Improve body composition and raise testosterone by making sure you are not deficient in certain nutrients that are directly linked to suboptimal levels of this most important hormone. A simple error in diet, such as eating a lot of sugar or high-glycemic foods, restricting fat or other key foods, or not getting enough magnesium, zinc, or vitamin D could lower your testosterone and make you fat.
In addition, studies show that men with low testosterone have a greater incidence of the following health problems:
• Type 2 diabetes
• Infertility and poor reproductive health
• More belly fat and total body fat, and less muscle mass
• Less muscle growth from strength training
• Poorer athletic performance
• Slower recovery from intense training
• Greater risk of prostate cancer
Low testosterone (T) is a much bigger problem than most men realize. There are many interconnected reasons for low T such as exposure to chemical estrogens, lack of nutrients in our food, diets that don’t provide the building blocks for the body to make T, and lack of physical activity. This article will provide five tips for raising your testosterone levels for the best physique and optimal health.
Tip #1: Get Enough Vitamin D
Although other nutrients are just as important as vitamin D for testosterone production, optimizing vitamin D levels is a first priority because the relationship between this nutrient and T has just been identified.
A study that came out at the end of last year found that men who were deficient in vitamin D (a level below 20 ng/ml) had much lower free T and higher estrogen. Those same men had more body fat, less lean mass, greater chance of depression, higher rates of cardiovascular disease, and poorer fertility than men with higher vitamin D levels. The men with adequate vitamin D (above 30 ng/ml) had the leanest body composition, higher free T, and better overall health.
This news was followed up with a groundbreaking study that tested the effect of giving men with vitamin D deficiency who suffered from low T a supplement of 3,332 IUs of vitamin D or a placebo daily for a year. Taking the vitamin D supplement increased free T by a robust 20 percent—the supplement also brought vitamin D up to 36 ng/ml, a completely adequate D level for health. The placebo group had no change in testosterone or vitamin D.
Vitamin D supports T production because there are vitamin D receptors on the cells in the glands that release T. In addition, vitamin D is thought to inhibit a process called aromatization in which T is changed into estrogen in men.
Solve Low Vitamin D: Get your blood levels tested to make sure you get enough. Supplement with vitamin D if necessary. The vitamin D Council recommends a blood level of 50 ng/ml.
Tip #2: Get Enough Zinc
The relationship between zinc, testosterone, and reproductive health is fairly well known—a 1996 study found that young men with normal T status who avoided getting zinc in their diets for 5 months experienced a dramatic drop in total T of more than 50 percent. Giving zinc gluconate over the same period to older men who had low T resulted in doubling the men’s T levels.
Similarly, more recent data support the relationship between normal T and higher zinc, and conversely low zinc and low T, which puts men at risk of male menopause.
Research shows that having adequate zinc available in the body allows for a more robust release of T, and the related athletic performance hormones, growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). For example, a 4-week study that gave athletes a zinc supplement resulted in a significant increase in T after an exhaustive exercise test. Although, not tested in this study, adequate zinc has also been found to improve release of IGF-1, and together T and IGF-1 are principal hormones in ensuring recovery from exercise.
Know that low zinc will be devastating to your health and training results, it’s MUCH more common than people realize, and it affects men and women equally. Lack of zinc makes both sexes infertile and increases cancer risk significantly. Zinc plays other roles that directly influence your whole hormonal cascade including the following:
• Low zinc leads to an increase in estrogen receptors and a decrease in androgen receptors.
• Zinc is necessary for androstenedione to be converted to T.
• Low zinc may increase aromatization of T to estrogen, just like vitamin D.
• The male prostate tissue requires 10 times more zinc than other cells in the body for health. Once the prostate cells become cancerous they lack the ability to accumulate zinc, leading to the faster spread of cancer in the prostate.
• Low zinc increases breast cancer risk in women (and men, although this is less common than prostate cancer risk in men) because of how it can lead to abnormal estrogen action in the body, and because zinc minimizes inflammation, which is a principal cause of cell damage.
Solve Low Zinc: Get a red blood cell zinc test to measure zinc levels—this is the most effective way to test for zinc and magnesium, which you’ll read about below, because blood concentrations of these trace minerals in the serum don’t reflect the overall levels in the body.
If you have low zinc, take a high-quality zinc supplement that is not cut with calcium—this will impair absorption. Get dietary zinc from meat, but don’t rely on vegetables or grains for zinc because they contain compounds called phytates that make the zinc unavailable to the body.
Don’t chronically take zinc unless you are low—zinc can be toxic as well.
Tip #3: Get Enough Magnesium
Getting enough magnesium will help you raise T and build muscle because magnesium improves the body’s antioxidant capacity, decreasing inflammation, which allows for a robust release of T and IGF-1. For example, a recent study found that giving tae kwon do athletes roughly 750 mg of magnesium daily for 4 weeks raised free T by 26 percent at rest and by 18 percent after a shuttle running test.
Maintaining adequate magnesium is necessary to avoid throwing off hormone balance and for keeping you lean. For instance, a 2011 Italian study was one of the first to show that older men with low magnesium had lower free and total T than those with the highest magnesium levels. Magnesium was independently associated with IGF-1 and T in these men after adjusting for complicating factors such as body fat and disease.
Magnesium plays many physiological roles including the following:
• It enables the production of enzymes that allow vitamin D to help with calcium absorption and bone building.
• It is especially important for athletes because it must be present to enable forceful muscle contractions.
• It relaxes the central nervous system and plays a primary role in cardiovascular health.
• It supports energy use and blood sugar regulation, and low magnesium has been directly linked to diabetes risk.
• It promotes sleep, which is extremely important for supporting testosterone—see #4.
Solve Low Magnesium: Take 500 mg a day of magnesium from a high-quality magnesium bound with taurate, ororate, glycinate, or fumarate to support hormone levels and athletic performance. To get your magnesium tested, do a red blood cell test.
Dietary and high-quality magnesium supplements in moderate doses do not pose a health risk, however, very large doses of magnesium-containing laxatives and the like have been linked to toxicity.
Tip #4: Get Enough Sleep
Most coaches and trainees know adequate sleep is necessary for growth hormone production and recovery from training, but it’s just as important for testosterone release. As early as 1975, scientists found that total T increases over night and it is released episodically.
More recently, a series of studies have shown that just one night of short sleep will alter T release, leading to lower T in the morning. For example, both total sleep deprivation, or getting only 4.5 hours of sleep were found to alter the pituitary-gonadal axis and result in a marked decrease in T.
Another study that tested the effect of getting only 4 hours of sleep for 5 nights in young men found they suffered lower T, higher afternoon cortisol, and significantly altered glucose and insulin by the end of the study.
The intention of this study was to measure how poor sleep increases diabetes risk, and this was evident with the subjects experiencing the beginning of insulin resistance in less than a week. It also shows the inter-relationship between T, cortisol, and the metabolic hormones like insulin that, when compromised, can put you on a downhill spiral to poor body composition and ill health.
Solve Lack of Sleep: Plan your sleep schedule so that you go to bed at the same time every night and stay on your schedule on the weekend. Research suggests that the androgen and adrenal hormones can be supported by planning your sleep based on if you are a natural “morning” or “evening” person, a trait called “chronotype.”
A recent study found that men who slept based on their natural chronotype had higher T than those who did not time their sleep based on their natural tendency. For example, “morning” subjects who had early-to-bed-early-to-rise sleep patterns and “evening” subjects who felt more energized at night and went to bed later and got up later had the highest T. Subjects who were forced to go against their chronotype (such as an “evening” subject who had to get up early), had lower T.
Tip #5: Avoid Sugar, Grains & Manage Your Glycemic Index
Testosterone is temporarily reduced by having your blood sugar spike, and low T is pretty much a given if you have diabetes. For example, a new study found that men who had normal insulin health had a 25 percent decrease in T after ingesting a drink containing sugar. T remained low for 2 hours, and nearly 80 percent of the men had their T drop to levels that would be considered clinical testosterone deficiency.
This study tested an acute or one time spike in blood sugar, but if your blood sugar is elevated over and over again, the entire hormonal cascade will be thrown off and you will suffer from chronically low T. We saw in #4 how lack of sleep alters blood sugar management and insulin health, resulting in lower T and higher cortisol. With an unfavorable ratio of T to cortisol, you will experience a catabolic or tissue-degrading state, leading to muscle loss, and greater fat accumulation.
Solve High Blood Sugar/Low T: The solution is to eat for optimal T by managing your blood sugar response to food. This means that you should avoid foods that are quickly digested and lead your blood sugar to increase rapidly—glucose and other sugars are obvious, but many grains and all refined or processed foods should be eliminated from your diet.
Eat high-quality protein, healthy fats, and low-glycemic carbohydrates like vegetables and low-sugar fruits. If you do eat foods that elevate blood sugar, pair them with foods that help moderate insulin and glucose—the herb fenugreek has been found to produce a lower glucose response when it is baked in whole grain bread or added to oatmeal. Berries and nuts have also been found to aid in lowering the glycemic response to high-carb foods.
Be aware that testosterone is produced in the body out of cholesterol, which is, of course, gotten from fat. Studies show that men with higher fat intake have significantly higher T than those who restrict fat, and there’s evidence that diets higher in meat will lead to higher T than those that restrict or eliminate meat.
In fact, research suggest that the high-quality amino acid concentration in meat improves T production—evidence comparing the effect of vegetarian and omnivorous diets that are matched for macronutrient content have shown greater muscle and strength gains from the meat-eating diet.
Choose “smart fats” (from fish, grass-fed meats, avocados, nuts, coconuts, organic dairy, for example) and don’t be afraid of cholesterol as long as you are minimizing carbohydrate intake and managing your glycemic index.