest levels per gram – sprinkle them on porridge.
Eat more quinoa
It has a bad rep, but quinoa – technically a seed, although used like a grain in cooking – is high in androgen-mimicking compounds and amino acids, as well as containing zinc, magnesium and arginine. It also works well with salad.
Eat soy in moderation
It’s said to lower testosterone – but you should be fine as long as you don’t eat large quantities. The processed kind contains isoflavones that mimic oestrogen and can lower T levels, so stick to the less processed kind found in sauce or edamame, and save the tempeh for special occasions.
The Men’s Fitness Guide To Testosterone Supplements
There are many supplements on the market claiming to enhance testosterone. In fact many of them are herbal supplements that, while improving libido and boosting confidence, do very little for testosterone levels. These libido enhancers include herbs such as tribulus terrestris, maca and fenugreek, all of which have a noticeable effect on sex drive but none on testosterone.
Other ingredients, such as eurycoma and ginger, can only increase testosterone when taken by men who are infertile or have testicular damage. Others, such as horny goat weed, haven’t been studied in humans so there is no reliable evidence for their effects.
Bottom line: most “testosterone” supplements on the market have no effect on testosterone levels. But there are a few proven to work, thanks to a research review from examine.com, especially if you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
Zinc is a dietary mineral that is often promoted for boosting testosterone. In fact, it only helps in people with a zinc deficiency, but that could be you – athletes and people who exercise a lot are prone to this because zinc is lost through sweat. Zinc deficiencies are associated with lower testosterone levels, so if supplementation brings zinc levels back into the normal range, testosterone levels will rise accordingly. However, increasing zinc levels above normal body levels will not increase testosterone any further, and high doses of supplementary zinc can irritate the intestines and cause liver and kidney damage. Over time, high doses of zinc can also result in a copper deficiency.
If you’re taking zinc, have it with meals, since some people experience nausea after taking it on an empty stomach. Don’t pair zinc with minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron in combined doses of 800mg or more because the minerals will compete for absorption and limit the overall effectiveness of the supplements.
Like zinc, magnesium is also a dietary mineral and a deficiency is also linked to lowered testosterone levels.
Taking magnesium supplements when deficient will restore testosterone levels to normal, but again, if you are not deficient then supplementation will not raise testosterone levels above normal. As with zinc, magnesium is lost through sweat so it is often recommended for athletes.
If taking magnesium gluconate, having it with a meal increases its absorption, but other forms of magnesium can be taken either with food or on an empty stomach.
Vitamin D has long been researched in the context of male fertility and testosterone – vitamin D receptors are located on sperm cells, and it may also play a role in the production of steroid hormones.
Studies have shown that for men with low vitamin D levels, supplementation over the course of a year resulted in an increase in testosterone levels. It is not known if this is because supplementation remedies low testosterone or not, because the study was conducted in middle-aged men who may have experienced age-related testosterone decline.
Vitamin D is a very safe, cheap way to guard against low testosterone levels. Most people do not get enough vitamin D, especially those living more than 37° north or south of the Equator (which includes the UK) because of the relative lack of sunlight. It’s a fat-soluble vitamin, so it should be taken with meals containing dietary fat.
Creatine is a small organic acid which serves as an energy intermediate, replenishing levels of ATP (your body’s main source of energy) in a cell faster than glucose or fatty acids. It is best known for its ability to increase the rate of muscle growth and improvements in strength during training, but creatine has also been investigated for its interactions with androgens (the primary sex hormones). In young men between 18 and 35, it appears to cause a mild but reliable increase in testosterone concentrations of around 20-25%. This increase is thought to be partially responsible for the effects of creatine on muscle growth and power output, although further research is needed to determine the mechanism through which it increases testosterone levels. One thing worth noting is that creatine is safe to take, despite persistent myths that it can damage your kidneys.
The best way to take creatine supplements is in the form of creatine monohydrate. If you are particularly sensitive to creatine’s side effects, which can include nausea and cramping, consider supplementing with micronised creatine, which may be easier on the digestive system.
The standard dose for creatine is 5g a day, which is enough to improve power output. People with more muscle mass may benefit from a higher daily dose – as much as 10g taken in two doses of 5g – but this claim is not fully supported by the evidence.
Some people are creatine non-responders, which means creatine is unable to pass from their blood to their muscles, rendering it ineffective. If you do respond to creatine, supplementation timing is not a huge issue, though you will probably want to take it with a meal to lower the risk of an upset stomach.
If you’re aiming to boost your testosterone with these supplements, here’s how to incorporate them into your daily nutrition habits.
For men 35 or under who want increased testosterone levels, take the base supplements zinc (25-30mg), magnesium (200-400mg) and vitamin D (2,000-3,000IU) in the form of vitamin D3.
Written by Nick Harris-Fry for Coach