Let’s talk testosterone. We know it as the male sex hormone, but it’s produced by both men and women, and men produce about 20 times as much as women. Since we also use more, the levels in our bodies are about 8-10 times higher than women.
Yes, women have testosterone, but far less, which is why it’s so hard for them to put on muscle mass compared to guys. Men also have some of the female sex hormone estrogen in their bodies, but again women have 8-10 times higher levels.
So, how do you check your Testosterone levels. Some people claim that an easy way to check for high or low T is whether your ring finger is longer or shorter than your index finger, known as the 2D:4D ratio.
2D:4D ratio for assessing testosterone levels
A more accurate approach would be to get a blood test.
Even with a blood test you have to remember that time of day has a strong influence on your reading, and levels are generally highest in the morning. Here’s an example of the variation across a single day.
Variation in testosterone levels with time of day
What Does Testosterone Do?
Most people associate high testosterone with sex drive and aggression. Chronically low levels of testosterone lead to a reduced sex drive, less energy, weight gain and low mood. It could also lead to gynaecomastia (man boobs), erectile dysfunction and loss of muscle.
Having optimal levels of testosterone will enhance strength and increase muscle protein synthesis. Other benefits include additional growth hormone & IGF release and reduced body fat, as well as helping to avoid diseases like osteoporosis.
What Is An “Optimal” Level Of Testosterone?
So what is an optimal level? Well that varies based on age, as men will naturally lose about 1% a year from the age of 30. For adult males it’s around 250 to 1100 ng/dl, or 2.5 to 11 ng/ml. It’s also often measured in nmol/l and those values would be around 8.7 to 38.1 nmol/l.
Some of the co-factors for low T include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, being overweight or obese and excessive alcohol consumption. Most of these are lifestyle factors that a good diet and regular exercise can fix.
The Role Of Aromatase In Testosterone Levels
If we look at the science we’ll find some natural ways to boost it for men. In the male body testosterone combines with an enzyme called aromatase to produce estrogen, which we still need some level of in our bodies. One of the problems men have is when too much is converted to estrogen.
Aromatase is found in BODY FAT, so the more body fat you have the more aromatase you have, and therefore higher conversion to estrogen. This in turn leads to an excess of estradiol, which is just one form of the estrogen hormone.
Not only that but the aromatase will have combined with more of your testosterone, so you end up with higher estrogen AND lower T, basically a hormone imbalance. Drinking alcohol has been shown to boost aromatase, in other words making the problem worse.
The opposite of a booster would be an aromatase inhibitor. You can supplement with Zinc or zinc rich foods as it’s an aromatase inhibitor. Good foods include celery stalks, red wine in low doses, olive oil, broccoli, kale and parsley.
Supplements To Consider
Zinc and Magnesium in the form of a ZMA supplement taken before bed would help increase Zinc, but also improve sleep quality. That’s important because a study showed that poor sleep among elderly men correlated with lower T levels in a morning blood test, and other studies have also found a link between sleep duration and T levels.
Taking ZMA will increase your Zinc levels
You can imagine the difference between an early morning test result after good sleep and a late afternoon one after disrupted sleep could be very significant. If you want more information about better sleep I recommend reading Sleep Smarter.
Another supplement for testosterone and sleep is ashwagandha, which has been shown to reduce cortisol, which is your stress hormone. Too much stress is going to have the opposite effect you want, so less sleep, lower muscle mass and increased fat mass.
Ashwagandha reduces cortisol, your stress hormone
Managing your stress levels will have a positive effect on testosterone, again i’ll direct you to a great book The Cortisol Connection if you want to learn more.
Dietary Fat And Testosterone Levels
Now more about foods. There’s been shown to be a high correlation between total dietary fat intake and testosterone levels. Several studies have shown that by increasing fat intake the subjects had higher T levels.
In one study they took men who obtained 40% of their daily calories from fat and dropped it to 25% for a few weeks before putting it back again. There was a visible drop in their testosterone levels of around 15%, which was restored after they returned to their original diet.
In another study they found positive relationships between % of calorie intake from fat, saturated fat and monounsaturated fat and serum testosterone. The same study found negative correlations with the ratio of polyunsaturated fat to saturated fat and also protein to carbohydrate ratio.
Positive relationships with Serum Testosterone and Fat, Saturated Fat and Monounsaturated Fat
What does that mean? It means you should be eating plenty of dietary fat with the exception of polyunsaturated fat. High levels of polyunsaturated fats should be avoided and can be found in foods such as safflower oil, corn oil, walnuts, brazil nuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds. However, brazil nuts are recommended in moderation due to their selenium content.
Another reason to avoid flaxseeds is the very high levels of estrogen within the food itself. For that reason you also want to limit your intake of soy products, like tofu and soy milk.
If you wanted more Monounsaturated fats you’d be looking at hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanut butter, avocados, olives and cashews. Also, contrary to popular belief, you don’t want to avoid saturated fat completely!
The Best Foods For Maximising Testosterone
There’s a lot of good info over at anabolicmen.com including a top 30 foods for a natural boost. They mention limiting grains and instead opting for potatoes. Other foods I haven’t mentioned already include: organic grass fed beef, eggs (particularly with a runny yolk), onions, oysters and fermented foods like sauerkraut, as well as white button mushrooms, oysters, tuna, oats, cinnamon, thyme, chilli powder, black pepper, paprika and mustard.
Dietary strategy, actually falls into two categories:
Producing more testosterone in the first place, and
Getting your body to utilise more of the hormone in circulation.
You can optimise your uptake of free testosterone with curcumin, anti-oxidants, and foods rich in vitamin C and vitamin E.
Try to eat anti-inflammatory foods like garlic, ginger, coriander, dark berries, green and black tea and olive oil. You can also moderate inflammation with Vitamin D, and unless you’re getting decent sun exposure every day you should consider supplementing with in the form of Vitamin D3.
Higher insulin sensitivity has correlated with higher testosterone, though subjects who are more insulin resistant were probably overweight or obese. Either way, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, with a reduction in added sugar & limiting processed foods is bound to help you out.
Exercise And Testosterone
Let’s talk about exercise, specifically resistance training. Lifting weights was shown to increase resting testosterone levels by 40% in a previously untrained group. This also decreased their cortisol levels at the same time.
It’s recommended you do big compound movements like deadlifts, squats, bench press and bent over rows as part of your routine. Incorporating weight training three or four times a week while making sure not to overdo it is going to be optimal.
Big compound lifts are likely to increase testosterone levels
The opposite is true of high volume endurance exercise, which drops baseline levels by 20-40%. One of the reasons is likely the greater release of stress hormones compared to weight lifting. High volume means serious training, not just a park run once a week.
An example in the research was 2 hours of running five times a week, so that would relate to marathon runners and triathletes more than the average weekend warrior. That study had the participants then stop their 10 hours a week of running and after a few months their T levels returned to normal, so it isn’t a permanent adaptation.
As you can see our lifestyle is really not helping our testosterone levels, which one long term study found had dropped around 1% a year across their 17 year study of American men. Another thing not helping the population is the environment.
Estrogen and estrogen mimicking compounds are found in regular tap water, with environmental estrogen said to be mainly from animal manure. That’s because it’s what they use to get things like cattle to fatten up, so your cheap, fatty cuts of meat are also going to be packed with estrogen.
Using a high quality water filter will do a good job at removing it from your tap water. If you drink out of plastic bottles you need to be aware of BPA, which is in a lot of plastic bottles and also contains estrogen mimicking chemicals that leach into your water. A lot of BPA free products contain BPS, which is just as bad, so a BPA and BPS free water bottle is best, something like a Camelbak.
Camelbak produce BPA & BPS free water bottles
I’ve tried to be as thorough as possible while keeping it concise, but if i’ve missed a key study or my information is out of date, or you have anything to add to the conversation about naturally increasing testosterone please post in the comments below.