Anyone with a passing knowledge of biology knows that testosterone is the male growth hormone. It kicks in during puberty and is what makes blokes taller, stronger, hairier and generally moodier than they otherwise would be without it.
In men, testosterone levels generally remain fairly high until around the age of 30 when they start to lower (women also have testosterone, but in smaller amounts). It is responsible for fertility, bone density, sex drive, muscle strength and development, fat storage, and the production of red blood cells.
But testosterone’s applications don’t stop there. In the word of men’s fitness, testosterone boosters in the form of tablets, supplements or injections, can help signal our bodies to build muscle mass. Which sounds ideal if you’re tired of wolfing down turkey steak and chicken breasts in an attempt to add some size to your frame.
“Testosterone is associated with increased energy, fat loss, muscle gain, and improved mental function,” says nutritionist and functional medicine practitioner Steve Grant. “And who doesn’t want more energy, better body composition, increased strength and recovery and better cognitive performance?”
So if testosterone is such a wonder-drug, it makes sense that the more we can get in our systems, the better. Not so. While there have been countless scientific studies proving the benefits of testosterone, many of the wider effects are still up for debate. What’s more, the testosterone market is absolutely brimming with misinformation, from self-accredited experts documenting their bulking journeys on YouTube to websites selling an alarmingly broad range of unapproved products.
Scientific studies have for the most part been inconclusive on certain key questions around testosterone supplements. For instance, does upping testosterone provide you with this plethora of health benefits, or does being healthy simply promote increased levels of testosterone? A study published in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry, for example, noted that men with depression also have low testosterone levels, but could not definitively say whether low testosterone levels cause depression, or depression causes low testosterone levels.
There are also various conflicting studies regarding testosterone and competitiveness among males. Typically, it’s believed that the more testosterone pumping through your veins, the more of an alpha male you are. Thankfully, Swiss researchers put paid to such outmoded thinking in a study that found that men with increased testosterone levels acted more fairly in negotiations than those with lower levels.
Not only that, but abusing testosterone supplements may even have fatal side-effects. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that boosting testosterone levels may lead to an increased risk of heart attack. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns that an over-reliance on testosterone can even induce strokes. So, what’s in it for you?
The question to start with is whether or not you actually need to boost your testosterone levels. Testosterone has been used as a clinical drug since 1937, but with little understanding of its use. Today we know more, and many men are prescribed boosters. In fact, men’s testosterone levels are believed to have dropped 20 per cent in the last two decades to the point where one in four men is supposed to have low testosterone levels.
“Testosterone can impact almost all areas of a man’s life – people with low levels can start to experience weight gain, baldness, low sex drive and low mood,” says a GP speaking on behalf of online consultation service Push Doctor. “By trying to boost their body’s amount of testosterone, someone who suffers from low levels might see improvements in their muscle mass, libido and hair growth.”
However, according to US medical school Harvard Health, what actually constitutes low testosterone levels in the first place is open for debate. Testosterone levels in the body vary from day to day and take into account a range of temporary factors from diet to the time of day, making obtaining an objective measurement difficult. The article also warns that some general practitioners are concerned that an increase in testosterone levels can promote the growth of cancerous prostate cells in older men.
“To complicate things further adequate testing is required to guide what might actually be causing low T levels,” explains Grant. “There are many, complicated causes of low T, so the results of any test are always going to be hit and miss because supplements and compounds associated with increasing T levels do so in many different ways. It’s a bit like standing at a dart board, throwing a dart and hoping it hits the bullseye.”
“A lot of men think that using testosterone supplements will provide a quick fix for their problems – but it won’t. It’s not recommended to take supplements without a doctor’s advice, as it’s a long-term process that needs monitoring correctly,” adds the Push Doctor spokesperson. “Taking, or having, too much testosterone can have negative side effects too, like anger, acne and shrunken testicles.”
In fact, while lower testosterone levels is a relatively common problem, it’s also a part of ageing, and mostly impacts men over 40. By 45 almost 40 per cent of men may have low T levels and by 65 over 50 per cent of the male population have low T. “It often isn’t something to worry about unless it’s having serious effects like erectile dysfunction or low libido. Otherwise, healthy men usually do not need to undergo testosterone therapy,” says the Push Doctor representative.
“Low T is something that I am seeing more frequently, even in younger males,” says Grant. “I suspect a lot of this is caused by reduced sleep or sleep quality, higher stress levels, under or excessive exercise, restrictive or indulgent eating habits, increased exposure to environmental toxins, alcohol consumption, excessive body fat levels and perhaps way too much screen time. If you do have low T levels, then there is a benefit in trying to get those levels up. However, if you think you are going to be able to approach this by taking a pill for an ill, you will likely be mistaken.”
If you were looking to boost your testosterone levels, chances are you’d start with something called TRT, a product that can be implanted in the body, or administered via a patch, gel, cream or course of injections. This last method draws parallels to the use of steroids, which are often (but not always) abused by those wishing to get ripped, and have, on a few occasions, been linked to the death of the subject.
Anabolic steroids are essentially synthetic versions of testosterone, designed to mimic its growth-boosting effects in the body. They work by speeding up the production of muscles and the breakdown of proteins into amino acids – the building blocks of the body. In fact, one study found that athletes taking steroids increased their strength between 5-20 per cent.
But, put simply, there’s no need for the average man to use them, outside of a prescription from a GP for a specific condition. The NHS warns they can lead to addiction, and be tied up in issues of body dysmorphia and anxiety disorders, as well as leading to potential problems such as high blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, baldness, reduced sperm count, and acne. Which probably isn’t the look you’re going for.
So, if injections are out, and the use of lotions and potions questionable, what’s left? Well, there are a number of natural testosterone boosters out there, which neither require a drastic lifestyle change nor overcoming your fear of needles.
Many men suffer from low zinc levels, and it’s also a vital ingredient in testosterone production. The same can be said for vitamin D, and to a lesser extent, magnesium.
“All three of these nutrients are crucial for T production and may have a place in your supplement regime, especially if they are shown to be low,” says Grant. All three can be taken in pill form and should offer gradual improvements.
DHEA, or Dehydroepiandrosterone, is a precursor to testosterone and is generally believed to benefit those with low libido and to fight the signs of ageing. In the body, DHEA is produced in glands above the kidneys. It can be taken externally as a pill made from soy or wild yam. The problem is that scientists are not yet sure of everything it does, and studies around its usefulness are split.
According to the National Institute on Aging and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, there is not yet enough evidence to recommend DHEA supplements. “DHEA, while bought over the counter in the US, is not for general sale in the UK and is seen as a controlled supplement,” explains Grant. “Excessive DHEA supplementation can cause side effects, so I suggest the UK’s more restrictive approach is probably a good one.”
Necessary for the biosynthesis of proteins, D-AA, or D-aspartic acid, is a naturally existing amino acid linked to the regulation of testosterone production and has been used as a treatment for infertile men.
Kamal Patel, the founder of Examine.com, which helps sort the truth from the BS in health and nutrition information, points to preliminary evidence that a dose of 3g per day has been shown to increase testosterone levels. “But be careful,” advises Grant, “A dose of 6g per day was found to lover T levels.”
Also known as bindii, tribulus terrestris is an invasive plant species often found in North America. The dried tablet form of the plant is supposed to increase testosterone, but some studies point to an increase in libido, and little else.
Grant isn’t convinced. “The evidence for compounds like tribulus, maca, tongkat ali, deer velvet etc. is inconsistent and weak, hence is not something I typically utilise.”
Often added to testosterone supplements, stinging nettle root extract is believed to contribute to increased testosterone levels. It’s also been found to reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men – a touted side effect of many testosterone boosters.
While evidence isn’t overwhelmingly in favour of it being able to boost T levels, it isn’t against it, either. Grant explains: “This is something that may help lower sex hormone-binding globulin, hence may have the ability to increase free levels of testosterone, making more available to act upon your cells.”
Conjugated Linoleic Acid refers to a group of chemicals found in the fatty acid linoleic acid and has been found to bolster the activity of the cells that produce testosterone.
Beef and dairy are two major dietary sources of CLA, so while it’s difficult to get hold of naturally, grass-fed meat, it pays to spend a bit more on steak night. Don’t forget to wash it down with a glass of the white stuff.
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