Testosterone. It is what makes us hairy-knuckled, aftershave-splashing, bench-pressing, collared-T-shirt-wearing males. No treatise on men’s health is complete without talking about testosterone. At least that’s how it should be.
You started shaving, working out and relying on that baritone of yours because of the spike in testosterone production in your teens. It has helped you develop and retain muscle and maintain bone density. Until now.
If you’ve been working hard and partying harder, and have noticed recently that you are suffering from a low libido, disturbed sleep or longer recovery periods after your workout, we might have to talk ‘T’. You could be seriously thwarting your efforts to attain Grecian vigour and strength without even knowing it.
Case in point: Did you know that caffeine over-stimulates the adrenal glands – and that there is this thing called ‘adrenal fatigue’ that affects most of us city-slickers. Adrenal fatigue is a big contributor to lower testosterone levels.
Lifestyle changes have made men significantly more ‘cortisol’ dominant.
This hormone is catabolic, quickens your metabolism and is secreted by the adrenal glands. More pertinently, cortisol is antagonistic to testosterone.
Thanks to our fast-paced lifestyles, constantly elevated cortisol levels can wreak havoc on our immune systems and prematurely age even the most genetically gifted among us.
Low testosterone levels are also a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Our hormones work in a sort of self-regulatory way to maintain a chemical homeostasis within our bodies. Advancing age, obesity, declining fitness levels, irregular sleep patterns and stress all affect that balance. Oestrogenic foods and substances such as phthalates and pesticides add to the hormonal chaos.
But a few small yet significant changes in your lifestyle, eating habits and training regime will help you restore and maintain your testosterone levels.
To train or not to train?
Fabien Rabeau, elite trainer, owner of International Sports Expertise and developer of the SP40 Training Protocol, explains the importance of the hormone, saying, “In sports, testosterone is commonly related to doping practice. For most people however, it is known for its effect on libido… What’s important is that for your physiology, testosterone is anabolic in nature – it represents molecule synthesis which is conducive to assimilation and growth. Imagine it being like a fertiliser for your muscles. Especially if you are into sprinting or weight lifting – testosterone is very important.”
According to Fabien, working out in general reduces the level of testosterone for at least 24 hours. The decrease is even more significant when it comes to serious athletes. Most weight-lifting sessions are about 45 minutes as, after this, T-levels start to decrease.
Recent studies show a decrease in T-levels for elite athletes only, and not for casual or young athletes, primarily because of compensatory androgen production.
There’s a general misconception that cardio training reduces testosterone levels. “This is not true, in fact the changes occur during short, intense exercises,” says Fabien.
“Testosterone levels are related to lactic acid production. I will say testosterone levels might be higher for endurance athletes –
due to their ability to resist the effects of lactic acid.
“Testosterone is related directly to your activity. The more intensely you train, the more you decrease your testosterone level temporarily. My advice to maintain a baseline level is that you weight-lift every two days, and go easy on strict diets as they reduce testosterone production.”
Not sticking to a strict fat-free diet is something that Ryan Fernando, sports nutrition coach to India’s Olympic medal-winning wrestler Sushil Kumar and co-founder of Qua Nutrition, agrees with.
“The normal level of testosterone in your bloodstream is between 350 and 1,000 nanograms per decilitre (ng/dl). Contrary to all the ‘bro-science’ out there [the kind you hear in a few gyms, mostly assimilated by guys curling dumbbells in the squat rack], studies clearly indicate that low-fat diets result in lower testosterone levels, while those higher in protein, lower in carbohydrate and moderate in fat result in the greatest sustained levels of testosterone and growth hormone. The reason for this is that testosterone, and all steroid hormones, are produced from cholesterol, and when
fats are deficient in the diet, this process is inhibited.”
And there are other culprits. “Soy, grapes and grape products such as red wine contain resveratrol, a phytoestrogen that mimics some effects of oestrogen while blocking testosterone. Phytoestrogens can bind to oestrogen receptors in our bodies and have pro-oestrogenic effects on the target tissues.”
So do superfoods that enhance T-levels exist? “Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli might help boost testosterone production by getting rid of excess oestrogen,” says Ryan. Scientists from the Rockefeller University Hospital and the University of Helsinki in Finland observed that the compound indole-3-carbinol, which is found in cruciferous vegetables, increases urinary output of oestrogen in men, according to findings reported in the May 1997 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
Allicin, the active ingredient in garlic, enhances T-levels, but also importantly decreases cortisol – the antagonistic stress hormone that limits testosterone and breaks down muscle tissue. Vitamin A, Vitamin D (found in foods like dairy products, salmon, eggs and mushrooms) and oysters also help improve and maintain the testosterone levels in men.
Fightback! six easy ways to shore up your t-levels
- Protein stimulates the muscle-building responses important for adequate testosterone release and supports training.
- Eat more vegetables and fruit, limit simple sugars and starches (grains, potatoes, pasta) and stay away from fried foods and caffeine.
- Unless medically advised, avoid testosterone supplements – you’ll save yourself possible liver lesions, increased risk of cancer and a cardio vascular incident.
- Limit your time in the weight room to 45 minutes. And do your cardio. You will not turn into a lesser mortal and it will not make your baritone vanish.
- Essential fats such as omega 3 fatty acids (in fish and flaxseed) and saturated fats (in meat) are important for normal testosterone production.
- Cut the fat. Fat gains increase oestrogen levels and drop T-levels.