Hear the word testosterone, and 99% of people will automatically link it to aggression, violence, and a whole host of other undesirable traits. This is understandable given that social media is saturated with stupendously big, vascular, aggressive bodybuilders; but these guys are usually pumping themselves with supraphysiological amounts of artificial testosterone, to gorilla status.
Testosterone is the major male sex hormone, but found in both men and women. It is mainly synthesised in male testes and female ovaries, but a small amount is also produced in the pancreas. In healthy populations, males should have 7-10 times more T than females, but this ratio is declining by the day with an unprecedented prevalence in obesity and other concomitant lifestyle habits.
Later, this article will be outlining practical ways in which we can naturally optimise our endogenous testosterone levels, and how doing so could change your life.
Although it is the predominant male sex hormone, associated with masculinity, testosterone positively affects the quality of life (QOL) in both males and females.
Yes, this post is mostly directed at the lads reading this. However, before the lady audience abandons the rest of the article, I want to allay any preconceived ideas you may have; and allow you to perhaps glean a few things you can share with your male friends 🙂
An imbalance between testosterone/cortisol may well manifest itself as low libido, stubborn body fat, unexplained lethargy, and general apathy with everyday activities.
If you can identify with these symptoms, it would be prudent to get a blood test done to confirm any imbalance, as I feel hormones are often the underlying reason why people are not reaching their fitness goals.
Healthy testosterone levels help to:
- Increase muscle mass while reducing body fat
- Fights depression
- Strengthens the heart
- Strengthens bones
- Increases libido
- Sexual function
- May improve cognitive ability (‘fogginess’ & concentration)
- Has the potential to decrease chance of Alzheimer’s onset
- Increases assertiveness and competitiveness
- Shown to increase honesty (contradicting the extensive belief that testosterone facilitates anti-social behaviour)
… Only to name a few of its positive effects.
Put simply, testosterone is an elixir of well-being!
Why am I so passionate about hormone optimisation, and particularly testosterone? And why should readers deem my word as tenable on this topic?
MY STORY (in brief)… How I Bounced Back From Rock-Bottom
Those who know me well are aware that I place a great deal of importance on hormonal health, but few know the story behind my disposition.
Through primary school and high school, up until late 2011, I had excelled at various sports requiring power and strength; while physically developing at an expected (or slightly faster than expected) rate for my age. In 2010, I won my football club’s BnF; my tennis club championships; and inter-school triple & long jumps. Puberty was running its natural course during this time, and I was gradually getting bigger, stronger and faster.
Coming in to the twilight years of high school, I decided to channel most of my energy and time in to study, so ultimately dropped all sport but running. At this point in time I was 70kg, and had just won $100 in a 5km fun run. I ultimately settled on running due to its inherent time-efficiency, simplicity, and the fact it was a nice psychological release from studies.
After winning this race, and the yearning to win more races that ensued, I started running every day while developing a somewhat unhealthy preoccupation with eating only ‘clean’/unprocessed foods. In the space of a year, my weekly mileage had increased and I was consistently training at sunrise before school; often back-ending the day with a ‘strength training’ session (naively performing countless exercises for 15+ repetitions).
By the end of 2012, I had faded in to a 58kg little boy. Naturally, my family and friends were concerned for me but knew I was sensitive and vehemently in denial about my deleterious habits.
I eventually conceded to my family’s genuine worry, and arranged a check up with the GP. A blood test was conducted, and the results I received 3 days later were exceptional. My serum testosterone count had registered 14ng/dl.
To give you some perspective, the ‘normal’ range for males is 300-1000; and 15-70ng/dl for women. I essentially had zero testosterone running through my veins.
I was absolutely horrified by my results, and even the doctor was befuddled by these unprecedented results. Never, had I been so shattered in my life. Here I was, an 18 year-old male who had no strength, minimal confidence, no assertiveness or decisiveness; and ultimately no passion for the things I previously loved.
It took me a number of weeks to come to terms with the fact I was responsible for plummeting my T to a negligible level, at an age where testosterone should naturally be sky-high. In hindsight, almost every aspect of my lifestyle at the time contributed to my disastrous bloodwork:
-Minimal rest & recovery with either endurance training or studying around the clock
-Boycotting many social events in order to ‘maximise my year 12 VCE results’
-Chronic calorie deficit (energy intake being far less than the energy my body required to maintain weight)
-Inanely minimising healthy fat sources & starchy carbohydrates, instead opting mostly for fibrous vegetables and protein… (endurance training + high protein (ala Atkins-style) diet lends itself to losing both fat and muscle; far from ideal)
I was quickly referred to an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) who did not hesitate in offering me testosterone replacement therapy (TRT). He showed no hope for my capacity to naturally restore my T, so instead prescribed the potent, smelly goo known as ‘androgel’. It perplexed me how a ‘specialist’ like this could just dismiss the need to explore the root cause of my deficiency.
I tried the gel for a few days, because I didn’t know better, but I could not bear the thought of being reliant for the rest of my life on artificial hormones, when I was only a kid. I threw the prescription out ambivalently, but with an immense drive to naturally correct my problem.
This was the turning point…The monumental wake-up call I needed to re-evaluate my lifestyle at the time. It was thus, I set about devouring as much research as I could on natural testosterone optimisation, and developed an unwavering passion for endocrine health.
Fast-forward to today, and my testosterone is on the high-end of the normal range; I weigh 85kg at 9% body fat; stronger than I’ve ever been with ample energy. I can safely say that I am very proud of my turn-around over the last few years, I am extremely glad I could do so of my own accord, naturally.
It wasn’t easy, and didn’t change overnight, but my accumulated knowledge of hormone optimisation facilitated this gradual transformation. It would also be remiss of me not to mention an awesome dude called Christopher Walker (from the USA), who had been in my shoes at a similar age and provided timely hope of naturally restoring my health.
I even deferred my Physiotherapy studies for a year to pursue Medicine, and ultimately specialise in endocrinology (although I ended up continuing Physio, doing my own research regarding hormone optimisation).
Anyhow, TRT is at its highest rate of prescription in the developed world, currently, and I believe most of these prescriptions are handed out prematurely…Before the root causes (lifestyle factors) have been adequately addressed. The thing about TRT is that if one decides to go on it, their endogenous hormone production will shut down. The physiology of our endocrine system is beyond the scope of this article, but essentially our pituitary gland (chief hormone regulator) realises we are receiving an external source of the hormone, and goes to sleep. Even after weaning off TRT, the pituitary gland may never fully function as it did prior to the therapy, so it is a decision that should not be taken lightly.
Basically, my focus over the years has been on optimising my hormones, rather than directly trying to improve my body composition . Correcting hormonal deficiencies will translate in to attaining a strong, robust physique, so this is crucial to note.
Now, there are many, many tips I could provide you to raise your own testosterone, but I will give you 5 significant ones so that this article doesn’t get too big!
- Perform Power-Based Exercises
This was the game-changer for me. Up until 2013, I had been running 7 days a week for prolonged bouts of sub-maximal intensity efforts. I thought I was addressing strength with 3X weekly gym sessions but, not only was I working in the wrong rep/set ranges, my nervous system was fried from all the endurance work I was doing and thus made strength gain impossible.
A training program incorporating either ballistic (plyometric) based exercise, and/or heavy weight training will stimulate the neuromuscular system in a profound way, such that significant post-exercise increases in growth hormone (GH) and testosterone occurs.
This kind of training usually requires at least 36 hours of recovery time between bouts, so in order to preserve the quality/explosivity of your training, I would suggest training in this manner every other day (3-4Xweekly). Enjoy a brisk walk as active recovery on rest days.
-> Prioritise heavy compound lifts that recruit a greater number of muscle fibres (i.e deadlifts, squats, chin-ups, standing press, bench press); and free weights over machines
-> Perform the movements as quickly/explosively as you can with weights that allow you to perform 4-10 repetitions. Stop as soon as you feel your form compromising and/or the risk of missing the next repetition.
->If you enjoy running, you can substitute 1-2 of the strength training sessions for a series of windsprints (~50metres), with ample recovery (walking) between each effort. Aim to work up to 10-15 quality reps at 95% effort.
->If you are an endurance athlete (though I do not advocate this pursuit for optimising T), the damage can be attenuated by the order in which you concurrently train your endurance and strength (if doing more than one session a day). This study demonstrated a greater spike in testosterone when endurance training preceded strength training, rather than the other way around.
2. Appreciate The Power Of Consistently Deep Sleep
If someone asked me what I believe the most important supplement available to improve health is, I would unequivocally say sleep. Chronic sleep deficiency is linked to a plethora of diseases, yet it isn’t addressed anywhere near as much as other modifiable lifestyle factors like smoking or fast food consumption.
In this study, a group of older men doubled their testosterone levels with ~4 more hours of deep sleep, compared to the control group. This averaged out to 15% more T with every extra hour of sleep.
Sadly, the great majority of us are sabotaging quality sleep with our social media addictions. The modern bedroom has become inundated with blue light-emitting technology, impeding our production of ‘the sleep hormone’ melatonin. This hormone, emitted by the pineal gland in our brain, essentially reduces the time it takes for us to fall asleep and enhances the quality of our sleep. Also, the darker your room while sleeping, the stronger your melatonin production.
To maximise my quality of sleep, I:
- Wear orange glasses that filter out blue light, ideally as soon as the sun goes down
- Switch off my phone while sleeping
- Don’t have a led-light clock in my bedroom
- Try to maintain a sleep routine of ~11pm-7am
- Installed f.lux on my laptop and phone (an app that reduces blue light emissions)
- Don’t consume caffeine after 2pm (excluding green tea because it contains theanine, which negates the caffeine response)
Reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex, only, and watch your T levels (and health) rise.
3. Supplement Wisely
While good sleep trumps all other nutraceutical supplements on the market, there are a handful of these that I would recommend to boost T & QOL. There aren’t many scientifically proven supplements available, but the following have consistently demonstrated efficacy in human studies:
Vitamin D deficiency is more common than most believe, with >30% of Aussie adults falling at least mildly short of their daily quota. Even if you aren’t necessarily deficient, non-optimal levels of vitamin D may be limiting your testosterone and health potential.
Many don’t realise that this vitamin is in fact a hormone, playing a major role in the conversion of cholesterol to testosterone in leydig cells (testes).
I believe it is a necessity to supplement with vitamin D in winter, especially. I take this Vitamin D3 tincture made by Thorne Fx, through iHerb.
Hard-training athletes are at highest risk of deficiency in this micronutrient, but stressful lifestyles also deplete our zinc levels.
Supplementation with zinc can preserve both total and free testosterone during times of harder training. This study showed 3mg/kg to work in elite wrestlers.
I usually buy this zinc by life extension, as most studies favour zinc citrate for its benefits.
- ASHWAGANDHA (‘Withania somnifera’)
I came across this herb in 2014, and was amazed by its immediate stress-relieving effects. A herb dating back to ancient Ayurvedic practices in India, it is an ‘adaptogen’ (a term denoting an aid that helps the body maintain homeostasis during imposed stresses).
The main mechanism by which ashwagandha improves testosterone is given by its cortisol-lowering property. Cortisol & testosterone are opposing forces in the body, just like the yin & yang concept; cortisol breaks down tissue, whereas testosterone builds new tissue.
This study shows a 40% increase in testosterone with 5g (or 500mg extract) of ashwagandha taken daily.
Barlowe’s Elixirs make an impressive extract here.
4. Practice Some Form Of Mindfulness
It was only after I implemented mindfulness practice in 2014 that I experienced significantly greater calmness in everyday life. Combining mindfulness with ashwagandha may reap potent dividends for your psychological well-being.
A study conducted on medical students suggested a significant stress-lowering capacity in those who practiced mindfulness for 4 days (by virtue of cortisol suppression).
I try to listen to Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Practising The Power of Now’ while walking in nature, daily.
5. Revise Your Diet (Do Not Eschew Fat Or Carbohydrates)
All macronutrients play unique roles in our body composition and health, but I feel people go wrong when they vilify one of these in lieu of another.
Yes, it is important to maintain a high intake of protein (~1g/lb of body weight) for muscle protein synthesis and satiety. However, fat and carbohydrates are the most important macronutrients when it comes to optimising testosterone.
Many studies have positively correlated fat (particularly saturated fat) with higher testosterone levels, with this particular paper suggesting a diet comprising 40% of fat as superior to 20% fat intake.
Choose monounsaturated and cholesterol-rich foods, such as olive oil & eggs. Olive oil can assist in converting cholesterol in to testosterone in the testes.
Other studies have shown reductions in T when carbohydrates are replaced with protein.
Ultimately, I would advise consuming as much protein as you can without lowering your intakes of fat and CHO to <30% of your daily intake. Whole food sources where possible as they will ensure greater satiety, micronutrients, and better health in the long-run.
Thank you for reading my story, and getting this far. I hope it was insightful for you all, and I wanted to illustrate that my journey has by no means been without its hardships. The hardships have made my improvements much more fulfilling, though.
P.S. Get a blood test done if you are not entirely satisfied with your mood, energy, and general health – both the ladies & gents. Get your hormones right, and everything else will fall in place with much less effort.
I am happy to work with you one-on-one if you would like some guidance.