Testosterone is an androgen, a male sex hormone, though females need it too. In males, low testosterone has been associated with low libido and poor health outcomes, such as the development of metabolic syndrome. In males and females, low testosterone has been associated with depression.
Middle-aged and older males see their testosterone levels decrease by 0.4% to 1.6% per year, and many are the males who experience lower-than-average levels even in their 30s. Fortunately, quality sleep, physical activity, weight management, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin D can all help sustain healthy testosterone levels.
To optimize your testosterone levels, you don’t only need the proper amounts of vitamins and minerals; you also need to sleep well, exercise, and keep a healthy weight.
Lack of sleep causes numerous health issues. Notably, it decreases testosterone production and facilitates fat gain (and we’ll see that fat gain itself can impair testosterone production). Getting enough quality sleep is so important that we will be publishing an article on that soon.
Resistance training can raise testosterone levels for 15–30 minutes post-exercise. More importantly, it can benefit testosterone production in the long run by improving body composition and reducing insulin resistance.
Overtraining, however, is counterproductive. Prolonged endurance exercise especially can cause your testosterone to drop. Ensuring adequate recovery time will help you receive the full benefits of physical activity.
Weight gain and the associated chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, are strongly linked to decreases in testosterone, particularly in middle-aged and older men.
If you gain weight (as fat), your testosterone production drops. Fortunately, if you lose weight, your testosterone production can climb back up.
Grossmann and Matsumoto. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2017 March 1.
As this figure shows, observational studies have seen consistent results: in people who are overweight or obese, the greater the weight loss, the greater the testosterone increase.
These results have been echoed in clinical trials. A meta-analysis of 24 RCTs looked at weight loss caused by diet or bariatric surgery: In the diet studies, the average 9.8% weight loss was linked to a testosterone increase of 2.9 nmol/L (84 ng/dL). In the bariatric-surgery studies, the average 32% weight loss was linked to a testosterone increase of 8.7 nmol/L (251 ng/dL).
You need not lose huge amounts of weight to see a bump in testosterone levels, either: a 5% loss in weight can increase total testosterone by 2 nmol/L (58 ng/dL).
Quality sleep, physical activity, and weight management support healthy testosterone levels, and they’re synergistic: If you lack sleep, you find it harder to exercise and easier to gain fat. If you exercise, you find it easier to sleep and to keep a healthy weight. If your weight is healthy, you find it easier to exercise and easier to sleep.
If you want to know more about the lifestyle-testosterone connection, check out our infographic and article here.
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Only a few supplements have been shown to benefit testosterone production. Among those, the evidence mostly supports vitamin D and zinc, followed by magnesium. Two caveats should be kept in mind, however:
Supplementing with a vitamin or mineral is likely to help you only if you suffer from a deficiency or an insufficiency in this vitamin or mineral.
Correcting a deficiency or an insufficiency is more likely to raise your testosterone levels if they are low.
Vitamin D helps regulate testosterone levels. Ideally, you would produce all the vitamin D you need through sunlight exposure, but if you live far from the equator, have dark skin, or simply spend most of your time inside, you may need to complement your own production with the help of foods or supplements.
In Canada and the United States, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for vitamin D falls between 400 and 800 IU (International Units). These amounts, which have been criticized as too low by some, are attainable from only a few food sources, which is why vitamin D has become a popular supplement.
Zinc deficiency can hinder testosterone production. Like magnesium, zinc is lost through sweat, so athletes and other people who sweat a lot are more likely to be deficient. Although dietary zinc is mostly found in animal products, zinc-rich foods include some grains and nuts.
In males with low magnesium levels and low testosterone levels, an increase in magnesium intake can translate into an increase in testosterone production, both directly and (since one of magnesium’s functions in your body is to help convert vitamin D into its active form) indirectly.
While more common in the older population, magnesium deficiency isn’t unknown in younger people (notably athletes, since, link zinc, magnesium is lost through sweat). Yet getting your RDA should be easy: magnesium-rich foods are numerous and can fit all kinds of diets.
If you still feel the need to supplement, keep in mind that supplemental magnesium is more likely than dietary magnesium to cause adverse effects, which is why the FDA fixed at 350 mg the Tolerable Upper Intake Level for magnesium supplementation in adults. Also, you may want to avoid magnesium oxide: it has poor bioavailability (rats absorbed only 15% in one study, and humans only 4% in another) and can cause intestinal discomfort and diarrhea.
Numerous products are advertised as Testosterone Boosters, but the vast majority don’t work, though some can make you believe they do by boosting your libido. Maca, for instance, can enhance libido without affecting testosterone.
Maybe the most popular “testosterone booster” is D-aspartic acid (DAA, or D-aspartate). DAA did increase testosterone levels in two studies, one that used 2.66 g/day and the other 3.12 g/day, but two later studies found no increase with 3 g/day, and the latest even noted a decrease with 6 g/day.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet, so as to avoid nutritional deficiencies. If your testosterone levels are low, pay attention to your intakes of vitamin D, zinc, and magnesium. Be skeptical of supplements marketed as testosterone boosters; there’s a good chance the only thing these supplements will boost is their manufacturers’ bottom lines.
The interventions discussed in this article will work best for men with low testosterone, but they can also help men with normal testosterone to sustain their levels, year after year.
Supplements can help, but they can’t replace a healthy lifestyle. In order to optimize your testosterone production, make sure you get enough quality sleep on a daily basis, incorporate some resistance training into your workout program, and monitor your weight.
Try to get enough vitamin D, zinc, and magnesium through your diet. However, if dietary changes prove insufficient, supplementation can help make up the difference.
Not all testosterone deficiencies can be fixed through lifestyle or supplement interventions. It may be prudent to speak with your doctor if the options discussed above do not yield sufficient results.
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