Testosterone is the male sex hormone. Although it is typically associated with only males, women actually have testosterone too just at much lower levels. Testosterone production in the body starts to ramp up in young men once they reach the age of puberty and usually stays at its highest levels until around the age of 30 when most men will start to lose testosterone as they age. Typically, a man can expect to lose around 1% of their testosterone each year after the age of 30.
When discussing testosterone, people typically talk about two main categories:
- Total testosterone levels
- Free testosterone levels
Total testosterone is the total detected level of testosterone that is flowing around in your system. Free testosterone is the amount of testosterone that your body is actually able to use. This is a really important note: you can have normal or even high total testosterone levels, but if your free testosterone levels are low, you will feel the negative effects of low testosterone. If you get or have gotten your testosterone levels checked, make sure that you know both of these numbers and talk with your doctor about how they compare.
How do hormones work in the body?
According to The Cleveland Clinic, hormones are “chemicals that coordinate different functions in your body by carrying messages through your blood to your organs, skin, muscles, and other tissues. These signals tell your body what to do and when to do it.”
Let’s look at an example to understand what all of that means:
You have not eaten food since lunchtime and it is currently 6 o’clock in the evening. The food you ate at lunch has been fully digested and your stomach is now empty. Your stomach senses that it is empty and releases a hormone called ghrelin. This hormone is secreted into your bloodstream and eventually makes its way to the brain. When the brain is delivered ghrelin through your blood, it turns on the feeling of hunger and you start rummaging through the kitchen for some food!
Testosterone is one such hormone that is created in the gonads of males and the ovaries of females. In men, testosterone is believed to be responsible for sex drive, enhancing muscle mass, red blood cell production, bone mass, and regulation of fat distribution.
Does testosterone boost metabolism? What the science says…
In 1992, a study was published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism examining the effects of injected testosterone on men with and without muscular dystrophy. The study (which you can read here) was looking at how increased testosterone levels affected metabolic rate (AKA metabolism) and lean body mass (how much of your body is lean muscle tissue versus fat).
What the study found was that in both groups of men, the increase in testosterone levels produced an average increase in the metabolism of 10% after 3 months and remained around 10% higher after 12 months. Furthermore, the study found that the increased testosterone levels increased lean body mass by an average of 10% which also remained elevated at the 12-month mark.
Another study examined something similar except that it was not comparing unhealthy to healthy males. In this study, 362 men across 8 different countries were either given a 50 mg dose of a testosterone gel daily or a placebo gel. The mens’ lean body mass and fat masses were examined via DEXA scans. The DEXA scans showed that at the 6-month mark, the men who were given the testosterone gel had an increase in lean body mass of 2.5 pounds and a decrease in fat mass of around 3 pounds. At the 12-month mark, the groups were tested again, and found that the testosterone group had lost an additional 3 pounds of fat mass with no changes in lean body mass.
My interpretation of this information is that testosterone clearly has some impact on metabolism and fat mass in the body. Although the science is not totally clear on WHY testosterone affects metabolism and fat mass, you can see that in both studies, without any focus on exercise or nutrition, both groups of men lost fat and gained muscle (lean body mass).
How to get your testosterone levels up
The first step in getting your testosterone levels up is knowing where they are at. To do this, consult with your doctor and ask to have your testosterone levels checked. The process of doing this is very similar to getting your blood work done and can/should be done with your annual check up.
Fortunately, there are a couple of options for getting your testosterone levels up. Keep in mind though that when dealing with testosterone levels, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and there also isn’t one single answer. Having normal testosterone levels is closely related to leading a very healthy life in general. That means that you are really being disciplined with your diet, exercise, and especially your stress levels. If you choose to do some of the following below, just note that they are merely a piece of a larger puzzle. You still have to take care of your body and mind to get the best results.
Furthermore, I am not an endocrinologist. I am merely a personal trainer who has many years of experience to draw from. Nothing I am about to say should be taken as medical advice and you should consult your doctor before engaging in any new diet, exercise routine, or medical treatment.
If we think about the lowest-hanging fruit that we can grab to help our testosterone levels, the diet is going to be the first one that we should look at. I’ve said it a million times, and you’ve heard it a million times: it matters what you put into your body. The first thing that you will want to change in your diet is going to be the balance of your macronutrients. Most people today eat a very carbohydrate-heavy diet. I don’t believe that carbs are not the enemy, but in this case, too many carbs can be causing problems because excess carbs will be stored as fat and fat produces an estrogenic effect in the body which will actually lower your testosterone levels.
So, have there been any studies on diet and testosterone? In fact, there are! I found seven studies looking at diet and its effect on testosterone and guess what? All of them showed that eating a high-fat diet leads to an increase in testosterone levels. (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) You might be wondering how that can be since I just said that excess fat produces estrogen in the body. In short, cholesterol is the main building block of testosterone. Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in higher-fat foods, meaning eating higher fat percentages would equal more cholesterol and (hopefully) higher testosterone levels.
Now, this is not to say that you should start eating McDonald’s. You should ensure that the high-fat foods you are getting are healthy fats like avocados, olive oil and unprocessed cuts of meat like steak and pork. In order to help you make positive diet changes, consider learning how to make easy meal preps that can last you several days and help stop you from making bad choices!
Okay, this is an area of recent change for me. I have always believed that testosterone levels increased with an increase in strength training. I have said that many times to many people and I believe that today I stand corrected. Former scientific articles that I would usually cite that spoke of the testosterone-boosting effects of exercise always simply said “testosterone serum.” Unfortunately, this does not mean that you are getting the positive effects of testosterone in your system.
The reason is simple: there is testosterone, and then there is free testosterone. While some studies have shown that total testosterone levels have risen from exercise, that does not necessarily mean that free testosterone levels rose, and none of the studies that I had formerly cited spoke about that. As I stated at the beginning of this article, free testosterone is what you really want in order to feel the positive effects of testosterone.
I have recently discovered two meta-analyses and four regular studies examining the effect of exercise on testosterone levels and unfortunately, none of them support exercise as a way to explicitly increase your free testosterone (which is what really matters). (1,2,3,4,5,6)
Despite this, do not forget that excessive fat on the body does have an estrogenic effect in men which does counteract testosterone levels exercise will help you lose that excessive weight. Exercise is so important and you should definitely utilize it to help lower stress levels and take care of your general health!
No discussion on hormone health is complete without a deep dive into your own well-being on a day to day basis. The lifestyle that you lead can negatively impact your hormone levels in ways that you may not imagine at first.
At the top of the list is sleep; the grand daddy of all health. If you are not sleeping in that healthy range of 6-8 hours a night, you cannot expect your hormone levels to be optimal. Above and beyond those numbers, you really need to assess how you are feeling in the morning. Do you wake up feeling refreshed? Everyone is a little groggy in the first 15-30 minutes of waking up, that’s normal. But if beyond that you are really dragging throughout the day, you may want to get a sleep study done and figure out what is going on.
I cannot repeat this enough sleep is critical to success here.
Next up would be stress. This can be mitigated to some degree by getting adequate sleep, but other lifestyle factors can definitely impact this outside of sleeping well. If you lead a high-stress life (you know if you do), then you should really work on figuring out ways to bring those levels down.
Before you get all upset about areas in your life can’t control (I can feel your heart rate increasing through the screen), I want you to start focusing on the areas that you can control. As much as you don’t want to admit it, there are likely hours in your day that you could be using to help yourself chill out and return to baseline. Find a hobby or activity that calms you down, and start incorporating that into your daily routine. Even something small like 5 minutes of deep breathing can lower your heart rate and stress levels tremendously!
Testosterone Replacement therapy
The final way that I am going to discuss in this article is testosterone replacement therapy or TRT. TRT is overseen by a physician so it does require a little extra time and money, but if you are really struggling, this option may be your best bet.
When on TRT, a doctor will be able to read your testosterone and free testosterone levels and help prescribe weekly dosages of testosterone that you can administer yourself. Ongoing checkups will make sure that you are where you need to be and adjust accordingly if needed.
I have clients who are TRT and I can tell you that all of them tell me that it is a night and day exerperience when they start to feel their levels increasing. Most of them report positive feelings within the first week of treatment and are astounded at what they were missing out on.
With that being said, TRT does have an adjustment period where you may experience some side effects. Typically, these usually subside within a few months and are not usually detrimental to your health. Again, since you are being overseen by a doctor throughout all of this, you will be able to discuss any side effects and ways around them with a trained physician which is very comforting!
Too long; didn’t read
Testoserone is the male sex hormone that is responsible for the typical “male” traits that we all can think of off the top of our head. Despite what movies, media, and the news may suggest, testosterone is essential to the health and well-being of men and women. When dealing with low levels of testosterone, men are at a far greater risk of depression and various diseases.
When it comes to metabolism, several studies have shown that with an increase in testosterone, an increase in metabolism and lean body mass is seen. Along with that, they showed a decrease in body fat mass.
In order to get your testosterone levels up, you should first know where your testosterone and free testosterone levels are at by talking with your doctor. Beyond that, adding more health fats into your diet is going to be a great help to you as healthy cholesterol is actually a precursor to testosterone production. Without cholesterol, you won’t have testosterone. Second is going to be sleep. Make sure that you are not only getting 6-8 hours a night, but that you also wake up feeling refreshed. If this is not the case, consider having a sleep study done to make sure that you have not sleep-related issues. Third, work on managing your stress levels. Be honest with yourself, there are probably hours in your day that you could use more constructively to help lower your stress levels. Find those hours and have the discipline to use them.
Finally, although exercise has not explicitly been proven to increase your free testosterone levels, exercise is important for lowering stress which will definitely help your body increase its testosterone levels!
Jordan Tank, Personal Trainer, Columbus, Ohio
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